Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales

Swahili call and response storytelling sequence

“Paukwa!” —- “Pakawa!” (“It came to!” —- “It happened!”)
“Sahani!” —— “Ya mchele!”  (“Plate!” — “For rice!”)
“Giza!” ——- “La mwizi!”      (“Darkness!” — “For thieves!”)
“Hadithi, hadithi!” —– “Hadithi njoo!” (“Story, story!” —-“Story come!”)

Ashanti beginning for stories

“We do not really mean, we do not really mean,
That what we are going to say is true.”

Call and response from the Xhosa tradition

“Sukela ngatsomi.” —- “Chosi.”  (“Once upon a time.” —- “Tell the story.”)

African storytelling

Stories are invoked in countless ways in African oral traditions, many of which use the classic call and response style, which invites the audience’s active participation into an immersive experience. You cannot sit still when a master African storyteller is telling a tale, nor should you. You’re moving with with drumbeats, joining in the call-and-response songs, shouting out magic incantations to release a poor character from danger, cheering when mama bird escapes lion’s jaws.

Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales

Lately, I’ve been reading Nelson Mandela’s anthology Favorite African Folktales, which contains a variety of delightful African stories: Myths that explain the mysteries of nature. Animal tales with familiar characters like the crocodile, spider, and hyena that reveal personality strengths and weaknesses. Transformational stories about how things can change for better or worse when a chain of events sets things in motion. The book also contains stories from Malay, Dutch, Arab, and Welsh cultures that have been incorporated into African storytelling traditions.

There are a total of 32 wonderful stories in this anthology. From Kenya comes The Lion, the Hare, and the Hyena, which teaches us about friendship and betrayal. From the Xhosa people we have the story of The Snake With Seven Heads, reminding us to do the right thing even when it comes at a price, to stay steadfast and hopeful. The Clever Snake Charmer comes to us from Morocco, a delightful tale about being creative, taking risks, and living life fully, without fear or hesitation. And from Nigeria we have The Spider and the Crows, a trickster story of greed and cleverness.

African folktales delight us with exciting plots that twist and turn; with songs, music, and dance; with fun and playfulness. They also deliver tough life lessons to us in a digestible form, inviting us to see the good, the bad, and the ugly in ourselves and others; to honor and respect the rhythms of life and nature; to find hope in hopeless places; to deal with the problems and realities of life in creative ways.

Unconscious psychic processes

Psychologically, folktales invite us to tap into our own unconscious processes, like our intuition, instincts, animal nature, dreams, and premonitions. They connect us to the ancient wisdom of our ancestors. They reveal to us the true nature of things, people, and life. They lower our psychological defenses so that we can see ourselves more clearly: we are more willing to listen to a story about the greedy hyena than to hear about our own greed. Yet the story may help us become aware of the greed in our personality and how it harms us and others. We may learn to acknowledge our shadow and our shortcomings instead of denying them or projecting them onto others.

Treat yourself to this flavorful smorgasbord of tales from Africa – you might learn something new about yourself or how to deal with that thorny situation or person in your life. Or just suspend belief and have fun getting in touch with the magical and childlike part of yourself.