November 9, 2023
How Mythology and Folklore Influence African Storytelling
How Mythology and Folklore Influence African Storytelling

The sun and moon have lived in the sky ever since the ocean chased them from the earth. The tortoise sports cracks on its shell because it was cast out of a feast in heaven as a punishment for its greed. Men and women age and pass away due to a single transgression.

Myths and folktales are the lenses through which we have made sense of everything—from the patterns in the sky to the contours of the land, to the profound meanings of life and death.

From the griot to the jeli to the elderencircled by attentive faces under the moonlight, the storyteller is fundamental to cultures and civilizations across Africa. We have chronicled our myths, legends, and histories in stories, songs, and poetry, reaching as far back as collective memory can extend.

Some of the earliest published works of fiction by African writers were transcriptions of stories that had been passed down orally for generations. The Senegalese classic, "Tales of Amadou Koumba" by Birago Diop, for example, is a collection of Senegalese folktales that Diop transcribed from the accounts of his family’s griot, Amadou Koumba.

Many epics in the African literary canon draw not just from folklore and mythology but also from the structures and techniques of oral storytelling. Epics like "The Palmwine Drinkard" by Amos Tutuola, "Mutanda Oyom Namondo" by E.E. Nkana, and "Igbó Olódùmarè" by D.O. Fágúnwà all heavily incorporate legend, spirituality, and folklore, populating their narratives with various gods, spirits, and divinities, as well as spiritually empowered heroes.

The protagonists of "The Palmwine Drinkard" and "Igbó Olódùmarè," both inspired by Yoruba folklore, embark on dangerous journeys through treacherous forests, encountering deities and undertaking extraordinary quests before they can proceed with their adventures, and Mutanda Oyom Namondo, which follows the trials of a ruler on a quest to find his son, features a collection of Efik deities and spirits.

The legacies of these classical works and the folklore that influenced them are clearly evident in modern African and Afro-diasporic literature. For instance, in contemporary Nigerian literature, a recurring motif is the figure of the ogbanje or abiku—a child who cycles between life and death, causing perennial grief to their parents.

Since Buchi Emecheta’s seminal novel "The Slave Girl," which introduced the character Ogbanje Ojebeta in 1977, we have witnessed an abundance of stories about twice-born children, from Helen Oyeyemi’s "The Icarus Girl" to Francesca Ekwuyasi’s "Butter Honey Pig Bread," to Akwaeke Emezi’s "Freshwater."

"Freshwater," in particular, stands out. The poignant, surreal narrative of Ada, an ogbanje harboring multiple spirits within her, is termed “autobiographical fiction.” This underscores a subtlety often missed when discussing African fiction, particularly African speculative fiction. Narratives drawing from indigenous African spiritualities and belief systems are frequently misclassified as "fantasy," "horror," or "magical realism," simply because the realities they portray deviate from Western norms of plausibility.

In the gripping "evil forest" quests of Nollywood epics, the thrilling adventures of demigod freelancers in Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s "David Mogo, Godhunter," the reverential storytelling of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o’s "The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi," and the obstinate lyricism of Eloghosa Osunde’s "Vagabonds," we can distinctly trace the influence of folklore, myth, urban legend, and various forms of oral storytelling. These elements inform the themes, rhythms, style, language, logic, and philosophy that define contemporary African storytelling.

The dynamism of African storytelling tradition reflects its profound relationship with the continent's past and present, weaving together threads of historical context, cultural heritage, and societal changes. As such, it remains a vibrant testament to the enduring power of oral narratives and their evolution in the written word, ensuring that these stories continue to educate, entertain, and inspire generations.

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ABOUT THE contributor
Gabrielle Harry
Gabrielle Emem Harry is a Nigerian writer living in Calabar and the Storytelling Lead for Ijeruka. Her work often explores the stories, experiences and perspectives of Nigerian, with a supernatural twist.
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