Folktales are without doubt some of Nigeria’s richest cultural exports, up there with the likes of Germany’s Hansel and Gretel and France’s Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps you remember hearing folktales from your grandparents or maybe you want to pass on some stories to your children. Either way, you will know that Nigerian folktales are filled with dark, thought-provoking narratives packed with animals, kings, queens, princes and princesses and much more. If you want to learn more about Nigerian folktales, look no further than our key five facts below.
If you’re on the hunt for a book on Nigerian folktales, there’s no better place to start than with the classic book “Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria” by Elphinstone Dayrell. Published in 2010, the 40 folk tales and the morals that appear in the book are as compelling today as they were back then. Our personal favourite folktales are “The King’s Magic Drum” and “Why Dead People Are Buried”. The whole book is now available online for free and you can check it out here at the World of Tales website.
Real Nigerian folktale geeks can join the Nigerian Folklore Society. Yes, such a thing exists! Founded back in 1980, the society seeks to make Nigerians aware of folklore heritage through conferences, newsletters, journals and all different types of other activities. The society reopened its doors to new members in April 2013 so if you’re keen to immerse yourself in the world of folktales from Nigeria and West Africa, contact the society via Bayero University in Kano for more information.
One common feature of most folktales in Nigeria is that the main character is more often than not a tortoise! Elphinstone Dayrell made use of the humble tortoise in her folktales publishing “the Affair of the Hippopotamus and the Tortoise”. In 1911, Margaret Baumann published an entire book featuring one tortoise called “Ajapa the Tortoise, a Book of Nigerian Folk Tales”. So why is it that the tortoise has such a prominent role in Nigerian folktales? Some say that the long life span of tortoises is symbolic of the folktales themselves which are meant to transcend and be passed down the generations. Others prefer a more simple explanation and point to the high number of African spurred tortoises living in the wild in Nigeria.
Do you remember the TV programmes “Storyland” and “African Stories” from your childhood? If so, you might remember artist and poet Jimi Solanke who is widely recognized as Nigeria’s most distinguished story teller. A few years ago Jimi even caught the attention of CNN when he appeared on the programme African Voices. Watching Jimi tell a folktale is a truly unforgettable experience. He has an unrivalled ability to bring African stories alive for children and you can check out a clip of him in action here.
Folktales are not certainly not unique to Nigeria. There is a rich tradition of passing folktales down the generations in neighbouring countries across West Africa such as Cameroon, Mali, Mauritania and Ghana. Some of the best of these folktales can be found in William Barker’s book called “West African Folk-Tales”. Barker was a missionary in West Africa at the turn of the last century and compiled the stories from his travels across Nigeria and beyond. The chief protagonist in Barker’s amazing collection of short stories is the West African spirit Anansi who tricks others into getting what he wants. This is a must read for anyone looking to immerse themselves in the folktales of West Africa.
Did you Know? Even Nollywood has drawn inspiration from Nigerian folktales – the award winning Nigerian musical film Inale was said to have been based on a folktale passed down the generations in Idomaland (Benue State).