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Arts & Culture Trust of the President

The relevance of folktales to 21st century society

Abner Nyamende

Department of Southern African Languages
University of Cape Town

Though we cannot say in which era the folktales were created we know that many of them were created centuries ago by our ancestors. In Africa formal schooling is fairly recent, which means that folktales were essential for the education of children. As nothing was written down, these stories were, as it were, planted into children’s conscious and subconscious minds so that they (the stories) could form the substrate of the child’s complex personality as the child grew up. The intricate data would, from minute to minute, inform the personality of the child, his actions and reactions as he goes through the course of his life as a civilised being. So folktales contain the ingredients of all the essential elements of what in the 21st century we call ubuntu, the philosophy of life as perceived by the African.

Harold Scheub (1996:149) has made the observation that the storyteller is in fact a teacher preparing the new generation for the life ahead of them. Scheub further stresses:

Storytellers confront life realistically, and, while it is true that they deal in fantasy images, those images are meant to give dimension to reality, not to embellish it. True, the images shape our experience of the real, and if stories are hopeful they are not unrealistic in their yearnings and their goals. (1996:150)

I use an episode mentioned by Scheub in an introduction to his book The tongue is fire to set off on a course to demonstrate the relevance of folktales in this process of the Reformation or Transformation of the South African society which is taking place with the beginning of the 21st century. Here is an incident described by Scheub who says:

I encountered a solitary Zulu man — his name was Mandla Madlala, and I was to come to know him well in the months and years that followed. As we walked along the path on the floor of the vast valley, dusk became dark and the old man told me of his experience working in the gold mines, of his early separation from his family because of the system of apartheid, of the misery that system brought to the people of South Africa. His final words that evening, which still echo in my memory, were these, “Inkululeko! Freedom! The word is beautiful, the word is precious. We have struggled against this political system from the beginning, we have nothing to be ashamed of.” Then he touched my arm, and, knowing what my purpose was here in South Africa, gave me instructions: “You must preserve our words, carry them to the wider world, but preserve them too for our own posterity, that our children never forget what we struggled for, what we lost, what we sought to gain. Freedom. (1996:xvi)

From the above remarks it appears that the old Zulu man was confident that the folktales that Scheub was collecting would form an important part of the re-education of the South African society after apartheid.

We have indeed entered a phase in South African history when the whole generation to which we belong has to be re-educated and transformed. Because of the ravages of the past we have lost our bearings and South Africa is wandering like a lost ship on an endless sea. To mention one example, our leaders have found themselves holding the reins of government, thereby possessing power over the rest of us. Can a folktale address this scenario and inform us what our ancestors thought should be done or not done by those in power? If it can, would this be relevant in teaching us how to hold power in the 21st century?

I have chosen a folktale titled “The story of Nomxakazo”, well narrated by AC Jordan in his book of Xhosa folktales with the title Tales from Southern Africa. In this folktale a powerful warrior inkosi (king) is encouraged by the success of his warlike regiments to fight war after war, defeating his enemies and taking their cattle to divide them between himself and his warriors. In the neighbouring territory there was an equally powerful inkosi with an army of strong and brave men who had never been defeated in battle. Dumakude, the powerful inkosi, now wanted to make war with his equally powerful neighbour. Thousands of men died in that war, but Dumakude’s army defeated their enemies and came home triumphant. On reaching home Dumakude found that his wife had given birth to a beautiful daughter on the very day of his victory over his powerful opponent. Needless to say this added more joy to his heart, whereupon he called the child Nomxakazo wako Gingqwayo, a name that symbolised the war he had just won.

Now Dumakude made a vow that when Nomxakazo came of age he would give her a present of cattle “that will be so numerous” that the dust they raised as they were driven along would cover the sun. Indeed, on coming of age, Nomxakazo demanded that her father give her cattle that would raise enough dust to cover the sun. Her father complied, but each time his people brought cattle Nomxakazo proclaimed, “I still see the sun.” Many tribes lost their lives and their cattle were taken, but “I still see the sun.”

In the end Maphundu’s cattle were taken from him, and the dust they raised indeed covered the sun. Maphundu was a huge creature on whose body there were “tall mountains and low hills, large rivers and small streams, big deep lakes and small shallow puddles, large forests and small thickets, fertile lands and barren deserts. In some regions of [his] body it was summer, ... in others it was winter ... (Jordan, 1973:113). Then Maphundu came to claim Nomxakazo in exchange for his cattle, and he took her to the land of the Dlungundlebe, her father’s enemies who had been expelled from the tribe because of their lowly practice of cannibalism. The Dlungundlebe refrained from eating Nomxakazo because she was so beautiful, but that beauty vanished when they kept overfeeding her, and so they were now ready to feast on her. But as they prepared to put her in a hot pot she would sing and the rain would come in torrents rendering the pot cold and extinguishing the fire. Eventually they let her go home, as they believed she was a witch, and when she got home she found her parents living in abject poverty. Nomxakazo finally got married to the son of the powerful chief who was defeated by her father on the day that she was born.

We imagine that in the distant past when this story was told to our ancestors most of the food that they ate belonged to nature. But already in Dumakude we see someone who takes more than he really needs both from nature and from others around him. The story says, “the king would have great numbers of fat oxen slaughtered for his warriors, and after some days of feasting he would lead them to any of the neighbouring kingdoms to kill people, loot as many herd of cattle as could be found, and return to the Great Place to divide the spoils” (Jordan, 1973:108). What used to belong to nature now belongs to Dumakude and his neighbours. There is a sense in which he and his neighbours seem to believe that the cattle they possess ultimately belong to them, and yet we know that they possess no forces that can create cows. Now to justify the urge for ownership Dumakude has to kill the others very much in the fashion of today’s warlords in Africa.

This situation neatly parallels today’s set-up, where people find that others possess the land, the food and many other objects from the soil which we often claim belong to us, whereupon they kill in order to take possession of these belongings themselves. Thus we can say that the society that originated the story was plagued by the senseless capitalistic urge to own things for oneself, to continue being surrounded by wealth while others around one remain dispossessed, destitute and insecure. We have here the proverbial survival of the fittest syndrome that is also the disease that plagues the South African society in the 21st century. We find that here the content of the story is in conformity with the values of our own society, a situation which supports Okpewho’s observation regarding a related genre of oral literature namely, songs. Okpewho claims:

In order to fulfil effectively the dynamic socio-psychological functions assigned to them [songs] by tradition, it is important that the content of the songs should be in conformity with the cherished values and beliefs of the society. Thus, various informants in their testimonies describe what they expect to find in the songs as ezhiokwu (truth) or ife mee eme (what actually happened, i.e. reality). (1990: 49)

Frankly, what the story demonstrates here is the ugly picture of greed, translated into avarice in the 21st century context. In the past wealth came in the form of cattle while today it is measured by money. The story exposes the mindset where some people will enjoy the ample possessions they have provided for themselves to satisfy their physical needs, not because the satisfaction to have is a goal in itself (which is a great pity), but simply because there are others who have no means by which to satisfy the same needs. The ultimate result is an uncalled-for vindictiveness coating an abominable animal instinct of an irrelevant attempt at monopoly. The big question that this tale seems to pose is: Why do we need wealth at all, especially if we are going to use the natural resources that are in fact everybody’s inheritance, to enrich ourselves? It appears that the story challenges us and informs us that being rich comes with responsibilities, especially those of having to care for those one has dispossessed of the inheritance nature has been keeping in store for them, before one started to indulge in the selfish practice of amassing everything around oneself alone.

Today all the wealth that nature had in store for all of us is in the hands of not so many and we have to look upon them rather than upon nature for the means to satisfy our needs.

In the folktale Dumakude mirrors the aspirations of South Africans in the 21st century. Look at the man in the height of his glory surrounded by the trappings of his decadent culture:

Amid the praise-songs of the royal bards and the piercing cheers of the women, Dumakude and his warriors entered the gates of the Great Place ten days after the last battle. In eloquent words the leader of the warriors’ song related how the enemy were slain, and, with their spears, the rest of the warriors imitated the stabbing of the bodies, and with their clubs, the crushing of the skulls. The thud! thud! of the falling bodies was imitated by the blood-curdling gingqi! gingqi! gingqi! of the chorus. (Jordan, 1973: 109)

Have we ever thought why we, ordinary people, need so much protection from other people like us in this world? If everything was equal, did we really need all these heroes in the defence department who protect us so passionately, laying down their lives for our simple selves? Dumakude gives to his child a name that spells out his callous aspirations and feeds his wicked ego, the name Nomxakazo, which is a reminder of his senseless victory.

In the language of Miruka (1994:184):

The allegories of events and characters reflect on human life and are a source of learning. In the characters, be they animal or otherwise, we see the lazy, sages, cowards, agitators, the arrogant etc. And the tale gives us hints as to how to react to them.

Thus in Dumakude we see a scrupulous warlord and therefore an agitator who is constantly harassed by the feeble and idiotic notion that if he shares the resources of nature equally with other people, these will diminish and will therefore not be enough for him to go through life with sufficient supply. In Dumakude we see the anatomy of hubris, which is a state of ruthless over-ambition.

Looking at a tale as a tool for the education of a child, Miruka (1994: 184) adds that the

aim of didacticism is to discourage vice and encourage virtue. The narratives give us guidelines on what is despicable and what is cherishable. In other words they seek to change life.

Thus this tale can be used to admonish our Government of Reformation, and, to put it in the words of Charles Okumu (1994: 332), to tender a tentative counsel that “The political leaders replaced the colonial masters, who in turn had replaced the traditional chiefs; but the roles they play have not changed.”

This is where the philosophy of ubuntu comes into play. The principle of collective responsibility could be seen as one of the hallmarks of Africanness and thus true and honest humanity. Referring to the birth of the American Black Consciousness movement Levine (1977: 90) stipulates that it was the stories and educational values from the stories that cemented the foundation of this movement. Levine expresses African faith in the efficacy of a story thus:

In Africa, tales which taught a moral, either implicitly or explicitly, were widely used for didactic purposes. “While you Whites have schools and books for teaching your children,” a Dahomean told Melville and Frances Herskovits, “we tell them stories, for our stories are our books.” (1977: 90)

In the case of Dumakude and his people we see a stark example of misdirected enthusiasm, pretence and over-ambition being used to nurture the little girl, Nomxakazo, who innocently assimilates these artificial values as the noble principles of life. For example, she rightly learns that a vow that a person makes is an important virtue for humanity. But then, unfortunately, in her case her father vows that “The day this daughter of mine comes of age, the cattle I shall present her will be so numerous that they will darken the sun.” The paradox of her father’s vow lies in the fact that it is a mere fantasy that cannot in reality be achieved by an ordinary human being like him, with such limited powers. Instead the vow suggests that Dumakude has an exaggerated image of the powers in his command. The very fact that Dumakude could not make it possible himself to time his victory to coincide with the birth of his daughter but seems to take credit for it, poses as an indictment to his blind declaration that the child is “this daughter of mine”. What we know is that he is incapable and too clumsy ever to create a human being, and so his ownership remains questionable. On the other hand nature possesses the powers of creation that Dumakude lacks. Furthermore, all he can do is to wait until nature decides to make his daughter come of age because he cannot do it himself. Yet he bases his vow on incidents over which he can have no control. Then he expresses his absurd notion of presenting cattle to a child, yet Nomxakazo is well cared for and does not need cattle of her own. The very cattle that he refers to are a creation of nature and do not really belong to him. All these flaws in his reasoning render his vow too pretentious, too artificial and false.

But then the child is nurtured with these false values from her father with members of the community playing the familiar role of teacher for the child. The storyteller describes the situation thus:

As soon as Nomxakazo reached an age when she could understand things, her father told her the significance of her name, and she felt very proud of this. She was even more delighted when her father went on to tell her the vow he had made after holding her in his arms for the first time. As she grew up, it was impossible to forget her father’s great vow. All the people at the Great Place looked forward to the princess’s coming of age. They never failed to make mention of it when the opportunity offered itself. If Nomxakazo sneezed, all the elderly women within hearing would exclaim, “May you grow up quickly nkosazana, and reach the age when you will receive the herds of cattle that will darken the sun.” (Jordan, 1973: 110)

So, through her education, the child grows up clinging on the wayward aspirations of her father and when she declares, “I still see the sun,” she believes in her heart that she is making a lofty statement worthy of a princess, a statement that is the crown of virtue and absolute wisdom. Quite paradoxically, the sun, which she demands to have blocked off from her royal presence, resembles a faithful agent of the very nature that has brought her into existence and now cares for her as she grows up in the reassuring presence of its light and in the comfort of its warmth. There is an element of wilful, almost idiotic playfulness between father and daughter, that is exhibited at the expense of thousands of innocent people who lose their inheritance and their lives in the wake of Dumakude’s blood-thirsty warriors. It is also a senseless exploitation of the natural resources urged by the ignorant whim of a grossly misguided child.

In this paper I have followed only one aspect, namely, the concept of wealth and the mindset behind the urge to be rich, and even with this aspect all I could manage was a cursory discussion. There is much that a single folktale can do to inform and teach us; and these stories carry the universal virtues of being human, across all generations, planting in each individual who cares to listen to a story a sense of timelessness and an experience of infinity. Thus in our time as well these stories still find so much relevance that a thorough study of them may reveal that they are perhaps an indispensable tool for moulding the young personalities of the coming generation.


Jordan, A.C. 1973. Tales from Southern Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Levine, L.W. 1977. Black culture and black consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press.
Miruka, O. 1994. Encounter with oral literature. Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers Ltd.
Okpewho, I. (ed.) 1990. The oral performance in Africa. Ibadan: Spectrum Books Ltd.
Okumu, C. 1994 “The place of oral poetry in contemporary Ugandan society: the oral artist as a historian and commentator.” In E. Sienaert, Meg Cowper-Lewis and Nigel Bell (eds). Oral tradition and its transmission: the many forms of message. Durban: The Campbell Collection and Centre for Oral Studies.
Scheub, H. 1996 The tongue is fire: South African storytellers and apartheid. Winsconsin: University of Winsconsin Press.


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