Folktales are stories passed down from generation to generation, and reflect the culture, customs and values from which they come. In West Africa, parents love to tell traditional stories to their kids, and these stories, legends and histories are told from one generation to another. Whether told while being tucked in bed or when gathered around a communal area to hear them told by the elders, folktales are an entertaining reminder of traditional community life and values.
As with every country/culture we explore, we have enjoyed reading West African folktales throughout the year. Most of these books are no longer being published, but I've included them as they could be found in libraries or second hand (and I've linked those to Better World Books, an online store for second hand books).
The Hatseller and the Monkeys by Baba Wagué Diakité.
This folktale is told to teach the lesson that we think much better on a full stomach (from West African proverb "for an empty satchel cannot stand"). During his journey to sell hats at the market, a hatseller takes a break and falls asleep, whereupon monkeys take his hats. After much mischief and mimicking from the monkeys, he learns that he can focus better on a full stomach and tricks them into getting them back. The illustrations are great in their batik style and renditions of traditional Malian hats.
The Hunterman and the Crocodile by Baba Wagué Diakité
Another great retelling from Malian author and illustrator Baba Wague Diakite. I really enjoy his illustrations that take on a folk art quality. In this folktale, the hunterman comes to regret his trust in a family of crocodiles when trying to help them - but this story takes on a twist as when the hunterman asks other creatures for their help, they are quick to remind him of the ways man has taken advantage of other creatures. Ultimately it's a story about the importance of living in harmony with nature.
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears: A West African Tale by Verna Aardema
When a mosquito tells a fib to an iguana, it sets off a series of events, causing mayhem in the jungle. It's a good story about the consequences of lying, but note that the direst consequences is that an owlet dies and his mother mourns for him.
Too Much Talk by Angela Medearis
This is a fun book, especially to read out loud to younger kids. Having said that, Elle (12) also enjoyed it! It starts off with a talking yam and a shrieking farmer and spirals from there with a group of frantic villagers and many talking creatures. It's quite funny, with a lot of repetition. The illustrations are fun and based on Ghanaian art and masks - Elle especially got a kick out of the facial expressions of the shrieking villagers.
Zomo the Rabbit: A Trickster Tale from West Africa by Gerald McDermott
This is a colorful, funny trickster tale. To get what he wants from the Sky god, Zomo accomplishes three seemingly impossible tasks by cleverly tricking others. He is reminded in the end though that cleverness is not the same as wisdom, and that having fooled others will have its consequences.
Konte Chameleon Fine, Fine, Fine! by Cristina Kessler
Konte is a chameleon that thinks he's sick because he keeps changing colors. With repetition and onomatopoeic words, kids will learn more about chameleons and enjoy a story about accepting your own unique gifts.
Jamari's Drum by Eboni Bynum & Roland Jackson
This is a good book to introduce the traditional importance of drumming in West African society. As a young man, Jamari was fascinated by the village drummer. When the old man passed away, he passes on his responsibility to Jamari, who with time forgets to take it quite as seriously. When the town is threatened with disaster, it's the drumming that saves them.
Why The Sky Is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale by Mary-Joan Gerson
This is a colorfully illustrated book with an important message: to not take our planet and its gifts for granted. In this story, the sky is so close to earth that people can just take from it to eat whenever they want. Unfortunately, they become ungrateful and wasteful, and do not heed the sky's warnings, so the sky decides to retreat.
Koi and the Kola Nuts by Verna Aardema
With vivid illustrations, this retelling is a folktale about Koi, the youngest son of a chief who discovers his only inheritance is a kola nut tree. With so little to his name, he gathers the nuts and sets off on a journey, coming across various creatures who require his help and his kola nuts. When set with a series of challenges himself, these creatures find themselves in the position to help him. He ultimately learns that when you do good, good comes back to you. We learned more about Kola nuts in West African society and you can read about it here.
Only One Cowry by Phillis Gershator
The Dahomey King, from Benin, wants a bride but rather than parting with his wealth for a proper bride-price, he wants to offer nothing more than one cowry. Cleverly, Yo takes on the challenge to find his king a wife, and through trade grows the cowry into a sizable sum. More clever still is his future bride who tricks the king into providing a bride-price fitting to his stature. This folktale led us to learning more about bride price and the historical use of cowries as currency in West Africa, which you can read about here.
The Singing Man by Angela Medearis
This is the story of a griot adapted from a folktale of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The youngest son of three, Banzar wishes to be a musician. When he tells this to the elders during his manhood ceremony, the occupation is deemed unpractical, unprofitable, and unacceptable. He is told to choose a more practical occupation or he will be exiled from his village. Banzar chooses music and sets off when he comes across an ageing, blind griot who takes him under his wings. They travel from village to village for years and Banzar's musical style becomes admired. He ends up being quite a famous, successful griot, in the position to help his family and former village during a time of need. We used this book when learning about griots, which you can read about here.
The Leopard's Drum: An Asante Tale from West Africa by Jessica Souhami. This is the story of Osebo the leopard and the majestic drum he wouldn't share with anyone, not even the Sky god. The Sky god asks the other animals to get him the drum, all of who think they will do it best. In the end, it's the clever turtle who outwits Osebo and gets the drum to the Sky god. This story is illustrated with fun, colorful paper collages and has an easy narrative, great for younger kids.
Bonus - a re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood
Pretty Salma: A Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa by Niki Daly
This isn't a traditional folktale, but a re-imagining of Little Red Riding Hood from a West African perspective. In this version, Salma is sent to the market, and taking a short cut back home is followed by a cunning dog. This story introduces various Ghanaian cultural elements and the ending isn't nearly as dire as the Grimm version.
I hope you have the chance to explore the rich folklore culture of West Africa!
If you'd like to read more trickster folktales, I have a post dedicated exclusively to Anansi. Anansi is a West African trickster that often takes the form of a spider and is central to many West African folktales. You can read about 12 Anansi trickster books with extension crafts & activities here.
I also put together a round up of folktales from Liberia you can find here.
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Books are a wonderful way to experience new worlds and ideas. Our house is filled with books, most of which are borrowed from our public library. Public libraries are an incredible resource, making books accessible to everyone, and we highly encourage everyone to discover theirs. If you are hoping to build your own home library, I've made it easy by linking available book titles to Amazon.com. Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that any purchase made through these links may earn this blog a small commission. If unavailable on Amazon, I've linked titles to Better World Books, a site that sells second hand books (I have no association with them).