An African Folktale

This is a folktale of the Hausa, a farming culture of around 30 million people, located primarily in Nigeria and Niger but with other communities scattered around Africa. I find the different cultural assumptions revealed to be… attention-catching; you wouldn’t find a tale like this in Aesop. From Hausa Tales and Traditions by Frank Edgar and Neil Skinner; HT Robert Greene.

The Farmer, the Snake and the Heron

There was once a man hoeing away on his farm, when along came some people chasing a snake, meaning to kill it. And the snake came up to the farmer.
Says the snake “Farmer, please hide me.” “Where shall I hide you?” said the farmer, and the snake said “All I ask is that you save my life.” The farmer couldn’t think where to put the snake, and at last bent down and opened his anus, and the snake entered.
Presently the snake’s pursuers arrived and said to the farmer “Hey, there! Where’s the snake we were chasing and intend to kill? As we followed him, he came in your direction.” Says the farmer “I haven’t seen him.” And the people went back again.
Then the farmer said to the snake “Righto—come out now. They’ve gone.” “Oh no” said the snake, “I’ve got me a home.” And there was the farmer, with his stomach all swollen, for all the world like a pregnant woman!

And the farmer set off, and presently, as he passed, he saw a heron. They put their heads together and whispered, and the heron said to the farmer “Go and excrete. Then, when you have finished, move forward a little, but don’t get up. Stay squatting, with your head down and your buttocks up, until I come.”
So the man went off and did just exactly as the heron had told him, everything. And the snake put out his head and began to catch flies. Then the heron struck and seized the snake’s head. Then he pulled and he pulled until he had got him out, and the man tumbled over. And the heron finished off the snake with his beak.
The man rose and went over to the heron. “Heron” says he, “You’ve got the snake out for me, now please give me some medicine to drink, for the poison where he was lying.”
Says the heron “Go and find yourself some white fowls, six of them. Cook them and eat them—they are the medicine.” “Oho” said the man, “White fowl? But that’s you” and he grabbed the heron and tied it up and went off home. There he took him into a hut and hung him up, the heron lamenting the while.
Then the man’s wife said “Oh, husband! The bird did you a kindness. He saved your life, by getting the trouble out of your stomach for you. And now you seize him and say that you are going to slaughter him!”
So the man’s wife loosed the heron, but as he was going out, he pecked out one of her eyes. And so passed and went his way. That’s all. For so it always has been—if you see the dust of a fight rising, you will know that a kindness is being repaid! That’s all. The story’s finished.

I wonder if this has something to do with why Africa stays poor.

I was slightly shocked, reading this story. It seems to reveal a cultural gloominess deeper than its Western analogue of fashionable cynicism. The cynical Western tale would at least have an innocent, virtuous, idealistic fool to be exploited, since our cynicism is mostly about feeling superior to those less sophisticated. This tale has so much defection that you can’t even call the characters hypocrites. This isn’t a story told to make the listener feel superior to the fools who still believe in the essential goodness of human nature. This is a tribe whose children are being warned to expect cooperation to be met with defection the same way our own kids are told “slow but steady wins the race”.

It’s occasionally debated on this blog whether the psychological unity of humankind is real and how much room it leaves for humans to be deeply different. Someone might look at this tale and say, “Gratitude in Africa isn’t like gratitude in the West.” But to me it looks like the people who pass on this tale must have pretty much the same chunk of brain circuitry somewhere that implements the emotion of gratitude—that’s what creates the background against which this story is told. It wouldn’t be viewed as important wisdom, otherwise.

But cultural gloominess this deep may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as powerful as if the emotion of gratitude itself had diminished, or failed.