Thursday, June 28, 2012

The supernatural adoptee in West African folklore

Those of you who have been reading the myths behind the last two illustrations probably noticed the similarities (and differences) between the story of the Pineapple Girl and the story of the Calabash Child. Both tales contain a childless couple, a magical child transmuted or transformed from plant material, a villain (or villains) who insults the child's non-human origins while the parents are away, setting off events that disrupt the once happy family. While reading up on these two tales, I came across other West African folktales that have a similar theme.

Ethnic groupStoryParentsChildVillain
Ga (Ghana)Adene and the Pineapple Child1farming couplepineappledomestic assistant Adene
Ga (Ghana)Adele and the Pineapple Child2hunter and his second wifepineapplejealous senior wife Adele
Sefwi (Ghana)Asiedo and the Fish Child3farming couplefishelderly neighbor Mo Asiedo
Igbo (Nigeria)Apunanwu4Chief Nma and his last wifepot of palm oilanother of the chief's wives (the mother of his first biological daughter who is junior to Apunanwu)
Igbo (Nigeria)The Calabash Child5king and queencalabashking's servants

The differences are as fascinating as the similarities. The child is always a daughter, the villain is always a woman, except in the case of The Calabash Child, where there are multiple offenders. In the first Ga tale and the Sefwi tale, the  child gets into an argument with the 'villain' because the villain broke her toy. In both Igbo tales, the conflict between the child and her persecutor(s) arise over cooking: the villains refuse to cook for the child. Apunanwu also differs from the rest in how the persecutor interacted with the child.  While the villains in  the other 4 stories call out the child's non-human origins (a taboo topic), the jealous stepmother in Apunanwu simply creates a situation in which the palm oil princess has to approach fire to cook for herself. Apunanwu melts away, as her true nature is oil.

In three of the stories (both Ga tales and Apunanwu), the villains face no consequence for their actions. In the Sefwi tale and The Calabash Child, those who threaten or destroy the family are put to death.

The Calabash Child is the only tale in which the adoptee does not revert to her original form and the family is re-unified. It is my favorite of the five.

  1. Jack Berry (comp.,trans.), Richard Spears (ed.), Adene and the Pineapple Child, p25, West African Folktales
  2. 32 Adele and the Pineapple Child, p52, West African Folktales
  3. 67 Asiedo and the Fish Child, p113, West African Folktales
  4. Buchi Offodile, Apunanwu, p142, The Orphan Girl: And Other Stories, West African Folk Tales
  5. Buchi Offodile, The Calabash Child, p157, The Orphan Girl: And Other Stories, West African Folk Tales

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