Like most tales indigenous to West Africa, the allegories and traditional narratives passed down through generations of Ivorians enthrall and edify, startle and steer, recreate and reinforce the social values of their listeners. Through a panoply of characters — fantastical monsters, rebellious protagonists — ethical dichotomies unfold: the role of the individual, the stranger, the untamed and unknown versus the community, the insider, the cultured and the familiar.
These three tales from the Ivory Coast — tales of transgression and transformation — are rare transcriptions from local storytellers.
Tale 1: The Rebel Girl and the Corpse
There once was a beautiful girl called Nan Kôgnon. But Nan Kôgnon rejected all those who asked for her hand. Nan Kôgnon refused even the mightiest and most fearsome hunter of our tribe, the great hunter N’gassélet, under the pretext that he bore scars.
One day a very handsome man came, well-built with a fine complexion and no scars on his body. That day, Nan Kôgnon was at the entrance of the village. When she saw him, the young woman cried out : “Behold, the man of my life, it is him I’ve been waiting for to marry. At last he has come, my husband, my husband has arrived.” Right away, she demanded that the wedding be celebrated. It was done, and soon after, the couple departed for the marital home.
On the way, at the moment they exited the village, Nan Kôgnon’s husband discarded his attractive boubou. Surprised, his wife asked him:
“Man, why are you taking off your boubou?”
“I am hot,” he replied.
A little further on, right at the detour leading to the village cemetery, he slipped out of his undergarments for the same reason. They then entered the cemetery, hugging its edge, and just before reaching its far end, Nan Kôgnon smelled a pungent odor by her side. It was her husband who, during the entire cemetery-crossing, was decomposing, loosing more and more of his flesh. In horror, the wife started to flee. But “klou!” The husband caught her and said: “You are not going anywhere. You chose me, so you will live here. Boil some water and pour it into my head cavity.”
That was Nan Kôgnon’s daily task. She got thinner and was miserable. At nightfall, Nan Kôgnon sang out:Kisson sani djémé – What gold they did not offer you ?
Elé kô lé tiofê. – You refused.
Kison wari djémé – What silver did they not offer you ?
Elé kô lé tiofê. – You refused.
Kanassé cabrou bona – Once in the “tomb-home”
Tchè kè là sou é – The man became corpse
Nangnogori… – Dear mothers…
One night as she was singing, the mighty hunter N’gassélet was tracking a buffalo, over there, not far from the village river. He heard a song. Out of curiosity, he followed the echo to find its origin. As soon as she beheld the hunter at her side, the young woman cried and begged him to save her. This, the hunter did. Once back with her family, the young woman asked to be married unconditionally to N’gassélet. He accepted and Nan Kôgnon became the wife of our great hunter, and made beautiful children both hard-working and humble.
Djimini tale of the village of Yaossédougou (Dabakala, Centre-North of Ivory Coast). Storyteller: Fofana Gnadjo, merchant in Bouaké, august 2001.
Tale 2: Honeymoon in the Forest with Python
Long ago, in a village in a far away country, lived a beautiful girl. So beautiful that everyone spoke of her, even in the far corners of the forest, they spoke of her. But this young woman did not want to marry. Her parents, the whole village, everyone tried in vain to advise her in the matter. The child stuck firm to her decision. But one night, she did promise that she would cover her mother’s head with a calabash should she, one day, meet a man she desired.
When the Queen died, the funeral was announced. Strangers came from far and wide: nobles, men, women, children, even the genies of the bush attended the Queen’s burial. Python transformed himself into a handsome man. One night, he crossed the young woman’s courtyard while she was pounding fufu for the evening meal. As soon as she saw him, kpohoro… ! She covered her mother’s head with a calabash, to all her friends’ surprise. “I understand,” said the mother.
Hence they married and stayed together. After the funeral, people went back to their villages. The man [Python] inquired as to which road to take. But he advised his beloved to remain in the village, which she refused.
“No way! You mean to abandon me here, all alone. No! I am going with you.”
Thus, they left, choo, choo, choo…, on a very long walk through mountains, rivers, savannas and forests. Eventually they arrived at a large and deep pit. The husband told his exhausted wife: “This is my village, let’s go in and sit over here.” There they lived, and even had children. There were snake children and black [human] children. Every morning, father Python would look for prey in the bush. He never came home empty-handed. He was a good father who cared for them well. Many dry seasons had passed since the woman had left her family.
One day, her step-mother decided to visit her step-daughter. She did this against the will of family members and the rest of the village. She traveled and, one rainy night, found her kin in a tangled jumble of black beings and snakes. She was welcomed and she behaved reasonably towards them. She washed the black children, as well as the snake children. She took good care of them all. Six days passed before she asked Python and her step-daughter about the route home. They indicated it. But Python recommended that she drink muddy water, rather than clear river water, along the way. This she did to satiation.
After a long walk, she rejoined her conjugal home. Suffering from stomach pains, she started vomiting. I cannot put into words how much gold, gold to fill the entire house! She gave some to her step-daughter’s mother.
“O kpô! My daughter gives you gold, and it’s only crumbs you give me! I’ll go see her myself and we shall see.”
On the evening of the tornado, she arrived at her daughter’s home. “My God, you live with snakes? Snake children? With human children? Woe to me for having given you life!”
During her four-day stay, she never touched the snake children. She only took care of the human children. When she asked for the way home, Python gave her the same recommendation as the step-mother.
“Eh é é…! This python takes me for a beast. He is crazy. Me? Drink muddy water? Where?” When she came to the river, she chose the clear water and drank it in abundance. Once she returned to her house in the village, she was on the verge of vomiting. She went behind her hut, but alas, Python was there. He killed her, and brought her corpse to his pit.
“Would you like the smooth-skinned prey, or the one covered with hair?” he asked his wife. She decoded the message and chose the smooth-skinned prey. She asked Python to allow her to take her mother’s corpse back to the village, and Python accepted. She left with one snake child and one black child.
On the bank of the river, she gave the children a drink. “Drink, sons of a real man, it is not your mother’s fault, nor your father’s. It’s your grandmother’s fault.” Python heard her distress. “Go home with the black child and call him Anini**.” When you hear Anini among our Bona people, this is its origin. It is because of the woman’s folly that this happened.
Agni-bona tale from Koun Fao, eastern region of the Ivory Coast. Storyteller: Kossia Yao, october 2006.
** In the Angi-bona and the Baule languages, agni is the word for “python”, the suffix ni means mother. Anini is therefore a name pointing to the snake’s mother.
Tale 3: Valy, the Difficult Prince and the Lioness
Once upon a time, there was a rich king who only had one son, Valy, the sole heir. When he became an adult, Tchêkô, his father, encouraged him to marry. One evening he invited the entire village and asked all the pretty girls of his tribe to make an appearance at the palace. His will was done. The girls arrived and paraded, one after the other, under the gaze of the king, the prince, and all of the nobility. But the prince found objections to every one of them, to the point that his father and all the nobility qualified him as a difficult child. He promised he would marry when the time came, meaning when he met a woman to his taste.
One day a very beautiful girl appeared in the village. She made three rounds of the village. Everywhere people talked of her extraordinary beauty. Valy went to find Tchêkô and told him: “Father, my long awaited sweetheart has come. Let us celebrate the wedding today.”
“But who is she? We don’t even know her, we don’t know which village she comes from or which family. Be a little more patient, my son!”
“No! It’s now or never.”
The king relented; a princely marriage was celebrated. At nightfall, the prince joined his bride in the marital bedroom. But in the middle of the night, screams came from their hut. Men came running. Strangely, they found the prince dead, torn apart by a raging lioness who sprung away, against all odds, to melt into the bush.
Tale related in the program La porte de mon cœur, ONUCI FM / 4-7-2007. Storyteller and radio presenter: Binta Fall.
Sources and Further Reading
- [French] Lambert Konan, Y. (2012.) Le monstre des contes négro-africains de la pédagogie par la peur : un agent de la régulation sociale. Postures, Dossier « D’hier à demain : le rapport au(x) classique(s) », n°16. Retrieved March 11, 2019, from RevuePostures.