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The primary goal is to increase interest in Liberia’s storehouse of oral literature which, although undeniably rich, is often overlooked by students of African oral traditions. Most of the tales in this collection were taken from “Legends of Liberia.”
That mimeographed collection, published sometime in the 1960s by Peter Pinney, a native of New Zealand, received limited circulation in its original form. A second edition, released by the Society of Liberian Authors in 1973 with few editorial changes, focused renewed and wider attention to these tales.
It is hoped that this expanded and substantially reorganized collection will bring these delightful stories to the eyes, ears and hearts of many more, especially the thousands of Liberian children uprooted and exiled by decades of violence.
Tales by Ethnic Origin
A second purpose is to draw attention to the genres and other patterns that run through these stories. These patterns, which transcend linguistic and even national boundaries, have long been obscured by a tradition among Liberianists that emphasized ethnic differences over commonalities. Following that tradition, each chapter in Pinney’s book consisted of tales drawn from one ethnic group or “tribe.”
In contrast, tales in this collection are organized by genres, determined by a combination of literary features, such as tone, characters and perspective of author to audience. The five genres employed in this study are: Historical Accounts, Why Things Are the Way They Are, Trickster Tales, Fantasy and Wonder Tales, Dilemma Stories, and Morality Tales.
The study of these literary forms is part of a larger investigation by the author into the structure of pre-Liberian cultures and societies. Although much more research remains to be undertaken, two findings from this study deserve to be underscored.
The first concerns the trans-ethnic spread of these genres: They may be found among linguistically and ethnically divergent groups, not only in Liberia, but throughout West Africa and parts of its Diaspora in the New World. To cite just one example, the trickster spider is known to the Kpelle as NaaSi and to the Ashanti as well as Jamaicans as Anansi, a similarity that is too close to be coincidental. Such similarities suggest the people of West Africa share certain fundamental cultural elements, rooted perhaps in earlier long-distance networks of communication and trade.
This anthology also points to an apparent convergence of some themes and genres in these tales with certain underlying cleavages in the societies that produced them, such as between men and women over the sexual division of tasks, between “land-owning” clans and “strangers,” between hunters and other specialists on the one hand and farmers on the other, and between free people and unfree laborers.
Tensions between these groups often supply the themes and sub-texts of these tales. Although the concerns of women and other s occasionally seep through, these tales generally present the perspective of free male specialists who dominated rural Liberian societies. For example, the various historical accounts often illuminate inadvertently, through their emphatic claims and strategic silences, that rival claims existed to political and economic power.
While the dilemma tale was much more common among Mande-speakers — the Vai and Kpelle in particular, this association might have been due to a range of existential features of these societies other than the ethnicity of their producers.
In time, the study of Liberia’s oral traditions might shed some light on local antecedents of various journalistic and oratory practices. It could also help lay the basis for the emergence a truly national literature. At the very least, I hope you find delight in reading and retelling these teasures of the ages.
the dilemma tale. It is an unusual form of orally presented prose which leaves the listeners with a choice among alternatives. Liberia is one area of Africa, along with Zaire and Sierra Leone, where dilemma tales are especially popular. These tales come in two varieties.
One type requires the audience to judge the relative greed or skill of characters or the magical powers of those who have performed fantastic feats. The other, more complex, asks listeners to distinguish among similar moral or legal choices. These tales provide an especially useful contrast to television artifacts since they are permeated with moral ambivalence, as are many other genres of African tales.
Tales by Genre