African folk stories are rich with cultural heritage, wisdom and tradition. They often convey moral lessons, explain natural phenomena, or tell the histories of various peoples. 

A tale from West Africa is told about Anansi the spider who invites a turtle to dinner but serves the food on a table that the turtle cannot reach because Anansi keeps lifting it higher. Later, the turtle invites Anansi to his underwater home but when Anansi tries to dive, he keeps floating because he’s too light. Turtle cleverly advises Anansi to put stones in his pockets to weigh him down and as soon as Anansi reaches the bottom, Turtle eats all the food leaving none for Anansi. 

From East African folklore, we were told of a lion that captures a hare for his dinner. Just before the lion could get to the business of dining, the hare convinces the lion that there is a bigger lion who claims to be the king of the jungle. The hare takes the lion to a well and tells him the other lion is inside. Upon looking in the well, the lion sees his own reflection and, thinking it is the rival lion, he jumps in to attack and drowns in the process. 

Central Africans speak of a crocodile that wanted to eat the heart of a monkey and offered him a ride across a river. As they traveled and got to the middle of the river, the crocodile revealed his evil plan. The monkey, unable to do much because he was not in his element but thinking quickly, tells the crocodile that he left his heart in a tree and needs to go back to get it. The crocodile, without thinking, agrees to go back to fetch the heart, the monkey escapes when they got to land and among the trees and he lived to fight another day. 

Our heritage is plastered with these and a lot more but to what end? To the end that our cultures and traditions are not eroded by the sands of time. As a student of law, I understand the importance of definitions, chief of all being that they provide understanding and clarity and remain a reference point to guide us as we go along. So let’s get these out of the way, shall we? 

Culture: the general customs and beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time, that is, their way of life. 

Tradition: the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation.

A people that do not know their genesis and history are led to think they are the first of their kind and that what existed before them is not worth making reference to because it does not apply to them. That is a fallacy. Our lives are a tale that is told. It is through culture and traditions and their deliberate observation that we understand what has been, what is and prepare for what is to come. 

Stories particularly were used to pass down wisdoms and moral lessons because they were relatable. The characters involved were not foreign to the listeners like the spiders of West Africa, the lions of East Africa or the monkeys and crocodiles of Central Africa – all known too well by the inhabitants of those lands. I believe part of what makes our present learning a struggle and fuels the argument against different curriculums is that reference is made, in teaching, to a world beyond our reach. Anansi and the turtle teach you that selfishness and trickery can backfire, the story of the hare exalts intelligence above physical strength and the monkey’s wit and quick thinking was the lifesaver it needed.

All of them carry within them timeless morals that inform navigation through life even in present times. They teach strategy and critical thinking, we learn adaptation in a rapidly changing world such as ours, how to use diplomacy, empathy and understanding in conflict resolution to arrive at lasting and peaceful solutions, they encourage creativity and how to outperform the competition et cetera – tools whose relevance transcend epochs.

These narrations, which often happened around fires in the evening or under the moon as drink was imbibed and sometimes during walks, are now mostly tucked away in books. Make it a point to read them and retell them. Those that have not been penned down exist in the minds of elders whose company we are rarely in. For many tribes and nations, these are our last surviving griots. We should make it our aim to raise more.