Cunnie Rabbit, Mr. Spider and the Other Beef: West African Folk Tales | Annotated Tale

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Children of Nature

NATURE is very human in many of her moods. She has her periods of feverish energy and impetuous application, then her periods of gentle outpouring and watchful tenderness, and again her periods of apparent idleness and indifference. In Temne-land these moods succeed each other with a regularity and certainty that is quite pronounced. The dry season just ended, was the period of repose and idleness. Nature had been taking her vacation. The currents of life stood still, and vegetation sank into a partially dormant state. Nature, resting, seemed forgetful of her human children. Day after day, week after week it had been the same,--sunshine, profuse, clear, steadfast and pitiless; air quiet and calm and listless.

               Then came signs of waking up. The winds arose gradually, becoming more and more intense, with dashes of rain. Then a tornado swept through villages and jungles, accompanied by terrific lightning and thunder. Nature is wide awake now, and has begun work with a haste and energy that seem intended to atone for the long idleness.

               The life currents have started to flow again. Already the steady rains are falling, and for weeks and weeks they will fall; soaking everything, flooding the lowland districts, and bringing out everywhere an incredibly varied and luxuriant vegetation.

               Then months hence there will come a rift in the clouds, the sun will peep through upon the water-soaked earth and teeming vegetation, and the work of undoing will begin.

               But this is anticipation.

               The rainy season is on now in earnest. The rice farms need no attention at present, and other occupations are hindered by the rains. Nature is also shaping the destiny of her children.

               These simple Temne people, freed in a measure from the requirements of their ordinary occupations, respond the more readily to impulses that arise from social and intellectual instincts.

               Led by the dumb craving of their natures, they have set an evening for a social gathering at the home of Sobah. The chief attraction, as everybody knows, will be story-telling, but there is to be no stiff formality. Everything will be spontaneous, and subject to the inspiration of the moment.

               As the appointed evening comes on, the clouds thicken, and the rain has become a downpour. But what does that matter? There is little danger of injuring clothing,--if such an article is in evidence, and as to discomfort,--well, the street at this moment is full of youngsters who revel in the mud and water as if that were the acme of earthly bliss.

               The older people are following an impulse only a little higher, as they stalk, heedless of rain, to Sobah's hut. A good fire is burning in the middle of the room, for the night will be dark and chill. With many a "How do", many a "Tankee" and many a touching of the inside fingertips, in conventional hand-shake, the greetings of the hour are passed. Oleemah has brought with him Soree, his kinsman from a distant village. Soree and Sobah are old acquaintances and warm friends, and not having seen each other for months are effusive in their greetings.

               With many grunts and exclamations of pleasure they rush at each other and, swinging the outstretched arm in a semicircle, smite the open palms together in heartiest good-fellowship.

               "Eh, fren, how do, I gladee fo' see yo' fo' true, true," said Sobah warmly. "How yo' kin 'tan'?"

               "I well, tankee," answered Soree, with deep satisfaction, "en I gladee too much fo' come tell yo' how do. Yo' look lek say de ress bin plenty since de las' tem we bin meet up; yo' get skin big pass (surpass) me yown."

               Each member of the company was allowed to seat himself as best he could, on the mud bed, on the floor, on anything. There was no need for haste, no record of time was kept.

               Soree, as the guest from abroad, was questioned eagerly for news of his country and people, particularly of the war-boys, and he in turn was quite as interested in the gossip of the village.

               Sobah had just related an incident from one of his trading expeditions, in which he had been imposed upon as to the quality of the articles bargained for, and in conclusion summed up his observation of human nature in the proverb: "Fis'erman nebber say he fish rotten."

               After Sobah's bit of reminiscence, there was a silence broken only by the noise of the children, who were amusing themselves in their own peculiar way. An atmosphere of ease and endless leisure enveloped the place.

               Finally an inspiration came to Mammy Yamah, who was "picking" cotton, and she said:

               "One man bin deh (there), since w'en he born tay to-day, he hair white. Yo' sabbee (know) dat?" The conundrum was familiar and easy, and one of the smaller boys, who happened to be listening, answered at once: "Cotton".

               There was a general stir among the pickaninnies, for here was something within their mental grasp, and they left the dog to sleep undisturbed, and ceased to play with the tame little ground-squirrel which Gengah had brought, partly to exhibit to the other children, but chiefly because he and the squirrel had become boon companions. The minds were all intent as Soree propounded this riddle:

               "One ole man he inside ho'se, but he bear'-bear' (beard) come out nah do' (door)."

               There was a puzzled silence until Oleemah, who sat nearest the door, and whose eyes were filled with the smoke that sought exit from the smouldering fire, started up with kindling face and exclaimed: "Eh, hey! Ladder wey (which) pusson no duh klim."

               This second conundrum, familiar to some present, and requiring the same word for solution as the preceding, was uttered in so triumphant a tone that a chorus of voices called out the double reply: "Smoke," and the few who were less rapid in thought echoed the word with equal gusto.

               Now came Mammy Mamenah with the following:

               "De king he get ho'se, do'-mout' (door-mouth) no deh, windah no deh, but pusson duh talk inside."

               This no one could guess, and Mammy was obliged to point to a hen sitting on a nest at one end of the mud bed and say wisely: "Dat pusson duh sabbee; one week tem he go hearee de talk."

               The patient brooder looked around as if to corroborate the woman's testimony, and as if thinking of the baby peeps that would announce her long vigil ended, and more active work begun.

               This broad hint made the solution of the conundrum easy for most of the company, but Dogbah was still in the dark, as no one had named the answer specifically. Finally, unwilling to relinquish the point, although he was sure to bring ridicule upon himself, he asked: "Well, wey t'ing dat?" [1]

               "Yo' stupid too much," replied Oleemah sarcastically. "Yo' no know dat egg no get do'-mout', no get windah, but pusson duh talk inside?"

               Of course there was a loud laugh at Dogbah's expense, but he could console himself with knowing the solution of a very good conundrum.

               Another pause followed, and then a young man who had spent several months in Freetown, had this to propose:

               "Dey sew dress fo' one girl; he no deh, but w'en he reach, de dress jus' fit um."

               Many laughable guesses were made, and occasioned no end of merriment. After the vain efforts ceased to amuse, the propounder explained that the dress was a fish-net. When once the comparison was clear, it was highly appreciated.

               Gratified by the prestige his knowledge of town customs gave, the young man propounded another conundrum that proved almost as puzzling as his first one. It was this:

               "One big ho'se bin deh, he get one post, no mo' (more)."

               The problem seemed easy enough, but its solution proved to be a very difficult matter. Every conceivable likeness to a house with one post was offered, but still the Freetown sojourner showed his white teeth in a broad grin, and shook his head.

               Konah had been taking lively interest in all the guessing, but thus far had not been able to give any correct answer except the ones already familiar to her. This time her active wits were working with unusual rapidity. The important part of a native house is the roof. Many of the farm-houses, Konah knew, consisted entirely of a thatch supported by posts. A short time before, she had seen the chief on a state occasion, beneath a large white cotton shelter with gay stripes, and--presto! she had the answer, for that house had but a single post. "Umbrella," she answered triumphantly, but still there was a look of perplexity on most of the faces, for the country article was made of bamboo, and was worn upon the head like a hat. However, as soon as reference was made to the one which the chief had, the matter was plain, and the conundrum was recognized as a good one to try on the uninstructed at the first opportunity.

               Mammy Mamenah was making a mat out of palm fibre variously colored, but her mind had been as active as her fingers, and now she held the interest riveted upon her by:

               "One man get t'ree slave; ef one gone, two no able fo' work."

               The three fire-stones for the support of the rice-pot were not far off, and the sight of them suggested the solution to another woman, who then, reminded of her afternoon's task of broom-making, said:

               "One man get plenty slave, he tie dem 'pon one rope, he hang dem up."

               The children had all been used to gathering coarse, stiff grass, arranging it symmetrically, and tying it at the larger end, to form a broom, so they felt that the mental gymnastics had reached a point where they could participate. They had curled up in one corner of the room, to avoid the sharp tones, and the cuffs on the head that would follow if they disturbed their elders. Over the spot where they sat, the thatch was performing an expected part of its function, leaking, and perhaps the falling drops suggested: "Water hang."

               The adults were slow in answering, but the shining black Foday very proudly responded, "Dat nar orange."

               "Water 'tan' up, water grow," suggested by the previous answer, and propounded by Konah, was at once declared to be sugar-cane; for while the conundrums were new to some, they were current, and many knew their solutions.

               "Two man bin close togedder, but dey nebber see each odder," was offered by the young man from Freetown, who thought that he was giving these rustics another puzzle, but he was much chagrined when "Two yi," came in a lusty chorus from the boys' corner, followed by a shout of derisive laughter. The answer "Two yi," suggested the next conundrum: "Two man wid ribber middle dem," and likewise suggested the response: "Two yi en nose," which came promptly.

               "Me daddy buil' ho'se, soso (entirely) windah," was a good description of a fish-net which they had this very day seen woven by a man in the barri, [2] and consequently the answer was not long delayed.

               "One t'ing, yo' walk 'pon um, but he nebber move." There was a moment of thought, broken by Konah's words: "Dat nar de groun'; but ef we tell Chameleon he no go believe we, because he t'ink say he one big pusson, he able fo' bus' de groun', broke um; dat make he duh mas' (tread) um soffle w'en he walker. Chameleon, wey leelee so!"

               Sobah now introduced a slight change in the mental bill of fare.

               "Hill," he announced, when there was a pause in the talk that threatened to be prolonged.

               The interest of the company had begun to lag, but was quickened at once by this announcement. A hill requires effort in the ascent, and the term as used by Sobah was readily understood to signify a short story presenting a mental problem for solution, and leaving the question open for the hearers to exercise their ingenuity, and was a sort of challenge to find the solution.

               "How?" was shouted back by the listeners, demanding to have the story with its proposition stated.



[1] "Wey t'ing dat?" i.e. What (thing) is that?

[2] A barreh is a public meeting-place. A town has one or more, according to the population. It consists of a mud floor surrounded by a wall two or three feet high, and covered by a projecting grass or palm thatch. It is absolutely devoid of furnishings, unless there may be a hammock, or one or two bamboo stools, occasionally a crude chair, made of peculiarly forked sticks.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Children of Nature
Tale Author/Editor: Cronise, Florence M. & Ward, Henry W.
Book Title: Cunnie Rabbit, Mr. Spider and the Other Beef: West African Folk Tales
Book Author/Editor: Cronise, Florence M. & Ward, Henry W.
Publisher: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1903
Country of Origin: Sierra Leone
Classification: unclassified

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