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Tanzania -- Folklore

Tanzania has a very rich, diverse, and sophisticated folklore. Each ethnic group has a store of myths, legends, folk tales, riddles, proverbs, and sayings that embody culture and tradition and are an important element in Tanzanian cultural heritage.

Storytelling is tremendously important in African societies, serving a far more diverse purpose than simply entertainment. It teaches lessons of religion, morals, history, roles, and societal codes. It builds strong bonds among generations and helps people share experiences and ideas. Legends tell of cultural heroes and important ancestors who were intelligent, courageous and generous. Young people learn about these illustrious ancestors through story telling. Among the Bahaya, the young groom researches his family history that has been preserved and passed down through legends and chooses an important ancestor that he will try to emulate and that will be his role model. In a very real sense, these ancestors participate and influence the lives of people today. Heroes also include ritual specialists, not just political heroes. Among the Maasai, for example, there is a traditional healer and ritual expert who is an important character in legends. The Chagga, who live on the slopes of Mt. Kilamanjero tell many stories about the mountain; one of them is the story of Kibo and Mawenzi, the names of the two peaks. Kibo was very careful with her food while Mawenzi was a spendthrift and did not worry about storing and saving food for lean times. When she did not have enough to eat she would visit her sister Kibo and Kibo would always feed her. After three days in a row of Mawenzi coming over to beg for food, Kibo in anger hit her on the back with a spoon, this explains Mawenzi's rugged appearance today.

Peter Seitel has collected many folk tales among the Haya and Thomas Beidelman has conducted a lot of research among the Kaguru. Seitel shows how there is a standard opening formula before a narrative is told. The audience says, "See so that we may see", before the start of a folk tale. Folk tales also recount the exploits of tricksters such as Hare and Tortoise. Thomas Beidelman paid close attention to the Kaguru trickster Rabbit. In one folk tale Hyena and Rabbit agree to kill their mothers and sell their flesh in order to survive a famine. While Hyena kills his mother, the Rabbit repents and hides his mother until the Hyena dies of hunger. Beidelman argues that this tale represents problems of authority between categories of men in a Kaguru matrilineal clan. Rabbit represent a junior male and Hyena a senior. This tale illustrates conflicts and divisions within a matrilineage. Those that transgress social boundaries of authority are considered witches just as the Hyena is symbolic of a witch.

Riddles are not just a form of entertainment, they play an important role in the social and cultural education of children. Riddles are also useful tools in children's cognitive development. They teach rules of behavior, explain and interpret natural phenomenon, and are a socially sanctioned avenue for questioning social taboos and restricted subjects. In the educational role, riddles provide a safe avenue for transmitting restricted information as well as intimate and vital knowledge. Among the Chagga, for example, elders explain that riddles are for entertainment, but they also point out that an adept at riddling acquires social respect and is considered a master in manipulating social knowledge.

Proverbs are also an important part of Tanzanian folklore. Proverbs are social phenomenon and as such they can be defined as a message coded by tradition and transmitted in order to evaluate and/or effect human behavior. Proverbs reveal key elements of a culture such as the position and influence of women, morality, what is considered appropriate behavior, and the importance of children. One of the most common uses for proverbs is on Kangas, large colorful cloths that women use to cover other clothes or to carry their young children on their backs. These proverbs are usually in Swahili and some examples include: Halahala mti na macho - Beware, a stick and your eyes! - This is a caution against impending danger. Pekepeke za jirani, hazinitoi ndani - Unwarranted spying by a neighbour does not take me out of my house -
Mtumai cha ndugu hufa masikini - He/she who relies on his/her relative's property, dies poor This proverbs encourages self-reliance. Mdhaniaye ndiye kumbe siye - The one whom you think is the right one is the wrong one - You are barking up the wrong tree. Tamu ya mua kifundo - Sugarcane is sweetest at the joint - What seems to be hard to achieve in real life is often times the best. Mso hili ana lile - A person missing this has that - There is no useless person. Likewise, there is no person that is absolutely perfect.

Mpaji ni Mungu - God is the Sustainer - Mostly used by the have-nots to console themselves.

For Further Reading:
Beidelman, Thomas O. 1961. Hyena and Rabbit: A Kaguru representation of matrilineal relations. Africa 31:61-74.
Seitel, Peter. 1980. See So That We May See: Performances and Interpretations of Traditional Tales from Tanzania. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press.

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