HAUSA FOLKLORE - 22 West African Tales and Stories - Unknown - ebook

22 West African folk and children's stories, translated and retold by R Sutherland-Rattray.This volume recounts 22 West African Hausa tales of the origin of the spider, of beautiful maidens, of how hartebeest came by the teardrops under their eyes, of witches, of doctors riding hyenas on pilgrimages, of the cause of thunder, The Gaawoo-tree and the maiden, and the first person who ever went mad and many more. Some of these tales are more fairy, or folk, than legend and others more folk than fairy. Each story imparts a clear message about right and wrong while showing what colour and variety lies hidden in the monotone of the Sahara. However, understanding the Hausa culture requires an understanding of Islam itself—a task that can seem near insurmountable when the student is from a Western background.When R. Sutherland Rattray joined the School of Anthropology at Exeter College, Oxford, he had already published  Chinyanja Folklore which documented the tales and customs of the Chinyanja of Central Africa. He was also quite familiar with several West African languages. Therefore on his transfer to West Africa learning about the Hausa language and culture became another string in his already full bow and it was only a matter of time before Hausa Folklore was published.33% of the profit from the sale of this book will be donated to the Westville Boys High Scholarship Fund enabling gifted but underprivileged South Africans obtain a first class High School education. So curl up with these unique West African stories from yesteryear with the knowledge that you have helped sponsor the education of an underprivileged African youth.As the Hausa say: “If you are not going to drink the pap, stop stirring it.” The pap is excellent—so drink! 

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Originally Published in 1913 at the Clarendon Press

* * * * * * *

Resurrected in 2009 by Abela Publishing, London

Hausa Folk-Lore

Typographical arrangement of this edition

© Abela Publishing 2009

This book may not be reproduced in its current format in any manner in any media, or transmitted by any means whatsoever, electronic, electrostatic, magnetic tape, or mechanical ( including photocopy, file or video recording, internet web sites, blogs, wikis, or any other information storage and retrieval system) except as permitted by law without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Abela Publishing,


United Kingdom


Print Edition

ISBN-13: 978-1-907256-16-5

email [email protected]


IT is our privilege at Oxford to be visited from time to time by officers of the Public Service, who modestly apply to us for instruction in Anthropology, more particularly as it bears on the history of the native races of the Empire. Not infrequently, however, they bring with them a previously acquired stock of anthropological information, such as almost takes away the breath of their duly constituted teachers. Thereupon the latter feel inclined to offer to change places; and, instead of teaching, to play the part of learners in regard to them.

Mr. Rattray furnishes a case in point. When he joined our School of Anthropology, he was already a past-master in all that relates to Chinyanja folk-lore, a subject on which he had actually published a useful book. Besides, though but recently transferred from British Central Africa to the West Coast, he was already at close grips with more than one of the languages current in that most polyglot of regions.

To claim, therefore, any share whatever in the origination of the present work would ill beseem one who merely offered sympathetic encouragement when Mr. Rattray proceeded to unfold his latest design. This design was to compass two ends at once-to obtain trustworthy linguistic material, and to explore the inner secrets of the Hausa mind-by giving a somewhat novel turn to an old and approved method.

As regards the collection of folk-lore, the approved method -in fact, the only method likely to satisfy the demands of science-is this: the observer must draft word-for-word reports of what he hears; and must further give the original words, when a foreign tongue is used, so that it may be possible independently to control the version.

Such a method, however, is more easily prescribed on paper than followed in the field. When the witness is illiterate-as commonly happens when there is genuine folklore to be gathered-its application proves exceedingly troublesome, for reasons that may readily be divined. A more or less formal dictation lesson has somehow to be given and received; and the several parties to it are only too apt to conspire each in his own way to render it a failure. Thus the story-teller, on the one hand, is probably shy and suspicious at the outset; is put out of his stride by the slightest interruption; and, becoming weary all too soon, tends to take short cuts, instead of following to the end the meandering path of the genuine tradition. The reporter, in his turn, is incessantly puzzled by the idiom, more especially since in such a context archaisms will be frequent; boggles over a pronunciation adapted to a monotonous sing-song delivery, or else, perhaps, to a dramatic mimicry carried on in several voices; and is likely to be steadily outpaced into the bargain.

Mr. Rattray's happy thought, then, was to remedy the practical shortcomings of the standard method by finding some one who, as it were, could dictate to himself; who, in other words, could successfully combine the characters of story-teller and reporter in his single person.

Moreover, as Mr. Rattray was not slow to perceive, the existing conditions of Hausa culture bring it about that the very type of helper needed is with due search to be procured. A maalam of the best class possesses all the literary skill which a knowledge of Arabic and of the Arabic script involves. None the less, he remains thoroughly in touch with his own people, a Hausa of the Hausas. In his hands, therefore, the traditional lore loses nothing of its authentic form and flavour. In short, the chance of literary manipulation may be ruled out.

Hence it would seem, if I may venture to say so, that the Government of the Gold Coast was no less wise than liberal in its policy when, by the grant of a subvention, it enabled Maalam Shaihu's work to be perpetuated in the fullest way, namely, not only by transliteration and translation, but likewise by actual reproduction in facsimile.

For, apart from its value as a masterpiece of artistic penmanship, this clear and, I understand, correct calligraphy must prove of great assistance to European students of Hausa to whose official lot it falls to wrestle with the productions of the native scribe. Then, conversely, if an educated Hausa aspire, as well he may, to learn the English language, together with the use of the English alphabet, he has here an invaluable means of comparing his own system of written symbols with ours. So much, then, for the more obvious advantages to be derived from a study of the md1am's actual manuscript. Over and above this, it proves of assistance to the philologist, as Mr. Rattray shows, by making clear certain finer points of grammar in regard to which evidence was hitherto lacking. Also, I suppose, simply as exemplifying the characteristic differences between the African and the classical modes of writing Arabic, it would not be without a certain scientific interest of its own.

Concerning the worth of the collected matter to the student of language and to the folk-lorist, I am hardly called upon to speak here, even were I competent to do so. Suffice it to say that, in respect of its contents, the book does not, of course, claim to stand alone. Yet, though a considerable library of Hausa literature is already in existence, it can well bear to be enriched by another volume such as this, which manages to dispense with the middle man of another mental type, and brings us directly into contact with the native intelligence as it witnesses to itself.

For the rest, I take it that the study of Hausa folk-lore offers fascinating problems to the student, if only because it calls for a critical sifting and weighing of the most drastic kind. The culture of the Hausas is not, in any sense of that much abused term, primitive. They have undergone interpenetration on the part of the Fulani and other alien stocks. They have more or less universally embraced Mohammedanism. They engage in trading expeditions which bring them into touch with most of the peoples of West Africa. Altogether, then, they are far away from that state of aboriginal innocence in which a strictly home grown tradition perpetuates itself by means of stories that almost amount to oral rites, so undeviating is their form, so solemn their import and associations.

On the contrary, the most characteristic feature of Hausa lore, when purged of its more obvious accretions from without, consists in the folk-tale; which some authorities go so far as to regard as typically reminiscent of some degenerated and desolemnized myth. Nor can it be denied that, for example, various survivals in this region of what may be termed in a broad sense totemism lend colour to the view that the animal story may have fallen from a far higher estate, if the criterion of value be the seriousness of the beliefs which it embodies. To the student of folk-lore origins, however, the material available here is at least as good as to be got nearer home; and, in so far as there still exist in Hausaland odd corners where customs lurk of a quite primeval appearance, the chance of discovering the laws of change involved is relatively the better.

Besides, quite apart from the purely scientific interest in origins, the reader will come to understand the thoughts and ways of the Hausas as they are now. Their notions about right and wrong, for instance, are indicated pretty clearly by many of the animal stories; seeing that each animal tends to represent a type of character calling either for admiration or detestation, and, being more or less humanized into the bargain, affords a nucleus round which a nascent moral philosophy can be observed to gather.

Even more directly, too, may we obtain insight into the present conditions of Hausa culture by studying what the maalam has to say about their history, manners, and arts. If brief, his notices are always business-like and to the point; while he plainly has access to information-for instance, in regard to bronze-casting by the cire perdue process -for which the European investigator might for the most part snap his fingers in vain.

But, as the Hausas say, 'If you are not going to drink the pap, stop stirring it.' The pap, I am convinced, is excellent. So let us drink without more ado.




ON first proceeding to West Africa (the Gold Coast), and on commencing a study of the Hausa language, the compiler of this work was struck by the comparatively high standard of education found among the Hausa MAALAMAI or scribes. Arabic characters are used by them, as by the Swahili of East and Central Africa; but, whereas any natives met with there possessed but a very superficial knowledge of the Arabic language or writing, the Hausas could boast of a legal, historical, and religious literature, which was to be found preserved by manuscripts. The MAALAMAI were everywhere the most respected and honoured members of the community. It was disappointing, however, at any rate for one who wished to study Hausa, to find that all their manuscripts were written not only in Arabic characters, but also in that language. This appears to be universally the case, even in Nigeria. The use of Arabic to-day among the educated Hausas corresponds to that of French and Latin in England in the middle ages.

The writer's intention was, as soon as he had acquired a sound colloquial knowledge of the Hausa language, to collect some of their folk-lore and traditions, taking down such information as was required verbatim, and translating afterwards into English. This plan he had adopted when collecting his Chinyanja folk-lore.

The advantage of such a system is that the original text will help the student of the language to appreciate its structure and idioms, in a way that the best grammars could hardly do. The translator will also be bound down thereby. There will thus be no room for embellishments or errors creeping in, as is liable to be the case when the investigator has had to rely on the vagaries of his cook, 'boy,' or other interpreter for his information. It follows that such a collection will be of more value from the anthropological standpoint. Indeed, of late years many collections of native folk-lore compiled according to this method have been called into being by the demand created by this new science of anthropology.

As is to be expected, there are not many persons who have the fortune-or misfortune-to spend four or five preliminary years in acquiring a knowledge of the language of the people whose traditions they hope to study; yet such a probation is very necessary, if the collection is to be of any real value to the anthropologist.

Stories and traditions collected through the medium of an interpreter are amusing, and might prove of interest in the nursery (though much would have to be omitted or toned down, as savage folk-lore is often coarse and vulgar according to our notions, and hardly fit pour les juenes filles); but for the student of anthropology such collections cannot be considered to possess much value.

The anthropological theorist, who is probably some learned professor at one or other of our great Universities, where he made a life-study of primitive customs and beliefs, has, in most cases, to rely for his data on the field-worker. He needs to feel perfectly convinced that the information on which he is seeking to base some far-reaching generalization is absolutely correct; and this can hardly be the case, however skilled, conscientious, or well trained the field-worker may be, if the latter be wholly ignorant of the language of the people from whom he is collecting his information.

Now the literary skill of the Hausas, already referred to, led the writer to depart somewhat from the modus operandi employed in his Chinyanja folk-lore, the subject-matter of which was taken down from the lips of the raconteur. For the present work the services of a learned MAALAM, by name MAALAM Shaihu, were secured. He himself wrote down, or translated from manuscripts in Arabic, such information as was required. Much of the work contained in the present volumes involved, first, a translation from Arabic into Hausa, secondly, a transliteration of the Hausa writing, and thirdly, a translation into English from the Hausa.

During the writer's 'tours' of service in West Africa, as also during his furloughs in England, this MAALAM, who was entirely ignorant of English, made a collection of many hundreds of sheets of manuscripts (1907-11).

In the meantime the present writer was making a study of the Hausa language and script, by way of securing the key to their transliteration and translation. He was fortunate, in the course of his official duties, in being stationed for some time at YEGI on the VOLTA river. YEGI lies on the main caravan route between Nigeria and Ashanti. Each month thousands of Hausas from all parts of Nigeria cross the river here, going to and from Nigeria with kola or cattle. Such a position enables a student, even better perhaps than if he were resident in Hausaland, to get into touch with Hausas from all parts of Nigeria. It was thus possible to select such stories or traditions as seemed most generally and widely known, and therefore likely to be of historical value on account of their antiquity.

The Hausa given in the text is that of Kano or Sokoto, where by general consent the purest dialect is spoken.

The Hausa Manuscript. The writing is throughout clear, correct, and legible. It has been written with the aya between most of the words to facilitate easy reading. Some of the specimens of Hausa writing that have been reproduced from time to time are obviously the work of illiterate Hausas, or at best are very carelessly written manuscripts, and as such afford little criterion of the best work of these people. The hasty scrawls, which, it is true, form the larger part of the existing manuscripts, in which vowel-signs are missed out and words run together, often cannot be deciphered by the Hausas, and sometimes not even by the writers themselves, unless they know the context or subject by heart. Such manuscripts are therefore worthless for scientific purposes. They cannot, for instance, serve to disclose those nice points of grammatical construction which the perusal of a carefully written manuscript will reveal, though they can hardly be noted in the spoken language.

The Transliteration. This has been given, letter by letter, word for word, line by line. Thus it is easy for the student to follow the original on the page opposite.

The Translation. As literal a translation as is consistent with making the subject-matter at all readable has been given throughout. It is primarily as a text-book for students of the language that this work is intended, and for such a literal translation will be of most use. The author would crave the pardon of the general reader for the baldness and utter sacrifice of the English idiom which such a style of translation must necessarily involve. The latter may, however, find here and there a certain touch of 'local colour' in the phraseology, which may compensate for its other obvious defects.

The value of Hausa writings. Hitherto, perhaps, it has not usually been deemed essential to know much about Hausa writing. (A slight knowledge of it is necessary, it is true, for the higher standard Government examination.) This work attempts to go somewhat fully into the subject of the writing and the signs used, in order to assist the student who desires a knowledge of the writing that will enable him to decipher manuscripts as apart from the printed type. The writer is convinced that a thorough knowledge of Hausa writing is essential for any advanced study of the language. Thus he has so far been rewarded for the time spent in the minute perusal of the manuscripts comprising the Hausa portion of this book by the further elucidation or confirmation therein of grammatical structures not perhaps wholly accepted as proved, and by the discovery of some new idioms which, to the best of his knowledge, had apparently escaped the vigilance of previous writers on this subject, or else had taxed their powers of explanation.

The length of vowels, which is so distinctly shown in the written word, does not hitherto appear to have had that attention paid to it that it undoubtedly deserves. Yet the length of a vowel may alter the meaning of a word entirely, e.g. guuda, guda; suuna, suna; gadoo, gado, and soon. Indeed, an educated MAALAM would consider a word as wrongly spelt whenever a long vowel was written where it should have been short, or vice versa. In Hausa writing such an error would amount not merely to the dropping of an accent, as in English, but to the omission of a letter. Moreover such a slip may lead to serious confusion, since the tense of a verb, or even, as has been seen, the entire sense of a word, may depend on the length assigned to the vowel.

The author of Hausa Notes