ARTICLE: Argenti on Folktales and Slavery in Cameroon

Thomas Clarkson, Letters on the slave-trade, and the state of the natives in those parts of Africa, . . . contiguous to Fort St. Louis and Goree (London, 1791), plate 2, facing p. 36, figs. 1-5. (Copy in Library Company of Philadelphia) as shown on, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

Argenti, Nicolas. “Things That Don’t Come by the Road: Folktales, Fosterage, and Memories of Slavery in the Cameroon Grassfields.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52, no. 02 (2010): 224-254.

Oku adults have a straightforward rationalization for the existence of folktales: the frightening cautionary tales of the child-eating monster K∂ηgaaηgu serve to warn children not to go to the fields or to stray too far from the house without their parents. But this rationalization is belied by the fact that adults in this chiefdom of the Cameroon Grassfields do not tell folktales to children. Rather, folktales are most often told by children amongst each other, with no adult involvement, and they are consequently learned by younger children from older ones. This is an unusual situation in West Africa, where the norm is for adults to tell folktales to children. For all we know, adult-to-child storytelling may have been the normal practice in the Grassfields in the past, but if it ever was, this practice has now passed into desuetude, and today adults look with mild scorn on folktales (f∂ngaanen, ∂mgaanen pl.) and generally remain aloof during storytelling sessions. Storytelling in the Grassfields is therefore a child-structured form of play in Schwartzman’s (1978) sense: it is an activity mediated by children without adult input. Prior to the introduction of schooling in the Grassfields, children used to be made to guard the crops against birds and monkeys, an activity that left them to their own devices in the fields for long periods of the day (Argenti 2001; see also Fortes 1938; Raum 1940). In some cases, children actually slept in small shelters that they built in the fields, and they would consequently stay away from their homes and adult supervision for days at a time. It was in this context, away from the censorious gaze of adults, that children’s illicit masking activities developed (Argenti 2001). It may also be in this context that children were able to indulge in prolonged bouts of storytelling without fear of reproof by adults, in whose eyes children should be seen but not heard. Today, children no longer guard the fields, and they have therefore taken to telling their folktales at home.

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