A Model Of African Oral Art





As part of oral traditional art, the riddle keeps the past, borrows from the present and creates something new for the future. Always alive and up to date, it entertains and instructs. There is a large literary production of riddles in the African culture, though not as large as that of legends, myths and fables. Many writers consider riddles one of the oldest games of the world. Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the great Burkinabe historian, wrote: “Just like other traditional oral literature – proverbs, stories, etc. – riddles, too, were part of the socializing system, of learning and of informal education. (…) Today, a formal system has been added in the guise of the schools brought in by colonialism.” The riddles guide the new generations to compare and confront, oppose and differentiate among various items. They stimulate the learning of the language, the meaning of nuances and of phrasal verbs. They hand down norms about daily life, work, soil cultivation and animal husbandry. They strengthen the social bonds among the ones who spend good time retelling them, foster the spirit of emulation and promote a keener observation of the universe and of the reality in which we live.

Riddles are often classified as “folklore” but, in fact, they present a specific vision of the world, of life and of social relations, especially during the initiation rites. Its function is to keep alive and to hand down the cultural heritage of the ethnic group. Riddles are a model of oral art. 


Imaginative power

Both telling and interpreting the riddles require a strong imaginative power. A riddle may have a multiple meaning and retell a page of history. A sample from the Oromo of Ethiopia: “Once upon a time, there was a chief called Obbo Mane. He realized that he was too old to continue to exercise power. He gathered the clan and offered a magnificent banquet. Then he posed a four-question riddle to the guests: 

Ω What is death without mourning?

Ω What is the use of shouting if nobody comes to help? 

Ω Who is loved, even though has done no good?

Ω Who is hated even though has done no wrong?”

Nobody seemed able to answer. However Banti, one of his sons, came forward and said: “Is it not sleep akin to death? While sleeping, one is likened to being dead; yet no mourning is done. The cock crows (cries), but nobody rushes to its help. A baby is cherished and kissed, even though he has not yet helped anyone. Nobody loves and values the company of the old, even though he has done nothing wrong to anybody.” Obbo Mane then asked the clan to acclaim Banti as the new chief, for the intelligence he had shown in solving the riddles.” 

Some are not so difficult or elaborated, but show the same imaginative power and require similar quick wits. Like those from the Galla, also from Ethiopia: 

Ω My herd has only one eye: do not set it up in the hut. – The fire, whose eye is the flame.

Ω During the day, under the man; during the night, over the man. – Guinea fowl. (At day time these birds roam freely pecking around the house; at night they roost under the roof of the house).

Ω Wherever it has gone, it has caught on; it has gone to the water and has failed. – The fire.

Ω Above the dead, below the living ones. – The earth.

Ω The one above is dead, the one below is dead, the one in between is still alive. – Somebody who sleeps between two hides.

Ω You do not catch it chasing it. It is here. Take it. – The sun. (Its light is everywhere).


The same imaginative ability is shown in some Swahili samples (Tanzania and Kenya):

Ω What it is that cannot be caught or brought? – The smoke.

Ω Wherever I go, it closely follows me. – The shadow.

Ω It keeps on setting off, but it never arrives. – The sun.

Ω My father’s suit is made of holes. – Fishing net.

Ω My son is crying in the forest. I hear him, but I do not see him. – The wind.

Ω When I face an enemy, I do know what to do. But facing this one, there is nothing I can do. – Incurable disease.


Some taboos

There are times and places when and where riddles are not to be used. According to the Bayake (DR of Congo), anyone challenging others with a puzzle at sunset risks either being affected by rickets or getting red hair, or becoming an orphan or getting lost in the forest. No riddles in the forest: there is the risk of not finding one’s way out. 

Among the Baganda (Uganda), the children who dare to pose a riddle before sunset, would stop growing. It is cheeky to take too many liberties with the grown-ups. Since it is mainly the children who compete in tongue-twister and in quick mnemonics, it is plausible that such prohibitions were imposed to prevent them from asking their elders awkward questions (disguised as quizzes, brain teasers, puzzles and riddles) during the day in the middle of noise and laughter, and to teach them never to raise their voice in front of the adults.

Whatever the prohibition, riddles are enjoyed by everybody, regardless of age and status. There are riddles retold since time immemorial and common to different ethnic groups. The Denka of Southern Sudan and many other pastoralist tribes like to tease the listeners with the following: Crossing a river with your cow and your wife, in the risk of drowning, what will you save? – The cow (With it, you can marry another woman). Others are not malicious at all, like this of the (Kikuyu, Kenya): I have children who keep on running after each other, without ever overtaking one another. – The spikes of a cart wheel. 


Like a snapshot

It is by the riddles, more than by the often heard and retold stories, that mnemonics and quickness of wits are exercised. Let’s try to answer this one:

Ω Three people stand near a river they have to ford. The first one, after a closer look around, crosses it. The second one looks at the riverbank and at the water, but does not cross it. The third one does not see the river and does not cross it. Who are the three? – The one who saw the river and crossed it was a woman. The one who saw the riverbank and the water but did not cross it is the child the mother carries on her shoulders. The one who has seen nothing is the baby the woman carries in her womb. 

“By telling riddles one learns difficult and unusual words and in jest makes use of the refined language of dialectics, needed to uphold an opinion and in the future to defend himself in public and in a court of law. (…) Trading riddles is one of the most popular games among the Baganda” (Fr. Mario Cisternino).

Fr. Placide Tempels, the Flemish Franciscan missionary famous for his book “Bantu Philosophy,” (the first philosophical synthesis of the basic principles of understanding the Bantu thought), published  in 1938 a collection of more than 1,500 riddles, gleaned at Lukonzolwa and Kilwa, on the western side of the lake Mwelu, from among the Bashila, Bazela, Bakatsha, Bakunda, four ethnic groups that speak a mixture of Kiluba and Kilemba. He listed them under particular categories: the African and the image he has of himself (his body and body needs); the house and the village (house works and household furniture, all the things to be found in the village); trade tools and other implements; the savannah, rivers, trees, animals, natural phenomena; customs (proverbs, traditional wisdom); the invisible world; anomalies and rhythmic riddles.

He remarked: “By riddles, stories and proverbs, the African unconsciously gives us a true faithful and authentic description of what he is and of the way he thinks of himself. Every riddle is a snapshot taken by the African eye. They are fragments of oral literature which introduce us into the mentality and the temperament of the people… its vision of the world, of life, of social relations, etc.”


Rhythm and harmony

Fr. Tempels and others classify, as “rhythmic,” the riddles which, taken word by word, do not offer any key for a possible answer. They are understood only by catching the harmony of the words (especially in the tonal languages of some Bantu groups of DR of Congo and of Mozambique, of the Efik and Ibibio of Nigeria, etc.) or the ambivalence and ambiguity of the terms that are put together only because they sound similarly or carry similar accents and tones. Kiluba samples: Kashibi mu saka. – moyanga bantumbi mikila (a small gourd on the roof). – The mice wash their tails in it. Conconkende’ conconconkendende. – Kibayo wa nkuvu nkasenduwa mikanda. Conconkende’ conconconkendende [onomatopeic sounds] – Nobody can shred the shield of the turtle-dove.

When it is asked why a certain solution is given to one or the other “rhythmic” riddle, the answer is almost always: “So it is… We know the answer, but not the meaning of the words.” Whereas the “rhythmic” riddles may be reduced to a mere pun, the enigma queries very important things, even life mysteries, and stimulates the pleasure of thinking and of finding deep truths.

Sebastian Long reaches conclusions similar to the ones of Fr. Temples after examining 150 riddles of the Moose of Burkina Faso. “The riddles of the Moose can be grouped into two types. The first challenges the shrewd, keen mind, able to understand what is at hand, what is hidden in the question under the terms that are given and the rhetorical figures that are used. The other one, on the contrary, relays the hidden message through the tonal assonance of the words at the end of the statement. They are very amusing, real “cheaters,” some of them describe socially improper acts of behavior (gluttony, greed, ungratefulness, bad manners), physical handicaps or psychic disorders of persons belonging to other groups or villages.” There are also the riddles made of unusual or onomatopoeic words, such as these from the Baganda: Ikipipiri kipipi – Billy goat. Karidiridimba – Fast walker.


A big diversity

Some riddles are not presented as questions, albeit implicitly, but as true statements of something the listener has to catch, interpret and locate in its proper context. W. R. Bascom writes in the “Journal of American Folklore”: “Only 4 out of 55 riddles of Western Africa are presented under the form of a question.” Anyhow, Temples warns us: “If we think we can classify the whole treasure of the African riddles into specific groups, we are wrong. The only thing we could be sure of is that classes are there and that riddles may be listed in one or the other. However, often they present characters related to various and different categories, so as to be listed into various groups”.

Some samples, more or less easy to classify: 

Ω My dishes turn around – If you are still hungry, go from house to house. 

Ω I hit everything and everybody with no exception, yet nobody sees me. What am I? – The wind.

Ω Where somebody gives him courage, the boy does not run away. – If an elder brother helps or protects him, the small boy dares to insult even a bigger boy than himself.

Ω Those who eat a crocodile, laugh. But when a crocodile eats a child, every one cries. –  Now you laugh, but mind you, you may come across something that will make you cry.


A song of enigmas 

The Kikuyu of Kenya insert the riddles in a carefully drawn poetic genre, called gicandi: a contest between two players-singers who throw a chain of strophes to each other bringing to life a true “poem of enigmas.” 

In the past, singers of gicandi, real minstrels, moved from a market place to another, performing in public, challenging competitors in a contest that would prove who knew more strophes and their meanings. The challenger presented a riddle and the opponent had to solve it. Then, in turn, he had to offer a new riddle. 

The challenge went on till one of the players failed to answer. The loser had to hand over his own “gicandi,” the musical instrument he used to mark the rhythm and accompany his singing. It was an empty, purposely prepared pumpkin; at the outside, it was illustrated with symbols and decorated with conches while, in the inside, pebbles and dry seeds were introduced to make sounds by banging the pumpkin against the wall and among themselves. The symbols engraved on the “gicandi” are part of a “mnemonic-pictorial” system: few stylized signs are there to call to mind an event, to remind the singer of the topic and of the verses of his song. Often, the connection between the “riddle” and its “answer” is quite perplexing.

Some strophes taken from “Ndai na Gicandi – Kikuyu enigmas” by V. Merlo: 

Ω Since I have started singing with you, send your hatchet to the forest; mine I have sent it long ago to cut firewood, to burn undue harsh disagreements. The one who unduly contrasts the other, may perish by the red hot knife – Better to perish by the hot knife than to quarrel about the interpretation. 

Ω Where have you washed the baby, since all the springs and brooks are dry? – I have washed him in dew.

Ω I am enclosed in a belly from which I cannot come out. Please take me out so as not to choke. One falls in a hidden trap and is helped out – The one that extracts it is the bee sucking the nectar from the flower. The one that pulls it out is the sheep giving birth to a lamb.

Ω Open up and let me come out since I have remained closed in a hut with a door made of “muiri” wood –The one who is to open up is the pregnant woman who has to deliver a baby.

Ω This woman is a “friend,” because she has “entertained” and has spent the night out. Have you beaten or insulted her? – The “friend” is the widow, who entertains because she feels lonely. She is insulted for having passed the night out. 

Ω The land stinks awfully. What has to be done? – The stench announces the plague. The elders are to be called in to appease God and restore good health. 

Ω The heron carries a flock of birds on its back. Have you ever seen it? If not, tell me. If yes, tell me – The heron is the “gicandi.” The flock is a bevy of stars painted on it. 


Variations of a theme

From the old enigma of the Sphinx to the road as “a coffin.” Just like the proverbs, so the riddles are to be found, almost in the same terms, among cultures that are different and removed from each other.

Consider this riddle told by the Bayaka of DR of Congo: What is it that in the morning walks on four legs, at midday on two, and at evening on three? – Man: as a baby, as an adult, as an elderly. It is exactly the “enigma of the Sphinx,” the mythical winged beast, with the head of a woman and the body of a lion perched on the edge of a ravine at the outskirts of the city of Tebes. Every passerby had to answer it. The one who failed either was strangled or thrown down the ravine. 

Oedipus volunteered to answer the Sphinx’s riddle: “What is it that has voice and walks on four legs in the morning on two at midday and on three at evening?” He answered: “It is a man: he crawls on four legs in his infancy, walks straight later as an adult and limps with the help of a stick in his old age.” The Sphinx, beaten, in a fit of rage hurled herself from the precipice and died. The enigma is quoted by the Greek historian Apollodorus in his book “Biblioteca.” In addition to the Greek world, this enigma seems to be present, in a way or another, in many other cultures: among the Mongols of Selenga, in Guascogne, and among several ethnic groups of Central and Eastern Africa. Donald Fraser, (“Winning a Primitive People” London 1914, pg. 171), found it in common use among the Oromo and Galla of Ethiopia. 

The Nigerian literature Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka, in his poem “Last Turning” uses a rather obscure image. He invites the readers to think of life as a riddle whose solution is found in “death.” He writes: “A traditional Yoruba riddle asks: “What is the great coffin able to contain 1,400 corpses?” The answer is: “The road” seen as a long coffin, able to accommodate many bodies in a row.” The riddle is prompted by the long line of people who walk along Yoruba country roads, between six and eight o’clock in the morning and five and six in the afternoon, when the farmers go to and come back from the fields. Even the pedestrian congested traffic may present the poet with riddles to decipher.  


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