Published Liberian tales are often organized by ethnic group or “tribe.” But cutting across ethnicity are genres and other patterns that run through these stories. These commonalities transcend linguistic and even national boundaries.
Five genres are presented here: Historical Accounts, Why Things Are the Way They Are, Trickster Tales, Fantasy and Wonder Tales, Dilemma Stories, and Morality Tales. These genres are determined by a combination of literary features, such as tone, characters and perspective of author to audience.
These genres may be found among linguistically and ethnically divergent groups, not only in Liberia, but throughout West Africa and parts of its Diaspora in the New World.
To cite just one example, the trickster spider is known to the Kpelle as NaaSi and to the Ashanti as well as Jamaicans as Anansi, a similarity that is too close to be coincidental. Such similarities suggest the people of West Africa share certain fundamental cultural elements, rooted perhaps in earlier long-distance networks of communication and trade.
Some themes and genres in these tales converge with certain underlying cleavages in the societies that produced them. These include cleavages between men and women over the sexual division of tasks, between “land-owning” clans and “strangers,” between hunters and other specialists on the one hand and farmers on the other, and between free people and unfree laborers.
Tensions between these groups often supply the themes and sub-texts of these tales. Although the concerns of women and other s occasionally seep through, these tales generally present the perspective of free male specialists who dominated rural Liberian societies. For example, the various historical accounts often illuminate inadvertently, through their emphatic claims and strategic silences, that rival claims existed to political and economic power.
The dilemma tale is an unusual form of orally presented prose which leaves the listeners with a choice among alternatives. Liberia is one area of Africa, along with Zaire and Sierra Leone, where dilemma tales are especially popular.
These tales come in two varieties. One type requires the audience to judge the relative greed or skill of characters or the magical powers of those who have performed fantastic feats.
The other, more complex, asks listeners to distinguish among similar moral or legal choices. These tales provide an especially useful contrast to television artifacts since they are permeated with moral ambivalence, as are many other genres of African tales.
While the dilemma tale was much more common among Mande-speakers — the Vai and Kpelle in particular, this association might have been due to a range of existential features of these societies other than the ethnicity of their producers.
In time, the study of Liberia’s oral traditions might shed some light on local antecedents of various journalistic and oratory practices. It could also help lay the basis for the emergence a truly national literature. At the very least, I hope you find delight in reading and retelling these treasures of the ages.