Wednesday, September 22, 2010

African Cinderella

First of all, in googling images for this post, I came across images for a Ghanaian play version of Cinderella. A writeup claims,

"The story of the girl who has lost her mother and ends up in a step-family was originally an African saga that the Brothers Grimm brought to Europe and Walt Disney brought to the US. African Cinderella keeps to the storyline but the Cinderella we meet is a young Ghanaian girl. Despite the harsh environment she encounters in her new family, she manages to preserve her integrity and her pride, and demands that those she meets along the way view her as a human being and an equal, even if they happen to be an Ashanti prince!

The parallels with the day-to-day lives of young Ghanaian girls are striking. The theme – growing up in a step-family – is a familiar one to many girls in Ghana, not least because like many other parts of Africa the country has been hard hit by HIV/AIDS. In this connection, theater is a powerful and highly effective means of making people more aware of children’s rights. The impact is immediate.

“When you watch this production with a thousand kids and hear them shouting things like ‘No-one’s allowed to hit me! You can’t treat me badly just because you’re a grown-up! I can go to the police and do something about it!’ it really makes you believe that theater makes a difference,” says Anders Öhrn."

That first paragraph is full of misinformation. Cinderella is not originally an African saga, unless they are referring to the fact that it may have originated in Egypt. The Grimm brothers did not "bring it to Europe-" it was in Asia long before, and probably circulated in European oral tales long before Perrault penned his famous version, which was before the Grimms. Likewise, Disney did not "bring it to America," as if no one in America had heard of the classic tales before Disney made his film versions (although, nowdays, they're usually the only versions people know.)

But the second two paragraphs are really moving.

ANYway, I was going to share what I learned from William Bascom's Cinderella in Africa essay from "Cinderella: A Casebook." Now, the problem with African folklore is that there's no way to tell how much and to what extent the folktales have already been influenced by Western tales. Not surprisingly, Cinderella-type tales are more similar to our Western Cinderella in countries closer to Europe. Bascom shares a tale from northern Nigeria called "The Maiden, the Frog, and the Chief's Son."

In this tale, a man lived with two wives, each who had a daughter. One he favored. The wife he didn't love as much died, and he allowed his favorite wife to mistreat her stepdaughter. She did all the hard work but was not allowed to eat the food she made, so she often ate at her brother's house.

One day a frog spoke to her and wished to repay her for her kindness. So on the day of a Festival, he picked her up and swallowed her, and spit her back out. The first time she was crooked, so he spit her out again and she was straight. He vomited out clothes and jewelry, which she wore to the dance. The frog instructed her to leave one gold shoe at the Festival and keep her silver one. At the Festival, the chief's son noticed her and told her to sit on the couch, and they talked all evening. Eventually she said she must go, but he found her shoe. When the maid got back, the frog swallowed and spat her out again and she was in rags as before.

(Book version of Cinderella available at Nubian Gifts)

Meanwhile the chief's son tried the gold shoe on every maid, and it fit none of them. Finally someone remembered the mistreated slave girl, and it fit her, and she was married to the chief's son. The new wife went back to the frog and thanked him, and he vomited up many gifts for her. He also instructed her to tell her stepsister, should she ever visit, to do rude things to the chief's other wives, concubines, and to the chief himself, whereas he instructed the kind girl to great each with gifts and respect. She obeys, and the stepsister is deceived into making the household into enemies. For this, she is chopped up and the pieces taken back to her home. The wife asked the frog for one more gift-that the frogs all live in a well by her home. Her husband had it built for her.

Bascom gives us an idea of which elements were taken directly from Europe by providing a list of elements found in previous collections of folklore from Africa, verses those not found at all. Granted, the previous collections were not exhaustive, but still more likely to be authentically African. Though the elements of cruel stepmother and stepdaughter heroine seems to be universal, as well as lowly heroine marries prince, these elements are not found in the earlier collections: abused youngest daughter, cruel stepsister, hearth abode of unpromising hero, supernatural helpers, clothes produced by magic, golden shoes, glass shoes, silver shoes, carriage from pumpkin, magic animal supplying treasure, prince that is enamored with heroine when seeing her at a ball, taboo of staying too long at a ball, or false bride's mutilated feet. However, the element of a hero being identified by a boot test seems to be found several times in African folklore.