In this video, storyteller Nana Yaa Asantewaa performs the story “Anansi’s Rescue from the River.” The Anansi tales are told by the Ashanti people of Ghana, West Africa, and have been passed down through the generations by oral tradition. In many of these stories, Anansi the spider is a trickster, but in this story we see another side of him—his wisdom.
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Anansi the spider stories originated with the Ashanti people of Ghana, West Africa. They are part of the rich oral tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa brought to the United States and the Caribbean with the Atlantic slave trade. Unable to bring anything else, enslaved Africans carried with them the stories, music, and language of their cultural history. Today, Anansi stories are told on both sides of the Atlantic.
Storyteller Nana Yaa Asantewaa, affectionately known as Mama Yaa, attributes this story to one of the great leaders of the Ashantis, Osei Tutu. She sometimes calls the spider hero Kwaku Anansi. “Kwaku” means Uncle, which is the name of a Wednesday-born male child. An uncle is very important in Ashanti culture: he is given the great responsibility of shaping the minds of his nieces and nephews. Though Anansi plays the trickster in most of his stories, in this story he plays the role of the wise uncle. “Anansi’s Rescue from the River” is a type of story that tries to answer some age-old question of why or how something came to be.
Although Mama Yaa is from Louisville, Ky., she has traveled through the West African countries of Togo, Ivory Coast, and Gambia and to the Virgin Islands. In her travels, she studied the African oral tradition and African culture. Village elders, the jali or the griots, tell the oral narratives for the education of the listeners. These elders have the responsibility of teaching their people values and leading them to understanding. The cow-tail switch is carried by the storyteller; Mama Yaa was given one by a storyteller in Togo as a symbol of being connected to common ancestry in the oral tradition. Like the village elders, Mama Yaa uses the cow-tail, musical instruments, and her voice as tools in her storytelling performances.
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