Saturday, November 16, 2013

Gabon: Contes du Gabon/Tales from Gabon (French edition)

I last used French regularly circa 1990. This project seemed like a chance to reinvigorate some languishing skills. As it happens, my choice of this book in French coincided with media announcements that bilingualism delays the onset of ...oh, you know, that disease that affects your memory....

Gabon is in western Africa, just south of the equator. It is forested near the coast then rises to an upland area and has savannah in the eastern and southern portions. The site I consulted for geographical details says the country is a little smaller in area than the U.S. state of Colorado. In looking for images for this post, I decided I need to practice some eco-tourism and visit someday (although I'd have to avoid the bush-meat trade - but that is a different issue).

The tales in the book, said to be based on Gabonais folklore, have been adapted by French and Gabonais teachers for use in French language instruction in Gabon. This particular copy of the book belonged to a middle school in Libreville, the nation's capital, although the copy came to me from a seller in Paris that I found through

Most of the tales follow the format of an Aesop's fable, with talking animals who interact and then present a moral lesson. There are genies and some magical transformations.  I cannot tell if the Aesop's form is original to the stories or adopted for classroom use. I'd love to hear from anyone who might be familiar with some of these stories before their translation into a school text.

In the stories, the animal actors range from gorilla and elephant to python and a kind of bird with a long tail. The moral lessons are elegant.  In one, a boy has caused havoc in the jungle; he calls himself the hurricane. The animals decide to teach him a lesson, and while the elephant fails through brute strenth, the clever tortoise uses a little guile. She (tortoise is a feminine noun in French) offers the boy palm wine then, when his head is spinning, tells him to climb aboard for a ride home. She tells the boy to place his hand in the small space between her shell and body, so he will stay on. Then she retreats into her shell and the boy is trapped. When the youth calls out for help, none of the animals will go to his aid because he has been so destructive of their forest home. The message is "Without friendship, even the strongest will fail."

A particularly poignant tale is about a young mother, with a baby still in arms. The woman has trouble cultivating her garden because the baby is fussy. A female gorilla speaks to the woman and offers to cuddle the baby, telling the maman that she must keep it a secret. Well, the woman tells her husband, and the consequences are tragic.  The lesson is that keeping secrets is vital. To that, I would add that thoughtless use of firearms is a really bad idea.

The tale of the green snake echoes some of the story of Diata from Mali. A king has two wives and favors one. That wife's son is lame. The other wife is jealous and spiteful. One day when drawing water, the favored wife discovers a green snake in her calabash. The snake seems to be communicating to her with its eyes: Trust me. So, she carries it back to the village. There, others are frightened by the snake and want to kill it but she says, "no, stop."  The snake then pierces the skin of her son. By not stopping the snake, the young mother performed the one act that would break a spell and the snake becomes a genie who can heal her son's lameness.

There are other French-language books of tales for parts of Africa once colonized by France - Mozambique, Benin, Togo - and regions of the French "DOM-TOM" such as the Ile de Réunion, Guadaloupe, Martinique and elsewhere (DOM-TOM is Départements d'Outre Mer et Territoires d'Outre Mer, or overseas states and territories).  Maybe my memory will survive 4.5 years longer if I collect some of those as part of this project. I found I really enjoyed trying out my 6th-grade French!

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