"Matengo Folktales is an excellent, inexpensive, and reliable collection of tales told in an oral context. I have ordered it myself for a course in African oral literature. Casual and serious readers will benefit from what the book has to offer. Mbele's approachable and concise style of commentary is informative and convincing. This deceptively modest work is an admirable contribution to the literature on African oral narrative traditions."
Professor Robert Cancel, The Literary Griot.
"The tales themselves are entertaining.... Mbele's commentaries, many of which are longer than the tales they discuss, analyze literary devices such as conflict, characterization, and theme to produce close readings that would please any literature teacher."
Professor Cynthia Ward, Marvels and Tales.
Book ID 693
Mbele,Joseph L. Matengo Folktales, 1999
For more than a hundred years, people have collected and published African folktales and
other folklore in various journals and books. Sometimes they have published these
materials in the original language, with or without translations into a European language,
and sometimes they have published only the translations. This work is continuing.
However, there are still many African societies whose tales have not been recorded and
published. From some societies we have only a small selection of tales, or songs, or some
other form of folklore. There is thus still much work to be done.
The tales in this collection come from the Matengo, who live in southern Tanzania, East
Africa, on the eastern side of Lake Nyasa. They inhabit a mountainous region, between
5000 and 6000 feet above sea level. The land is cool for much of the year, and quite cold
from April to July. The Matengo are hard working peasants; they grow coffee, maize,
beans, peas, wheat, potatoes, pumpkins, cassava, and a few other crops, including a wide
variety of fruits. Each household also tends to have some cattle, pigs, chickens, goats, and
The tales and other folklore of the Matengo have not been recorded as extensively as
those of other ethnic groups. The earliest known recording of Matengo tales was done by
Catholic missionaries. It is possible that some of what they recorded is still in manuscript
form in the missionary archives in Europe, but in 1908 Fr. Johannes P. Häfliger became
the first person to publish Matengo Folktales.
Although there are many published collections of African folktales, there are not many
studies of these folktales suitable for the average reader between high school and college.
There is not yet a tradition of teaching and studying folktales. One of the causes for this is
the lack of critical works on folktales suitable for the beginning student. This lack, in
turn, has continued to reinforce the belief that folktales are not a subject worthy of serious
In writing this book, I have sought to share some thoughts about the nature of Matengo
folktales. I invite you to think about what I say and about the tales; for these tales
challenge us to think and explore themes and structures, just as literature does.
I recorded these tales in the early seventies with a cassette recorder. I did not then have
professional training in folklore fieldwork. I was then developing a keen interest in
folklore, especially folktales. It was only in later years that I got a better sense of how
folklore fieldwork is done and documented.
"Hare and the Great Drought," "How Hare Helped Civet," and "What Hare Did To Lion
and Hyena" were told by my late father, Mzee Leodgar Mbele, in our home at Lituru
Village, with my mother, brothers and sisters as the audience. "Hare, Civet and Antelope"
and "The Tale of Two Women" were told by my childhood friend Joseph Ndunguru, also
of Lituru. Both of us were about twenty years old at the time. "The Tale of an Uncle and
his Nephew" was told to me by my late brother, Kajanuka, of Mbinga, then in his mid-
teens. He was visiting us at Lituru, and he told the tale there in my small bachelor house.
The "Tale of Nokamboka" was told by Mrs. Kangologo of Lituru, at her house. She was a
woman in her late twenties or early thirties. Her mother-in-law, her children, her
neighbours' children, my friend Joseph Ndunguru, and I were present.
In the summer of 1977, I went to Litembo Primary school, in my home district of
Mbinga, southern Tanzania, to collect folktales. I was able to get a number of pupils to
tell tales. To ensure that the pupils would feel free and relaxed, I allowed them to go into
a room all by themselves to tell the tales, recording them into my cassette recorder. I did
not then realize that this prevented me from observing who was telling which tale and
how. At that point, my own understanding of folklore fieldwork was rather rudimentary.
But this is how I collected three tales in this collection: "Katigija," "Hawk and Crow,"
and "The Monster in the Rice Field." They were all told by school girls in the company of
other school girls and boys. The other tales that were told on that occasion are not
included here. I hope to translate them at a future date.
This book is not for specialists. It seeks to provide an introduction to Matengo Folktales,
using English translations of those tales. I hope to present a selection of Matengo tales in
a proper scholarly format in the future.
Translating oral tales presents many problems. It is impossible to translate accurately
what is expressed in a given language. There will always be differences between the
original and the translation. The problem becomes more serious when the two languages
are as far apart as Matengo and English, representing two very different cultures.
This problem is due not only to the fact that words in one language may not have
equivalents in the other language. There is also the problem that sounds that have
meaning in Matengo may not have meanings in English. There are also ideophones,
which cannot be translated. One example that I find interesting, whenever I think about
these problems, is the way different cultures represent the crowing of a cock. In English,
the cock is supposed to crow: "Cock-a-doodle doo!" In Matengo, it is "Ngou ka le kye
ng'oo!" Every language has its own rendering of this very well know phenomenon. When
translating a Matengo folktale into English, I prefer keeping the Matengo form of such
phenomena rather than the English form.
Matengo, like most languages of Tanzania, is not a written language. We do not have a
standardized system for representing its sounds. This language has vowel sounds which
do not exist in other African languages like Swahili. These required special symbols.
Two sounds in particular need special attention. I have rendered them as "ou" and "ei,"
that are similar to the sounds in the English words "cope" and "cape," respectively.
Each tale in this book is accompanied by my comments. These comments are not meant
to represent the way the Matengo interpret these tales, nor are they meant to convey what
these tales may have meant at any time in their course of their existence. The comments
are merely my personal response to the tales, my thoughts, and my impressions as I
follow the tales. They are neither comprehensive nor final. There are many other things
that I could have said about the form, content, and functions of these tales. You can and
should be able to say a lot of things about these tales which I have omitted.
Some of the tales in this collection have been published. "The Story of an Uncle and His
Nephew" appeared in Umma, the Journal of the Department of Literature, University of
Dar es Salaam, vol. 5, 2 (1975), 92-96; "What Hare Did to Lion and Hyena" appeared in
Umma, Vol. 6, 1 (1976), 80-82; "How Hare Helped Civet" was first published in
Earthwatch, July/August (1993), 14-15.
In the course of my research, I received financial assistance from the Research and
Publications Committee of the University of Dar es Salaam, and the German Academic
Exchange Service (DAAD), which I gratefully acknowledge. I also wish to thank
Professor Tonya Huber-Bowen of the University of Kansas, for taking an interest in some
of the trickster tales in this collection and using them in her classes. My own students at
St. Olaf College also inspired me by their response to the trickster tales I gave them to
read in my Hero and Trickster course. I wish to acknowledge with much gratitude the
assistance and hospitalily granted to me by the Matengo people. I have fond memories of
the evenings when my late father, Mzee Leodgar Mbele, told us stories. I dedicate this
book to him.