On The Importance of Folktales

A Jieng (Dinka) woman.

The Jieng have been traced back to 3000BC and are the main peoples of the South Sudan, living, mostly, as they always have done.

Two weeks ago, I found pictures by photo-journalists Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher (2005).

And the next day I happened upon the movie ‘His House’ based on Jieng folklore, particularly the Apeth, a night witch.


And then… I found the words of Sudanese statesman, Francis Mading Deng and Sudanese journalist, Jacob Jiel Akol, who (writing about Dinka folktales) eloquently and precisely expressed my own views on the importance of folktales.

‘Very few are aware of the fact that verbalising romanticism is not enough to save what is good in their culture. A great deal is being lost which could enrich the modern society…. When this loss is finally felt, the substance may no longer be there to find…. In a sense, recording folktales is not only a preservation of what was and what is, it is an attempt to enrich what will be.’
Dr. Francis Mading Deng in the preface to his book, Dinka Folktales (1974):

‘These myths and folktales belong to the (Jieng) people and are to them like the vast swamps, grassland and forests that straddle the White Nile and its tributaries they inhabit. They are part of the wealth on which they depend for survival, recreation and creativity. They are the roots of their culture.
…Like undeveloped land, unrecorded myths and folktales are in greater danger of being polluted, high jacked and/or stripped of much of their cultural value. 
Jacob Jiel Akol in his introduction to his book MYTHS & FOLKTALES: AFRICAN STORIES FROM THE DINKA OF SOUTH SUDAN (2007)

On reading these words I felt an instant connection, and wondered how many Dinka had (unfortunately?) found their way to the Caribbean.

The term “Dinka” was invented by outsiders and no one knows the origin of the word. The people now known as the Dinka actually call themselves Muonjang or Jieng. (Encyclopedia.com)

It is clear that folktales have a very real and immense role to play in understanding the world we have inherited, not just as historical souvenirs, but as a reflection of who we are now, and as signposts of who we will be tomorrow.

A young Jieng herder. Traditionally the Jieng have a pastoral lifestyle, herding long-horned cows.

As a teacher of English as a Second Language, my classes in London were made up of people from all over the world. People who had left their home countries for economic, political or personal reasons. But no matter their political views or social ranking, they all loved and missed their home cultures. Using folktales was my sure way of engaging them, firing their imaginations, and helping them to find a connection to each other and to the new country they had moved to.

Traditional Religion in South Sudan
Categories of spiritual powers are loose creative associations rather than dogmatic rules:
JAK -general name for spiritual powers, can have a good or evil influence
NHIALIC– Supreme being. (from the word Nhial = “above”, sky ). Creator God, sometimes
called “God of my grandfather”. personal and masculine, omnipotent, just, manifested through natural forces like thunder, brings blessing but also suffering.
GOD IS ONE, but there are lesser spirit forces created by him.
YEETH – important class of Jak, can be clan divinities or Free divinities
CLAN DIVINITIES – represented by a token or emblem, often an animal or plant (which then
will not be taken for food). Important for the clan identity.
FREE DIVINITIES – Powers related to people, manifest through dreams, trances, illnesses.
Effects shown in men, but from above.
PRIMAL ANCESTORS AND FREE DIVINITIES
The primal ancestors are ABUK (mother), DENG (son), GERANG (Father) – these are free divinities, still active spirits.
ABUK is associated with harvest, home, water, rivers
GERANG is associated with the affairs of men
DENG – natural phenomena – lightening, thunder, first rains. “Great Deng is Nhialic itself”.
Also a clan divinity.
WEI THE BREATH OF LIFE
A powerful bull has an abundance of WEI, the breath of life, which ascends to NHIALIC when released in sacrifice for the benefit of the community.
RELIGIOUS SPECIALISTS
BENY BITH are masters of the fishing spear. Hereditary specialists, have allegiance to Nhialic
and clan divinities. Seen as sources of wisdom, mediators between men and Nhialic, and
reconcilers. Good rather than destructive “priests”
TUT (sing TIET) – diviners or healers. have occult knowledge and power, can diagnose and
heal illness, and counteract witchcraft, usually for a fee. Some intercede to Nhialic, but most
to clan divinities.
RAN WAL – “person of medicine”, use fetish bundles for healing.
ACOR – diviner and magician
APETH – malign witch who possesses the evil eye and can inflict injury.
PROPHETS – small number of Beny Bith who have prophetic powers and are mouthpieces
for Nhialic.
BENY JOK – masters of JOK, clan divinities.
(Taken from pdf ‘African Traditional Religion in South Sudan’ by Ron Hart 12.4.2014, citing Mark Nickel)

Of course I also found much about the 20th Century conflicts, civil wars and poverty that blight the South Sudan. But, it seemed to me that the Jieng are like Caribbeans. Or, Caribbeans are like them. Despite genocidal attempts to destroy our existence and culture, we still retain a deep memory of an ancient understanding. And this understanding we express in our folktales.

One Dinka creation myth says humans were molded as clay figures and placed to mature in pots, and that Garang and Abuk were made out of the clay of Sudan.

As the descendents of displaced Africans, molded from the bitter-sweet clay of the Caribbean, all we really have are the ancient memories that speak through our folktales. And they are to us like the rivers and mangroves and coconut trees on the islands we inhabit. So we too must record, transcribe and publish our folktales, for our own wellbeing, and to confidently define our own identity, today and tomorrow.

Lisa Levi


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