How fables bring strong messages home

Do you remember, as a child,  being read the story of Hanzel and Gretel?  It frightened the life out of me! Most “fairy” tales were truly scary (I had nightmares). We also sang ring a ring of roses, holding hands and skipping in a circle, little knowing that 400 years before, this little song was the story of the plague. Hoping that a nosegay of flowers and herbs would keep these dreadful “humours” away and prevent them from dying, the children sang the song – but everyone fell down dead anyway.

No matter what our cultural background, we all grew up with fables and tales that imparted truths, morals or caution. In Africa, this was a strong verbal message, passed from generation to generation and was adapted by different tribes. African fables were intended to be instructive, using humour and colour and imagination to drive home truths about life, sometimes conveyed in music and dance as well as the spoken word.

In some cultures, like the Swazi one, animals are given human attributes to make them more personal to the listener, enabling them to identify characteristics in the animals that exist within themselves; which, in turn, makes the conveying of a lesson or moral far easier and more successful. Remember the trickster, Brer Rabbit? He originated in African folklore and his tales were carried by slaves to America.

Brer Rabbit

Just a few years ago, UNESCO turned to folklore to communicate difficult contemporary problems like AIDS and child abuse in Swaziland, which communities did not know how to address.

Sexual abuse of children, which is a horror on its own, is also a key issue that fuels the continuing spread of the HI virus. UNESCO wanted to put in place a group of protectors at the neighbourhood level. Children would know to turn to them and they would tell them how to recognise dangers, and what to do.

As the first protectors went into rural areas to work with children, the Swazi kids came up with a name for them – Mahlombe Lekukhalela – which means “shoulder to cry on”.

How do outsiders – the protectors – come into a community, to families, and start talking about the issue of sexual abuse? It’s very sensitive. UNESCO realised they couldn’t do it in the villages the way it’s done in the cities, where the approach is very technical using the language of psychology and sociology. So they hit upon the idea of using folktales, taking the African traditional approach to put across these ideas.

In Swaziland, a story entitled ‘How the Children of Chakijane Put an End to Brother Snake’s Abuse’ was first rehearsed and performed by professional actors for church groups that were working with UNICEF on a ‘Say Yes to Children’ campaign. Then it was acted by children themselves.

The story is shockingly direct, but because the characters are animals, audiences accept the fable.


Brother Snake is a deceitful visitor from the city, who convinces Chakijane, a rock rabbit, that taking his 12 year-old daughter to bed is perfectly acceptable. The tale ends in tragedy, and even the beheading of the snake by the villagers, who are all other animals from the African menagerie, does not negate the sadness of a girl’s death and a father’s banishment.

There is a lot of humour in the play, but at the end, the audience is devastated.
When the play is performed in communities, a discussion takes place at the end of the performance followed by an election where the neighbourhood chooses who their protector will be.

Well done, UNICEF. This is something needed in communities around the world. Perhaps it’s time we all brought back the tales and fables of old!