Into the Woods

Once upon a time, in a town far away, there lived a boy named Kwame, his sister, Ama, their mother and father, a nanny called Yaa, a cook called Yaro, and two cats who were much too wild to have names and who came and went as they pleased. Every evening, after Yaro had made them a delicious supper, Yaa would help the little boy and his sister to bathe and brush their teeth. Then, on some special evenings, after the children had said good night to the cats, they settled at their father’s feet in the drawing room and waited for him to tell them a story.

When he began with the magical words “Ananse says”—Kwaku Ananse being the name of a very mischievous spider—the children knew he was going to tell them one of the tales his granny had told him, when he was a little boy in the same town, many years before. Because that was how the stories began, they were called “Ananse stories.” And when their father said those magical words, the children knew they had to reply “se sé, se soåø,” the nonsense words that people always said when someone began to tell an Ananse story. The children knew that just because a story was told by Kwaku Ananse, it didn’t have to be about that spider and his tricks. But they were happy when it was.

The children’s mother came from a different, faraway country—and how their parents met is another story, a very romantic one—and so the tales she heard as a girl were different stories. Her stories were not about Kwaku Ananse and his friends and foes, but about Little Red Riding Hood, and Rumpelstiltskin, and Sleeping Beauty, and they came in beautiful illustrated books where dwarves and giants and peasants and princes and talking wolves and calculating cats lived in magic kingdoms and enchanted forests. Often, she listened to Daddy’s stories with the same excitement as Kwame and Ama did, and she grew to like them so much that she thought she would retell them in books of her own; which is why, when Kwame grew up, he could read stories to his nephews and nieces from a book by their grandmother called Tales of an Ashanti Father.

Of course, this is not exactly how it happened. But when my sister Ama and I grew up in Asante with a Ghanaian father and an English mother, we learned the Ananse stories from all sorts of people, including our father; and our mother did publish a series of retellings of Ananse stories for children in England and the United States. Not that my mother was the first to publish Ananse stories: Captain R.S. Rattray, the British government anthropologist who wrote the first extended accounts of Asante history, arts, laws, and customs, issued a collection of tales in 1930; and Harold Courlander, the great American amateur folklorist of Africa and its diaspora, produced …

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