Laughing with Caution. Ikalanga Trickster Tales and the Gender Question

Essay 2013 11 Pages

Literature - Africa


Laughing with Caution: Ikalanga Trickster Tales and the Gender Question By Wazha Lopang


The study of trickster tales needs to move away from concerns such as performance; form and setting to take on a branch of learning that seeks to uncover the way in which elements of our culture either hinder or aid the oppressed members of a community. This paper goes beyond an oral – aural appreciation of trickster tales to explore the tacit manner in which patriarchy, through the medium of trickster tales, undermines women and elevates men using humour to camouflage its intentions.

I develop the concept of androgyny and use it to explain why the trickster is a successful character, even though some storytellers and listeners see the trickster as chiefly male and others as being sometimes female. My argument is that seeing the trickster as either male or female is a flaw that needs to be addressed because what makes the trickster unique among other characters is that it functions outside the paradigms of masculinity and femininity. It is this non – conformity that helps us to better appreciate how we define ourselves socially as human beings. For instance, some storytellers and listeners believe that intelligence is not a universal quality but a masculine quality, which therefore explains why the trickster, for them, cannot be anything other than male. While androgyny is not a new concept in the study of oral literature, I apply it here to probe the trickster’s character and to determine the extent of its uses for patriarchy.

Introductory matters

Patriarchy refers to the formidable power that men exercise, which regenerates itself through an ideological framework that asserts and reasserts itself through the various integrated political, economic, religious and social institutions of society. Trickster tales are an example of how patriarchy consolidates its grip on the community and as such they are the focal point of my paper.

The premise of my study is that trickster tales are like pills that have been sugar coated in order to hide the bitter taste underneath. Like these pills, the humour of trickster tales makes the underlying ideology of patriarchy acceptable to the community. Trickster tales are not critical of gender relations in them because the storyteller, who is the sugar coater, reinforces patriarchal ideology by diverting the listener’s attention, through humour and the mechanics of narration, away from an analysis of gender relations. The storyteller presents the trickster as a one – dimensional character, who is exclusively a comic figure and not a major commentator on male – female relations. This manner of representation acts like a drug on the listener, preventing him/her from questioning role relations in the tales. This paper challenges the view that the trickster is nothing other than a figure of buffoonery. In my reading I have been aware that it has not been the concern of critics to analyse the ideology behind the characterisation of animals in trickster tales from a gender perspective. Thus, this paper goes beyond the common preoccupations with aesthetics and exposes the patriarchal machinery that seeks to entrench and maintain power.

I argue that the trickster in the Ikalanga oral tradition is androgynous. The hypothesis is that the androgynous nature of the trickster is an essential part of the trickster’s success in tricking larger creatures. These larger creatures, such as the Hippo, Lion and Elephant, are stereotyped in a masculine manner. This paper will show that the trickster, Hare, operates outside strictly feminine and masculine paradigms. Because of this androgyny, Hare does not behave in a socially conditioned way. It is my belief that Hare has been the victim of mistaken identity brought about by a patriarchal system of gendering that allows no room for androgyny. So, in this light the paper also evaluates the importance of size in gendering trickster tales. For an animal that works outside the parameters of femininity and masculinity, the trickster betrays no psychological discomfort regarding size and its importance as a mark of masculinity or lack thereof. This paper then, challenges certain conceptions of how individuals manipulate gender, particularly where gender is treated as an essence.

What is intriguing is the question whether the trickster, despite being the invention of a patriarchal society, does not also unwittingly undermine that very ideology. The concept of androgyny has enabled me to navigate these rapids as I shall show. Two works have been of particular interest here, especially the manner in which they complement each other: Evans – Pritchard’s The Zande Trickster (1967) and Jane Agyemang - Opoku’s article, “Gender role perceptions in the Akan Folktale” (1999). These two works respectively show how trickster tales reflect the social organisation of the community and how individuals, to project a desired ideology, can deliberately manipulate them.



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University of Botswana
laughing caution ikalanga




Title: Laughing with Caution. Ikalanga Trickster Tales and the Gender Question