As I endeavor to get my feet wet in African culture and history, one recurring theme keeps (metaphorically) stepping forward and glaring at me – understanding African history from an African perspective. Put in other words and quoting from my third Ethiopia history post, “tell the stories the people you’re talking about want told.” This is of course easier said than done and I don’t mean to claim any sort of mastery over the concept but few things worth doing are easy.
As a Euro-originated culture, we like to focus on the grand movements of history. We pay homage to the leaders of nations and their wars. We think of “important” history as a linear string of causal events. We teach our children first and foremost the dates when things happened and who the major players were. Interpreting history – learning wisdom from it – is secondary to the facts and perhaps considered a more advanced skill. One reason (among several) that African history can be so hard to get a hold of is that we in the West (North?) are looking for information the native peoples weren’t as excited about and completely ignoring the history they tell each other all the time – folktales. From the African perspective, we have it all backward. The stories themselves as cultural touchstones and the lessons they teach are what is important; the facts and people less so. Imagine our confusion if modern African scholars showed up here in the U.S. looking to study us but rather than opening textbooks the way we would prepare for, they hit up TVTropes!
Thus while I do still plan on doing some little report post on the history of the Congo, I feel like it’s maybe more appropriate to show some Congolese folktales instead and how they can be bits of gameable culture for us to draw on. Since these folktales are so often oral traditions and not always easy to track down in English, we need to feel comfortable relying on our own “unofficial sources” for information. (Remember what I said about Africa and decentralization?) Today’s story is from Melvin Burgess – someone who went to the Congo a couple years back and put up a blog recounting stories he heard. I will abridge the story below and encourage you to read the long account here.
A man and his wife own three dogs – two large strong dogs and one small weak one. The man went to pick some special fruit for his pregnant wife and ended up accidentally harvesting from a village of witches. The witches capture the couple and are going to eat them. In his desperation, the man calls out for their dogs to come save them. The dogs hear from their home village, break out of their chains and come running to help. The two big strong dogs are obviously a threat and are held up by the witches while the little weak one sneaks through and bites the witch chef’s toe, allowing the couple to run away in the ensuing fight. The big dogs kill most of the witches, but it’s again the little dog who saves the day by finding the last hiding witch. From that day on, everyone in the couple’s village could get all the fruit they needed.
Let’s find some games in here. First, there’s the perspective of the dogs. I could have sworn there was a “Dog: the RPG” game somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. What I did find was It’s a Dog’s Life and John Wick’s Cat RPG (the latter courtesy of Filamena Young). Brave animals on a mission to save their people? Done! Second, the perspective of the hidden witch. Witches in Congolese folklore are rather tragic figures and not entirely voluntary. (The same website has several posts about witch folklore that, fair warning, are heartbreaking) How about My Life With Master as young witches trying to break free and return to normal life? It’s not a game for everyone necessarily but it will get you out of the implied eastern European setting. In splitting up the various characters of the story among a group and expanding the setting a little, you could get a good In A Wicked Age game going as well. It has a lot of the mythic feel that makes for good folktale roleplaying.