The Ogress and the Snake : and Other Stories from Somalia
Fowles, Shelley (illus.)
The Ogress and the Snake : and Other Stories from Somalia .
London: Frances Lincoln , 2009. $7.95 (pap),
ISBN Paper 9781845078706 / 1845078705 .
Note: A collection of down-to-earth tales from Somalia, some written down for the first time.
The eight delightful folktales retold here for young readers (from eight up) hail from the Somali Region of Ethiopia, whose people are currently buffeted by, on the one hand, what amounts to the Ethiopian government's military occupation and, on the other, the turmoil resulting from the actions of Somali armed opposition fronts. These stories show a very different aspect of this region. Having traveled in Somalia and the Horn many decades before, Laird journeyed from Addis Ababa to Jigjiga for the specific purpose of collecting these stories. The result is eight folktales of which some are almost universally known among Somalis and others less so. Collected from story tellers in the region, however, they all contain something new and creative. Thus, even the well-known story of the people-eating ogress Degder (Dheg-dheer means Long-ear in Somali), in this book entitled The Ogress and the Snake, appears here in a refreshingly new garb.
The stories are of two kinds, those set in the context of Somali pastoralism and those drawing their inspiration from (here heavily fictionalized) Islamic city-states such as Harar. All stories have a moral. Sometimes this moral message is a pragmatic, hard-nosed, and funny one, as in the story of why the cat keeps the company of women. (Looking for the strongest possible protector, the cat finds that even the elephant- and lion-slaying man is cowed by his nagging wife.) Other messages convey that one cannot be rich in material possessions if one is not also rich in people. Four of the stories are animal stories, such as those about Deya Ali the fox, and Waq the raven, who both pay a high price for being deceitful and selfish. Two of the tales are magical ones in which human goodness overcomes evil spells and bewitchment and leads to ever-lasting happiness.
Elizabeth Laird's writing style and word use are fresh, unburdened, imaginative and evocative, and at times a bit tongue-in-cheek. For example, when a little mouse hides the good prince who earlier on had saved it under the throne of the King of Djinns, it whispers to him: Hide here, under the king's throne and don't move a whisker (p. 73). The little rhymes she has included in the story of the Ogress and the Snake are also delightful. The Somali version often includes such short rhymes and almost always ends with one that alliterates in 'dh:' "Dheg-dheer dhimatay, dhulku waa nabad" (Dheg-dheer has died and the land is at peace). Laird creates her own rhymes to great effect: The wicked Ogress spoiled our lives. She ate our children and our wives. We were her meat, we were her bread. Now we are happy for Degder is dead! (p. 20)
The illustrations too are imaginative, unpretentious, and refreshingly original. Mostly in grays and blacks, except for the one on the cover, they gesture towards children's drawing or even cartoons (especially the faces), but convey at the same time the complexity of the human and animal characters inhabiting this magical world. The drawings of the animals are particularly imaginative, emphasizing character and mood more than real-life perspective or biological likeness. I found the determined face of the snake that stretches itself over two pages with a girl's feet clutched in a curl of its body (pp. 22-23) delightful and the image of the sorceress who flies through the sky with a magic telescope searching for the hidden prince unforgettable.
I have only one small regret. While the "oriental" (Middle Eastern and Indian-inspired) images go well with the stories of princes and princesses, I would have loved to occasionally recognize something specifically Somali. The delightful drawing of a coffee-shop on p. 84 could perhaps have had some Somali features. Moreover, Ogress "Long-Ear" could have perhaps been drawn with a long ear, which figures in the story in a significant way. She too resembles an Indian princess (even if one with a witch's toenails) than the ugly, more than the evil, ugly, dangerous bogey-(wo)man to whom Somali parents used to turn to discipline their kids. This is a minor quibble.
Laird has written at least one other children's book for Frances Lincoln Children's Books, namely A Fistful of Pearls: Stories from Iraq. Her collaboration with Fowles has produced a delightful book of folktales, which I recommend strongly.
Copyright Africa Access, 2010.
Reviewed by: Lidwien Kapteijns Wellesley College
Subject: Africa / Somalia / Folktales