Updated: Apr 22, 2022
April 1st is April Fools’ Day, a day where people around the world play tricks and practical jokes on each other for fun. But these African tricksters raise the stakes and often go far beyond simple practical jokes to get what they want. They might trick you out of your food, your money, your home, or even your life! Their tales of trickery provide a social warning for people to always be aware and take care. See below for our list of 3 African folktale tricksters you should know.
Hlakanyana is a trickster from the Zulu and Xhosa people of South Africa. Unlike many other tricksters in African folktales, Hlakanyana is not an animal, instead, it is more human-like. And while most tricksters are male, Hlakanyana is sometimes female and sometimes male. And sometimes, it has a tail. It can also take the shape of inanimate objects, like rocks. Hlakanyana was able to speak from its mother's womb and it asked her to give birth to it. It was born fully grown.
In some stories, Hlakanyana is being internationally evil, and its tricks can be very dangerous and cruel. In other stories, the tricks are not intentionally evil but they can still be dangerous. In some stories, Hlakanyana takes a journey away from home where it encounters difficult situations and has to outwit monsters, magical forces, and evil beings. Sometimes Hlakanyana itself dies in the story, but it is always back to trick someone new in another story.
Ijapa is a cunning tortoise from the Yoruba people of Nigeria. However, the tortoise also plays a trickster role in many folktales from other west African countries, like Cameroon. The word Ijapa loosely translates to “one who moves awkwardly” in the Yoruba language, which befits the tortoise. In many stories, Ijapa is tricky mostly because he is lazy. He tends to look for the easiest way out of things without having to work hard, so he finds cunning ways to get what he wants. Many of the stories involve him trying to trick people out of their food. He’s always hungry it seems.
Ijapa has a wife, Yanrinbo, who sometimes taunts him, sometimes encourages him, and sometimes joins him in his cunning endeavors.
The tortoise in general also has a place in the hearts of Yoruba people and culture. There was once a royal tortoise that lived in the king’s palace in Oyo state, Nigeria. It was said to have lived hundreds of years, and people from all around would visit the palace to touch the tortoise because they believed it had healing powers.
Anansi is a trickster from the Akan people of Ghana, although his tales are also part of Caribbean culture. Anansi means "spider" in the Akan language. He is often depicted as a spider, but he has many representations. He can appear as a man, a spider with a human face, or a human with spider-like features. For example, he might have eight legs or have a human body with a spider head.
Anansi is also known as the god of all knowledge and stories. He often uses his skills to outsmart others, including more powerful animals than himself. Although, sometimes he doesn’t quite get his way. He tries to trick others and gets tricked by his own trick. But behind each tale of Anansi is a lesson or a value.
Anansi is also very popular around the world beyond Africa and the Caribbean. He has appeared in modern TV shows and stories like American Gods on HBO, Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug, and Cat Noir on Netflix, and he even has a part to play in the Marvel superhero universe!