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An African Folktale

19 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 February 2009 01:00AM

This is a folktale of the Hausa, a farming culture of around 30 million people, located primarily in Nigeria and Niger but with other communities scattered around Africa.  I find the different cultural assumptions revealed to be... attention-catching; you wouldn't find a tale like this in Aesop.  From Hausa Tales and Traditions by Frank Edgar and Neil Skinner; HT Robert Greene.

The Farmer, the Snake and the Heron

    There was once a man hoeing away on his farm, when along came some people chasing a snake, meaning to kill it.  And the snake came up to the farmer.
    Says the snake "Farmer, please hide me."  "Where shall I hide you?" said the farmer, and the snake said "All I ask is that you save my life."  The farmer couldn't think where to put the snake, and at last bent down and opened his anus, and the snake entered.
    Presently the snake's pursuers arrived and said to the farmer "Hey, there!  Where's the snake we were chasing and intend to kill?  As we followed him, he came in your direction."  Says the farmer "I haven't seen him."  And the people went back again.
    Then the farmer said to the snake "Righto - come out now.  They've gone."  "Oh no" said the snake, "I've got me a home."  And there was the farmer, with his stomach all swollen, for all the world like a pregnant woman!

    And the farmer set off, and presently, as he passed, he saw a heron.  They put their heads together and whispered, and the heron said to the farmer "Go and excrete.  Then, when you have finished, move forward a little, but don't get up.  Stay squatting, with your head down and your buttocks up, until I come."
    So the man went off and did just exactly as the heron had told him, everything.  And the snake put out his head and began to catch flies.  Then the heron struck and seized the snake's head.  Then he pulled and he pulled until he had got him out, and the man tumbled over.  And the heron finished off the snake with his beak.
    The man rose and went over to the heron.  "Heron" says he, "You've got the snake out for me, now please give me some medicine to drink, for the poison where he was lying."
    Says the heron "Go and find yourself some white fowls, six of them.  Cook them and eat them - they are the medicine."  "Oho" said the man, "White fowl?  But that's you" and he grabbed the heron and tied it up and went off home.  There he took him into a hut and hung him up, the heron lamenting the while.
    Then the man's wife said "Oh, husband!  The bird did you a kindness.  He saved your life, by getting the trouble out of your stomach for you.  And now you seize him and say that you are going to slaughter him!"
    So the man's wife loosed the heron, but as he was going out, he pecked out one of her eyes.  And so passed and went his way.  That's all.  For so it always has been - if you see the dust of a fight rising, you will know that a kindness is being repaid!  That's all.  The story's finished.

I wonder if this has something to do with why Africa stays poor.

I was slightly shocked, reading this story.  It seems to reveal a cultural gloominess deeper than its Western analogue of fashionable cynicism.  The cynical Western tale would at least have an innocent, virtuous, idealistic fool to be exploited, since our cynicism is mostly about feeling superior to those less sophisticated.  This tale has so much defection that you can't even call the characters hypocrites.  This isn't a story told to make the listener feel superior to the fools who still believe in the essential goodness of human nature.  This is a tribe whose children are being warned to expect cooperation to be met with defection the same way our own kids are told "slow but steady wins the race".

It's occasionally debated on this blog whether the psychological unity of humankind is real and how much room it leaves for humans to be deeply different.  Someone might look at this tale and say, "Gratitude in Africa isn't like gratitude in the West."  But to me it looks like the people who pass on this tale must have pretty much the same chunk of brain circuitry somewhere that implements the emotion of gratitude - that's what creates the background against which this story is told.  It wouldn't be viewed as important wisdom, otherwise.

But cultural gloominess this deep may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, as powerful as if the emotion of gratitude itself had diminished, or failed.

Comments (62)

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Comment author: nazgulnarsil3 16 February 2009 01:48:05AM 4 points [-]

A big part of the reason Africa stays poor is because nutrition and education is so poor that sub-saharan IQ's average about 70. Environmentalism pisses me off because for a fraction of what we are spending on the public hysteria we could be providing micro nutrients that would lead to huge decreases in overall suffering. Ditto with providing clean water.

What the hell is green tech? Is it just more efficient tech? Or does it have less to do with the technology and more to do with economic agents acknowledging externalities, consciously choosing to internalize some of that cost?

Comment author: stcredzero 04 March 2013 09:43:20PM 1 point [-]

What the hell is green tech? Is it just more efficient tech? Or does it have less to do with the technology and more to do with economic agents acknowledging externalities, consciously choosing to internalize some of that cost?

I'll take that as an analogy for what it means to be a moral person. (It's another way of talking about Kant's Categorical Imperative.)

Comment author: Tiiba2 16 February 2009 01:55:33AM 6 points [-]

Well, the farmer's wife seems to be one character who was thankful...

...and fared the worst.

But is this really cultural gloominess? Maybe this one is just reserved for when you're in a really bad mood. What are the other stories in that book like?

Comment author: DanielLC 28 February 2013 06:08:25AM 7 points [-]

The snake fared the worst.

In fact, the farmer's wife was the only character whose life was never in danger.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 16 February 2009 02:08:16AM 14 points [-]

There's an article that I can't find anymore about the consequences of slave-taking-- in the opinion of the author, it did much more damage than colonialism.

Aside from removing large numbers of productive adults from their home societies, trust was destroyed. The only way people could get the weapons they needed to protect themselves and their families was to kidnap and sell nearby people.

Once a pattern of betrayal is established, it's apt to be stable. The article said that regions from which many people had been taken weren't as good at forming governments.

Nigeria was a major source of slaves.

It would be interesting to compare folk tales and proverbs from regions with more and less slave-taking.

Comment author: tut 01 September 2012 02:16:54PM 1 point [-]

Does this apply to all slave taking, or only when the slaves are sold to foreigners? Or only when the slaver and the slave are from the same nation/tribe/whatever?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 September 2012 04:48:56PM 4 points [-]

The article is available again! It was behind a paywall for a while. It might be a different but similar article-- I don't remember the one I saw years ago having multi-colored maps.

Looking at the article again, part of the point is that slave-taking caused large social structures to fragment.

The article is specifically about the European and American taking of slaves from Africa, which was slave-taking on a huge scale.

Comment author: Vaniver 01 September 2012 05:13:36PM 4 points [-]

The article is specifically about the European and American taking of slaves from Africa, which was slave-taking on a huge scale.

Er, not quite. Enslavement was almost always done by Africans, as the article points out. The difference between the West Atlantic slave trade and other slave trades was its new location (instead of the slaves having to survive a trek to the Middle East, they just needed to make it to the Atlantic coast; so you get more Nigerians shipped to America than the Middle East, and many Ethiopians sent to the Middle East but none to America) and the new magnitude (populating the new world with agricultural workers takes a lot more people than, say, harem guarding, but it's still only twice the rest of the slave trade, and it started way later). It's not clear to me that the absolute numbers are more meaningful than per capita numbers- there was pretty significant population growth from 600 to 1800- but the article is otherwise solid.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 September 2012 05:49:10PM 2 points [-]

Semi-fair point-- the slaves were directly taken by Africans (leading to huge losses of social capital), but the money, trade goods, and ultimate threat (if you don't sell your neighbors, you can't get weapons to protect yourself) came from Europeans and Americans.

Comment author: Vaniver 01 September 2012 06:07:28PM 3 points [-]

ultimate threat (if you don't sell your neighbors, you can't get weapons to protect yourself) came from Europeans and Americans.

The section on causation (5.1 in particular) seems to suggest the other direction. The areas that were not up to trading with Europeans- the ones that didn't have national currencies, economic institutions, lower population density, etc.- were less touched by slavery, because they'd just attack Portuguese traders who sailed up (because raiding is how you say hello to foreigners). And when you're a Kongo businessman willing to sell Africans to the Portuguese, it's way cheaper to abduct fellow Kongo than to mount an expedition into Gabon.

It is noteworthy that European slave purchasers would stir up civil wars because those would increase the number of slaves for sale- but I'm not sure I would call that the ultimate threat. For places like Nigeria, for example, there had already been almost a thousand years of Nigerians enslaving other Nigerians for sale to foreigners- and so I wouldn't call the Europeans the ultimate threat. (Indeed, until the Americas were colonized, Europeans had little use for African slaves.)

Comment author: Sideways2 16 February 2009 03:09:02AM 10 points [-]

Environmentalism pisses me off because for a fraction of what we are spending on the public hysteria we could be providing micro nutrients that would lead to huge decreases in overall suffering.

Why should spending on 'environmentalism' alone have to face this burden of justification? Do you feel the same indignation toward spending on, say, NASA?

This story sounds like an extended dirty joke to me--the bit about the farmer looking like a pregnant woman with the snake in his belly, for instance. And antisocial behavior is just plain funny. Folk-myth tricksters aren't solemn, hard-working, and plain spoken; they're obscene, lazy liars. If this is the Hausa idea of what makes a funny story, then cooperation is probably a social value of theirs.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 16 February 2009 03:57:31AM 16 points [-]

By what process was this story selected? That could help me judge how representative is this story.

Comment author: frelkins 16 February 2009 04:06:00AM 20 points [-]

EY I think you completely misinterpret the meaning of this important story:

". . .one of the most pervasive features of [African] tales: the use of them as a discussion of how to act correctly. . . This is the way of the small community worldwide, for the well-being of the group resides in the sharing of this kind of [moral] knowledge, through which family and friendship obligations are woven into the web of community.

This process of engagement, of using moral tales to open rather than close off discussion, is precisely the modus operandi of a group of African stories. . .

Throughout Africa there are stories that "belong to" animals like Mouse or some creature who intrudes itself into a human community, but acts as if its still in a wild state. It is Hare and Spider and Jackal and the other clever creatures living near man, but hiding in holes, in the nooks and crannies, in the borders that test culture.

Living in the in-between places, they share the power of nature and the products of human culture, but with their bad behavior they obey neither the moral rules of man nor the proper laws of nature. Thus these animals thrive on not only upsetting rules, customs, and boundaries, but also on attacking the family, friendships, morality, and all the ways people have learned to live in harmony. One must remember that when naughty tales of these trickster animals are acted out, it is to gales of laughter.

These tales within an oral world. . .argue then by analogy, not only with regard as to how people should and should not act in society but also as to how actions affect the whole community. Because such stories and proverbs are indirect means of entering into deep moral discussions their use is considered good manners in Africa."

-- African Folktales, Roger D. Abrahams, from the Introduction

This seemingly simple and slightly risque African folktale then should be understood as the way Africans start moral discussions, in this case, on the features of gratitude. That naughty trickster Snake sneaks in & abuses the hospitality of the Farmer, and Snake dies for it; but the Farmer himself cannot see that he duplicates Snake's lack of gratitude and good manners in his treatment of Heron! Heron likewise also fails to behave. Thus the Farmer suffers harm to his wife and so gets his comeuppance. No doubt Heron will come to a bad end too, for his lack of proper gratitude.

Snake's initial "prank" turns out to disrupt the entire social order and results in real pain. This says nothing about gloominess - it doesn't counsel "defection," rather the tale talks about how even small slips of good manners can spiral out of control to wreak people's lives. In traditional African cultures, where the group always comes before the individual, this would be considered an important lesson.

Comment author: Jason3 16 February 2009 04:45:34AM 12 points [-]

To draw out frelkins explanation: it helps to see the harm to the wife as retribution to the farmer, which does require a more patriarchal assumption.

Comment author: Daniel_Humphries2 16 February 2009 04:49:18AM 11 points [-]

frelkins:

Thanks for the gloss on African folktales. But how do you square your interpretation of the snake and heron story with the contradicting (or at least tangential) interpretation that's within the tale itself?

"For so it always has been - if you see the dust of a fight rising, you will know that a kindness is being repaid!"

The gloominess suggested by Eliezer seems harder to dismiss in light of this line.

Eliezer:

On another note, amateur cultural interpretation is one of the web's great scourges. Give me a characteristic (A) and a society (B) and I will find you some folktale or cultural trend or historical anecdote that will explain why trait (A) is in society (B), even if the truth is the opposite.

I don't mean to imply that this is what you are doing here, Eliezer. But you're certainly opening a can of very intellectually convenient/lazy worms.

/clenches anus and runs for the hills

Comment author: [deleted] 13 May 2012 03:17:35AM 3 points [-]

"For so it always has been - if you see the dust of a fight rising, you will know that a kindness is being repaid!"

Try reading that line in the voice of Bugs Bunny, mugging for the camera. See if your confusion persists.

Comment author: Mark_Harrison 16 February 2009 05:00:47AM 2 points [-]

This tale reminds me of the parable of the parable of the unmerciful servant. This tale is not a description of how things are but of how things shouldn't be. It is wrong to be unmerciful after being shown mercy.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 16 February 2009 05:48:37AM 0 points [-]

It bothers me that some folks complaint about the story seems to be that it is too realistic, that it too clearly shows the actual sorts of betrayal that exist in the world. Yes, perhaps they misunderstood the intent of the story, but I must take my stand with telling the truth, as opposed to "teaching" morals via telling misleading stories, where betrayal is punished more consistently than it is in reality.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil3 16 February 2009 06:05:24AM 0 points [-]

Do you feel the same indignation toward spending on, say, NASA?

of course. environmentalism is just the latest in a long string of justifications for government subsidy. NASA is another great example of breathtaking levels of waste.

Comment author: frelkins 16 February 2009 06:48:53AM 2 points [-]

@daniel

Because we in the West also say "no good deed goes unpunished," we do not mean that one shouldn't do good deeds, or that the failure of others to correctly respect good deeds is a fact of life that should cause us to throw up our hands and collapse gloomily at the unchanging evils of the world. Rather it is an ironic statement in sympathy with the person whose good deed was unrewarded, to show that we recognize ourselves the goodness of good deeds, unlike those other nasty monkeys who aren't "nice."

@Robin

What? Of course it is a realistic story, but it is told as form of warning! Don't behave like this - be nice instead! Think and display gratitude - don't abuse hospitality & kindness! Isn't this in keeping, Robin, with your idea that stories are about niceness and to reinforce that we value it and are nice ourselves?

Comment author: Justin_Corwin 16 February 2009 06:57:10AM 7 points [-]

ugh. Really? Now we're taking a single depressing moralistic story and projecting statements across a population/culture based on it?

Really? And it's characteristic and telling in a way that say, the story of Job or The Toad and the Scorpion, or The Three Little Men in the Wood aren't about Western Nations? Or are we moving backwards from the knowledge that Africa has a "failing" culture?

Comment author: anonymous54 16 February 2009 07:21:52AM 6 points [-]

Thank you for resisting the temptation to title this post "A Tale of Defection and Defecation".

Comment author: atorm 01 March 2013 03:16:49AM 2 points [-]

I wish he'd given in.

Comment author: Jason_Malloy 16 February 2009 07:42:06AM 5 points [-]

There is a large economic literature on the role of trust in economic prosperity. Survey reports show Nigeria is a low-trust society, but still ahead of countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Turkey.

I think you are going overboard with the folktale analysis, though. We do in fact have a folktale like this called the Frog and the Scorpion. And universally learned aphorisms (succinct folktales) exist to express every contradictory sentiment (e.g. 'the early bird catches the worm', but 'the second mouse gets the cheese'). We don't have the parable of the snake in the anus, but everybody in the high-trust Anglosphere has heard that 'no good deed goes unpunished'. No?

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 16 February 2009 07:57:01AM 2 points [-]

This looks like a relatively clear case of excessive narrative-to-signal.

Comment author: Doug_S. 16 February 2009 08:54:44AM 19 points [-]

I'm also not so sure that this folktale wouldn't be at home alongside Aesop's fables.

Incidentally, Russia, too, has a tradition of similarly horrible folktales. This is a variation on one of them:

Old Favors are Soon Forgotten

Running from the hunters, a wolf came across a peasant and asked the man to hide him in his bag. The man agreed, and when the hunters asked him if he'd seen the wolf, he said no. Once they were gone, the peasant let the wolf out of his bag. The wolf said, "Thank you for hiding me. And now I will devour you." The man cried, "Wait! I just saved your life." And the wolf said, "Old favors are soon forgotten."

The peasant despaired, knowing he couldn't escape the wolf, but in desperation begged the wolf to walk with him down the path and ask the next three people they met if old favors were soon forgotten. If they agreed, the peasant promised he would submit and let the wolf devour him.

They came across an old dog first, and asked him if old favors were soon forgotten. The dog thought a moment, then said, "I worked hard for my master for twenty years, jumping at his every command, and protecting his family. However, once I became too old to work, he drove me out of his house. Yes, old favors are soon forgotten."

The wolf smiled unpleasantly, but the peasant reminded him that there were two more people to ask. Next, they met an old swayback horse on the path, and asked her if old favors were soon forgotten. She thought a moment, and answered, "I carried my master for twenty long years, bearing his weight gladly and serving him well. But when I got too old to carry him further, he drove me out into the world to die. Yes, old favors are soon forgotten."

The wolf capered with joy and licked his chops, but the peasant led him on down the path until they came to a fox. When they asked her if old favors were soon forgotten, she frowned and thought hard. Finally, she asked how they came to ask the question, and they told her how the peasant had hid the wolf in his bag. She shook her head. "I don't believe that large wolf fit in your small bag." And, though they swore it was true, she would not accept their word until the wolf climbed into the bag to prove it. Then she ordered the peasant to quickly tie up the bag and beat it with his stick. He gave the trapped wolf a good drubbing, then swung his stick around, hitting the fox in the head and killing her, saying, "Old favors are soon forgotten."

Comment author: Aron 16 February 2009 09:39:05AM 2 points [-]

I would estimate the intended reaction to be: "Well I don't act like these despicable characters!" and then "Oh wait - maybe I have..". To me it seems like a tale of the bad we can do, when we aren't thinking about it. Or to put another way, the difficulty of making our behavior consistent with our morality. I see little evidence that the underlying morality is any different from the west.

Comment author: Aleksei_Riikonen 16 February 2009 10:55:53AM 2 points [-]

"No good deed ever goes unpunished."

That's similar folk wisdom from within the english-speaking culture.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 February 2009 12:21:58PM 6 points [-]

Aesop's Frog and Scorpion is not like this. The Frog doesn't go around betraying others in turn; he is simply betrayed, as a victim and not a victimizer. Likewise the Farmer and the Viper.

Doug's Russian story, on the other hand, does indeed fit the pattern. But so long as we're arguing from anecdotes anyway - consider what's currently happening to Russia! At the very least, it's not exactly contrary evidence.

Robin, the folktale was selected via a completely biased mechanism but there are other Hausa folktales in the linked book on Google Books.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 16 February 2009 12:23:12PM 0 points [-]

Doug, I and my wife have always wondered about that. Some parts of the Russian folktales do sound pretty horrible today, for example, the widely-known Morozko begins with a woman marrying a widower with a daughter and forcing him to get rid of her (he agreed, took the daughter to the forest and left her there to freeze).

However, I'm not sure that the particular tale you posted is representative. Maybe it's just one of the older stories that don't make it into reprinting anymore. According to Vladimir Propp, the majority of Russian folktales have many structural elements similar to monomyth where the hero tends to cooperate with the helpers, and personally, I find many of these stories acceptable to read to my own daughter.

Comment author: juliawise 16 May 2012 01:27:29PM *  1 point [-]

a woman marrying a widower with a daughter and forcing him to get rid of her

This is also the beginning of Hansel and Gretel, except that it's the children's biological mother who urges the father to dispose of the children.

Comment author: Drukpa_Künley 16 February 2009 12:28:16PM 1 point [-]

the following indigenous folk wisdom was told a long time ago...

"A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!"

Comment author: Jonas2 16 February 2009 12:34:37PM 1 point [-]

“Samadhi!” , answers Simple Jack but in his eyes is no enlightenment. He does not understand the full meaning of the teisho. “I only get it intellectually, but I don`t feel it.” , he says.

He has read all about Schopenhauer`s Philosophy and this did no enlighten him either.

He once asked a monk what the meaning of Buddha was.

"Mu" the monk replied.

Simple Jack realized that he could never understand "Mu" and this did certainly not enlighten him either...

Comment author: anonymous12 16 February 2009 02:01:42PM 7 points [-]

There was once a scorpion who begged a frog to carry him across the river because he could not swim.

The frog hesitated for fearing being stung by the scorpion. The scorpion said: "Don't worry, you know I won't sting you since we will both drown if I do that". So the frog carried the scorpion across the river. But in the middle of the river, the scorpion stung the frog. The frog asked the scorpion in disbelief: "Why did you do this? Now we will both drown!" - "Because you are a game theorist and I am not!", replied the scorpion.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 16 February 2009 02:11:09PM 4 points [-]

Eliezer, let's not forget that for the entire duration of the Soviet period all memetic content was tightly controlled by the state. The state-produced soviet content always, always emphasized cooperation over defection, and the 'raw' folktales like the one posted by Doug were restricted to the academic domain. If we look at the soviet children cartoons, they always emphasized goodness and friendship. If you look at the movies, they universally condemn traitors.

In a nutshell, my point is that such folktales were completely overridden by the soviet propaganda and simply couldn't contribute much to the memetic composition of modern Russians.

As for what's happening to Russia now, and what spawned the parasites that currently invade its vital organs, I'd bet on the Perestroika period and the gangster 90's.

Comment author: Roland2 16 February 2009 03:10:00PM 1 point [-]

I don't understand what is so shocking about this story. The lessons seems quite clear: the mouth that you feed today will bite you tomorrow. It's not as if we don't have this in western culture.

Comment author: Tomasz_Wegrzanowski 16 February 2009 03:42:59PM 4 points [-]

@Vladimir Golovin - Soviet state control over memes is vastly overstated, people are really good at adapting to bias in broadcast - some of it sticks, but not that much, and memes get primarily copied from person to person. Also what was broadcast was obedience toward the state, not independent cooperation between people, that was very much not welcome. See Pavlik Morozov story which was basically retold it Poland as "Soviet government are the worst scum of the Earth" tale - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavlik_Morozov

Comment author: Sideways2 16 February 2009 04:37:55PM 6 points [-]

Eliezer: "I was shocked to discover that in 45 episodes, not once does Wile E. Coyote catch the Roadrunner. Despite his increasingly meticulous planning and his use of advanced technology, every attempt ends not only with failure but with disgrace or injury to the coyote, while the Roadrunner may not even be aware that he is being pursued. Clearly, 20th century American culture was contemptuous and dismissive of success and 'winners' in general."

nazgulnarsil:

NASA is another great example of breathtaking levels of waste.

So your objection is to government waste in general, rather than environmentalism in particular?

That's reasonable, but it doesn't explain why you brought up environmentalism spending. Should we evaluate all our budget decisions against whether supplying micronutrients to the needy would reduce more suffering?

If you want to argue for foreign aid spending on these things, go ahead, I probably even agree with you, but it's disingenuous to blame "environmentalism." As if we couldn't afford both!

Comment author: juliawise 16 May 2012 01:31:27PM 4 points [-]

Should we evaluate all our budget decisions against whether supplying micronutrients to the needy would reduce more suffering?

I think so.

Comment author: Strange7 01 September 2012 05:44:01PM 2 points [-]

Even if the goal is just reduction of suffering among the government's own citizens, I think a case could be made that lasting improvement of conditions in Africa would have long-term benefits for the entire world more than sufficient to justify the cost.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 16 February 2009 04:50:38PM 3 points [-]

@Tomasz: Children aren't as good at adjusting for broadcast biases as adults are. Folktales are transmitted mainly from adults to children (as they have lost their entertainment and instructional value to adults thanks to movies, books and television).

During the soviet period child upbringing was heavily influenced by kindergartens (since both parents needed to go to work, and only a minority of mothers could afford to stay with the child at home). The memes kindergartens 'copied to' children were designed by state-owned pedagogic and educational research institutes in the form of 'upbringing methodologies' (I don't know a proper English equivalent of the term), state-owned toy manufacturers, state-sponsored book writers and state-owned book printers.

From personal childhood experience (70s-80s) and from what my parents and grandparents told me, all children around the country had the same toys, read the same books and played same games in the kindergartens. Many of the books contained (selected and adapted) folktales, but I can't remember a single one as horrible as the one Doug posted.

(All this meme-copying language sounds evil, but personally, I prefer to expose my own daughter to soviet kindergarten material (toys, cartoons and books) than to what the 'free market' throws at children today -- with rare exceptions such as Miyazaki or Pixar).

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister2 16 February 2009 04:51:15PM 2 points [-]

Some here seem to think it significant that the good-doers in the story are not naive fools over whom the audience can feel superior. It is argued that that sense of superiority explains stories like the Frog and the Scorpion in the West. The inference seems to be that since this sense of superiority is lacking in this African tale, the intent could only have been to inform the audience that this is how the world works.

However, I don't think that the "superiority" explanation can be so quickly dismissed. To me, this story works because the audience keeps having their expectations of gratitude violated. Hence, the storyteller gets to feel superior to the audience by proving him or herself to be wiser in the ways of the world. The closing lines ---

That's all. For so it always has been - if you see the dust of a fight rising, you will know that a kindness is being repaid! That's all. The story's finished.

--- read to me like a self-satisfied expression of condescension towards an audience so naive as to expect some justice in this world.

Comment author: frelkins 16 February 2009 05:50:29PM 3 points [-]

@Tyrell:

"read to me like a self-satisfied expression of condescension towards an audience so naive as to expect some justice in this world"

Tyrell, actually it appears a standard part of the traditional African folktale formula. Remember, most folktales were not told in private settings. African folktales were traditionally told by people with social performance/storyteller roles at public events. African folktales often end with a similar "proverb" and a statement by the story teller that the tale is done, and discussion of the moral can begin or be considered. See the African folktales book above for a detailed description of the traditional experience.

But formalism is a key part of all folk-telling. In the West, folk tales begin with "Once upon a time" and formally end with "They all lived happily ever after." In Russia, since that's come up, a common beginning is "In a certain kingdom, in a certain land" or "In a certain village, not far, not near, not high, not low," while my favorite may be "Once upon a time in a wide white world, in a wide white kingdom, across the nine white lands." (Russian Fairy Tales, Aleksandr Afanasev)

Russian tales tend to end "And they all began to live happily together for the glory of the people." (Since many Russian folktale books are in fact, as stated by Vladimir, Soviet anthropology, that last bit might be Soviet style.)

You can compare this to the elaborate and beautiful stylization of the Arab folktale, which traditionally were often told by women storytellers to other women as amusements at events like births and weddings. "Once upon a time there was or there was not - for we know nothing except by the grace of God, only Allah knows all. . ." Also extended families in the secluded women's quarters told stories while women were embroidering, thus openings like "There was or there was not, shall we tell stories or sleep in our cots?" - meaning shall we sew or be lazy? (from Arab Folktales, Iner Bushnaq)

These Arab folktales tend to end with a rhyme "We left them happy and back we came/May God see your life's the same" or, since many of these are wedding stories, they end with a formal vouch for eyewitness truth, "And I know this to be so, for I attended the wedding myself, and never have eaten cakes so sweet...." or some other testament to the celebration of the day.

Comment author: Alan5 16 February 2009 06:23:40PM 0 points [-]

There is a stated assumption that this folk tale is viewed as reflective of important wisdom, as in a wisdom tradition. That may be so, but such is not self-evidently the case in any conventional sense. Framing the story alongside Aesop possibly leads to overinterpretation, with Aesop serving as a sort of social value anchor. But what if the story is really just a play on words in the Hausa language, or something akin to a limerick, or even spoken ironically? What was the tone of voice in which the orignal was told? We are attempting to derive textual clues from what is, in essence, a translation from an oral tradition, taken out of context. For all this interpretation, the story could be something of a joke, or a baudy tale told primarily for propagating amusement.

Comment author: George_Weinberg2 16 February 2009 06:30:57PM 19 points [-]

Does it occur to anyone else that the fable is not a warning against doing favors in general but of siding with "outsiders" against "insiders"? When the farmer protects the venomous snake from the people trying to kill it, from a human perspective he's doing a bad thing. When the heron recommends white fowl as a medicine, even he were not to himself become a meal, he's not doing the bird community any favors. And the farmer's wife, in letting the heron go, is depriving her husband of vital medicine.

Comment author: [deleted] 15 December 2011 02:54:27PM 1 point [-]

That seems a coherent interpretation.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil3 16 February 2009 06:42:08PM 3 points [-]

it's disingenuous to blame NASA, as if we couldn't afford both!

the point here is that the money that the government spends is 100% wasted on these things, not that we should find ways to pay for more stuff. I don't support government spending at all. when I talk about environmentalism I'm talking about the government whipping people into a frenzy in order to justify ridiculous schemes that private enterprise would never support. If there was less taxation and people were rational about picking charities to reduce overall suffering micronutrient and clean water programs would get huge boosts. They get practically nil right now because they aren't glamorous, and the government takes a large percentage of money that people would otherwise be generous with.

Comment author: Tomasz_Wegrzanowski 16 February 2009 07:42:52PM -1 points [-]

@nazgulnarsil It is very unlikely people would give a lot more to charity just because their taxes are lower. * First, with lower taxes people would need to pay for services provided by government now, some of them would be cheaper on free market, others like healthcare and roads empirically are more expensive (market's very high transaction costs compared to government in such cases explain it all even without other causes), so total amount of free money wouldn't be all that different, invalidating need for rest of the argument. * There are billions of goods people prefer to giving money to charities. With more money around market would just provide more goods. * People give to charities to feel good about themselves, virtually nobody evaluates charities based on their actual effectiveness. That's one of the worst ways to spent money, worse than buying real stuff for yourself on the market, and worse than paying taxes and having government provide stuff for you. Criticizing governments for wastefulness and then praising charities is anti-government bias, not based in any real data. * What's the correlation between charity spending and taxes? I would expect something very close to 0, empirically disproving this libertarian charity theory.

Also - blaming NASA/LHC/etc. is a good idea in places like this, they're useless expenses but they gets a lot of support from the "smart" people because they sound cool and high tech.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 16 February 2009 08:36:27PM 2 points [-]

This is heading toward generic libertarianism. This ain't Reddit.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil3 16 February 2009 08:50:49PM 2 points [-]

I regretted posting the original comment immediately but felt like your comment "maybe this is why africa stays poor" was kind of a pandora's box for this sort of thing.

all discussions lead inexorably towards ever more fundamental issues until eventually you're talking about axiomatic beliefs. This seem to fall in line with the idea that either you have different priors or one of you has made a mistake. Since this is a community of intelligent commenters it follows that most disagreements are probably due to different core values/assumptions.

But anyway, you're right. this stuff will have plenty of opportunity to be aired out when the blog transition occurs. Until then arguing about government is counter productive to the focus of the site since there is limited comment space.

my bad.

Comment author: Doug_S. 16 February 2009 09:08:53PM 1 point [-]

I suspect that the folktale I posted isn't representative of Russian folkore; I had a hard time tracking it to its source (Aleksandr Afanasev), and, yes, it doesn't seem to be reprinted very often. Other Russian folktales I read in the process of looking for this one usually have happier endings in which justice is indeed served.

Comment author: Doug_S. 16 February 2009 09:12:42PM 0 points [-]
Comment author: TGGP4 17 February 2009 02:41:46AM 2 points [-]

This seemed terribly appropriate.

A reader at 2Blowhards: Depiction of trickster gods in West Africa seems a bit positive, at worst morally neutral. In Northern Europe, Loki was a clear-cut villain. Could that contrast come from selection-induced personality differences?

Greg Cochran: And yet Bugs Bunny is our hero. I think this line of analysis is about as sound and solid as Citibank.

Comment author: gwern 26 August 2012 01:49:07AM *  8 points [-]

In Northern Europe, Loki was a clear-cut villain.

He was? In the Eddic literature, he's certainly not: the city of the gods could not have been built; without him, Thor's hammer could not have been reclaimed from the frost giants; and he must have done Odin a good turn indeed for him to consent to becoming a blood-brother and thereby numbering Loki among the Aesir. Yes, he did many bad things, but let's not forget the good - that's why Norse scholars have such difficulty with Loki.

Comment author: Daniel_Franke 17 February 2009 07:58:32AM 0 points [-]

TGGP: A more convincing counterexample to this pattern would be Hermes.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister2 17 February 2009 07:41:38PM 1 point [-]

George Weinberg:

Does it occur to anyone else that the fable is not a warning against doing favors in general but of siding with "outsiders" against "insiders"?

Wow; now that you mention it, that is a blatant recurring theme in the story. I now can't help but think that that is a major part, if not the whole, of the message. Each victim betrays an in-group to perform a kindness for a stranger. It's pretty easy to see why storytellers would want to remind listeners that their first duty is to the tribe. Whatever pity they might feel for a stranger, they must never let that pity lead them to betray the interests of their tribe.

Can't believe I missed that :).

Comment author: Thalia_Castro 13 March 2009 12:25:16PM 0 points [-]

send more folktale like this one

Comment author: [deleted] 15 December 2011 02:37:23PM *  1 point [-]

It's occasionally debated on this blog whetherthe psychological unity of humankindis real and how much room it leaves for humans to be deeply different. Someone might look at this tale and say, "Gratitude in Africa isn't like gratitude in the West." But to me it looks like the people who pass on this tale must have pretty much the same chunk of brain circuitry somewhere that implements the emotion ofgratitude-

Interesting this is the first time I've encountered this bug in the sequences. I had similar trouble writing up my latest post. Somewhere mid-text, suddenly adding links to the text or bold or italics causes white spaces surrounding the word to disappear. I think I recall others complaining about this bug as well.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 May 2012 04:48:26AM 1 point [-]

Geek mode: How did the snake get turned around inside the farmer?

Comment author: gwern 26 August 2012 01:41:40AM 1 point [-]

Perhaps he went up to the stomach! It did say he looked like a pregnant woman. (Although anyone who's owned a ferret wouldn't ask how a snake could also turn around in an extremely constricted area...)

Comment author: Zando 13 May 2012 06:16:20PM *  11 points [-]

I'd be careful about generalising about "Africa" from one Nigerian folktale. I spent a couple of years crossing Africa in the 90s and Nigeria was by far the most generally fucked up place I visited. Some places like Zaire (now Congo) had specific - and huge - issues, but Nigeria seemed somehow endemically damaged. Africa is as diverse as Europe, if not more so.