n Historia - Trickster tropes : female storytelling and the re-imagination of social orders in four nineteenth-century southern African communities

Volume 55, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0018-229X
  • Author Jimmy Pieterse
  • Source : Historia, Volume 55, Issue 1, May 2010, p. 55 - 77
  • Accreditation : Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET)
    SciELO SA
    The International Bibliography of Social Sciences (IBSS)



The Reverend Henri Junod, a nineteenth-century Swiss missionary, noted that chiefly authority in southern Africa in many ways resembled households in which the father wielded absolute power over his dependents. He viewed this as a hierarchical social structure responsible for provoking discontent, and explained : "So in the evening around the fire, the women and the little ones take their revenge in the manner of the blacks, that is to say by saying what they think in a roundabout way." He pointed in particular to the ways in which he believed that women used stories to critique power and authority. Junod hastened to reassure his readers : "Their intention is not to reverse the social order, the established order. Oh! Far from it! But they take a malicious pleasure in recounting the tricks played by the trickster and his companions." The trickster to whom Junod referred is the central character in the stories from four nineteenth-century southern African communities discussed in this article. These trickster tales feature a protagonist born under unnatural circumstances; his deceptive actions throughout the story contravene commonly accepted local social and cultural understandings and practices. Junod explained that such stories appealed to the powerless because the trickster, too, was "given no advantage by nature or by birth, but nonetheless prevails against the powerful, over the chiefs themselves, through his cunning". Junod argued that it was more than "simple coincidence" that several of the stories he recounted concluded "with the death of a chief, caused by the Machiavellian skill of the malicious trickster". Junod's understanding of female storytelling in nineteenth-century southern Africa was, in some ways, quite insightful. He saw it as a product of unequal social relationships. It functioned, he argued, as a manner in which women could express their unease about the way in which societies were organised. He also posited that women deployed trickster figures very frequently and effectively to express these concerns. However, his contention that women did not connect these tales with the subversion of the existing order and to question how social reproduction took place is flawed. On the contrary, the trickster was an important figure precisely because he consistently upended the established order. Especially in times of crisis, women crafted and told stories about tricksters to debate the directions in which their societies should move forward.

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