Bouki: the Hyena of Senegambia and Louisiana Folklore

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Bouki, the Hyena

Photo Credit: http://yaymicro.com/vector/striped-hyena-or-hyaena-hyaena-vintage-engraving/4161808

Contributors

In the realm of southern folklore tradition, no character occupies a more intriguing position than Bouki, a would-be trickster who is often the victim of the clever schemes of his more well-known companion, the Hare. What makes Bouki so fascinating is that, unlike the many other folkloric animals whose names are dependent upon the language of their storyteller, Bouki’s name does not change but instead is constant among the many disparate locations where his stories are told. Wolof for “hyena” [1] , Bouki’s name and his persisting presence within the folklore tradition of Louisiana signify the remarkable ability of enslaved Senegambians to maintain their customs and traditions in the face of forced migration and cultural desecration. Likewise, he is also evidence of the high degree of cultural creolization that occurred following the arrival of enslaved Africans in the American south. That is, enslaved peoples in America did not simply adopt the culture of their captors; rather, they maintained their cultural lineage, the presence of which is still apparent in America’s cultural physiology today.

Description

Bouki-the-Hyena is a notable character in a series of folk tales that revolve around his friend/relative the Hare, a shrewd creature whose schemes often result in trouble or punishment for Bouki. This is not to say that the Hare is the sole perpetrator of Bouki’s misfortune, however. Rather, Bouki’s setbacks are just as much the result of Bouki’s own greediness, as well as his own inept attempts at emulating the Hare’s trickery. Tales featuring the pair include plots built several persistent tropes, the most common of which include food-sharing [2] , generational conflict [3] , and negation of typical social morality [4] . Additionally, many of the Hare’s tricks and plots revolve around some form of trespass; [5] these schemes often necessitate cooperation [6] with similarly minded (but less capable) animals such as Bouki.

Origins & Early History


An 1881 map indicating the location of Senegambia (the geographic and cultural origin of Bouki) on Africa’s western coast.
Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Senegambia_1881_map_sz498.jpg

Bouki’s roots can be traced to the “cycle du lievre” (cycle of the hare) [7] , a series of folktales that revolve around the guileful Hare, but feature Bouki prominently. Just as several other geographically distinct regions of Africa feature one particular animal over others (for example, the animal stories of Equatorial Central Africa overwhelmingly feature the tortoise [8] , while the forest region of West Africa is the storytelling domain of the spider [9] ), so too is the hare the central character of the folklore of the savannah countries on the Africa’s Western side (ranging from Senegal and Mali in the North to South Africa and Botswana in the south). [10]

Transatlantic Migration: Bouki Tales & Slavery

Roughly two thirds of the slaves brought into Louisiana via the French slave trade were brought from Senegambia. [11] Geographically, Senegambia is located on the far northwest corner of the African continent, between the Senegal and Gambia rivers. [12] However, as historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall notes, “Senegambia “is much more than a geographical area. [13] “ That is, Senegambia also implies a shared cultural attitude as well as a “common style of history. [14] “ Additionally, Hall argues that it is effective to look to Senegambia for “the African roots of Louisiana’s Afro-Creole culture. [15] Unsurprisingly then, the Senegambian cycle du lievre was able to transplant itself into the culture of enslaved Africans displaced in Louisiana quite effectively. Furthermore, many of the stories brought to North America were done so with their characters, tropes, and plot structures fully intact [16] .

The oral retelling of Bouki/Hare stories was a particularly effective means of cultural preservation for newly enslaved Senegambians living in North America. However, the fables also maintained social relevance in that their meaning actively adapted to the radically altered existence of enslaved Africans. Keith Cartwright writes, “African fables that had allegorized generational conflicts and relationships between subordinate authority positions came to address the racialized worlds of plantation communities ruled by Bouki-like whites [17] . In this way, the stories became encoded with subtextual lines of communication and modes of trickery [18] . Thus, Bouki’s continued and altered existence amidst slavery is a testament to the “inventive strength [19] “ of the Afro-Creole folklore tradition.

Alcée Fortier & Laura Plantation

Perhaps the greatest written recording of Bouki’s presence in Louisiana folklore occurred when Alcée Fortier (1856-1914), a professor of Romance languages at Tulane University, wrote and published his landmark work Louisiana Folk Tales [20] . The book, a collection of folk tales written in their original creole French and then translated into English, contained several stories that Fortier, a Louisiana native born in St. James Parish [21] , was probably [22] familiar with in his childhood. However, it would be Fortier’s experiences in the 1870’s, when he made several trips to Laura Plantation to transcribe former slaves recounting traditional folk tales [23] , that provided him the major components of his book.

Laura Plantation, a sugar plantation located roughly 35 miles west of New Orleans, served as an ideal location for Alcée Fortier to record Hare & Bouki stories. The characters, which he observed being referred to as Compair Lapin and Compair Bouki [24] , were Senegambian in origin; many of Laura Plantation’s enslaved persons (and thus the people occupying the plantation following emancipation) were of Senegambian heritage [25] . Furthermore, he observed the tales being told to children in the storyteller’s native tongue [26] ; this of course allowed Fortier to gain the experience of the Afro-Creole storytelling tradition firsthand. Thus, Laura Plantation provided Fortier with the exact stories told in just the exact manner necessary for his book.

A Sample Compair Lapin & Compair Bouki Tale

COMPAIR BOUKI, COMPAIR LAPIN, AND THE BIRDSEGGS

Compair Bouki and Compair Lapin were neighbors. One day Compair Bouki said to himself that he wished to see what Compair Lapin was cooking every evening in his cabin. He went to Compair Lapin’s cabin and saw a big kettle on the fire. “Oh! What a toothache I have! Compair Lapin, what do you have in that kettle?” “It is not your business, Compair Bouki” “What smells so good in that kettle, Compair Lapin? Oh! What a toothache I have!” “It is birds’ eggs, Compair Bouki; don’t bother me.” “Oh! What a toothache I have! Let me taste what you have here. It will cure me.” Compair Lapin gave him a few eggs, and Compair Bouki found them so good that he wished to know where they were to be found. Compair Lapin told him he would take him with him the next day. Compair Bouki went home and told his mother that he had a splendid supper at Compair Lapin’s. His mother told him to open his mouth that she might smell what it was that he had eaten. She then took a small piece of wood and scraped off the teeth of Compair Bouki the small pieces of eggs that remained there. “Oh! How good it is,” she said; “you must get me some.” Compair Bouki went early the next morning with Compair Lapin, who showed him where the eggs were and told him not to take more than one from each nest, because the birds would perceive it. Compair Bouki, however, as soon as Lapin was gone, took all the eggs from every nest. When the birds returned and saw that all the eggs had been stolen, they were furious, and formed a plan to avenge themselves. There was in the wood a bayou which was the only place where the animals could drink. The birds placed themselves around the bayou and saw an ox coming. “Compair Bef, was it you who ate our eggs?” “No, my friends, I eat nothing but grass.” The horse said he ate nothing but hay. Compair Lapin said that he ate nothing but carrots and lettuce; but when they questioned Compair Bouki, he replied foolishly: “Yes, it is I who ate your eggs.” No sooner had he spoken when the birds fell upon him; they put out his eyes and nearly tore him to pieces. — Alcée Fortier, Louisiana Folktales: Lupin, Bouki, and Other Creole Stories in French Dialect and English Translation [27]

Compair Bouki, Compair Lapin, and the Birds’ Eggs is a paradigmatic example of both the exact sort of stories Alcée Fortier recorded at Laura Plantation, as well as of several of the tropes associated with Sengegambian folk tales. For example, the tale provides ample evidence of Bouki’s greediness. The story begins with Compair Bouki attempting to acquire the contents of Compair Lapin’s kettle; likewise, the conflict of the story is caused by the greedy Hyena’s lack of moderation. Additionally, this tale demonstrates the folk tale trope of Bouki attempting to emulate the schemes of his friend the Hare, but failing spectacularly and ultimately receiving his just punishment. Within this particular story, this is exhibited when Compair Bouki copies Compair Lapin’s exact theft of the bird’s eggs, but ignores crucial (and obvious) information that leads to his misfortune. Finally, the tale illustrates another trait of many folk tales originating in Senegambia: the story is based upon a theft of food, as well as a communication of the details of this theft among like-minded characters. This effectively demonstrates Keith Cartwright’s identification of food-theft [28] (and the cooperation it often requires) as being a relatively common occurrence across the Afro-Creole storytelling tradition.

Other American Portrayals of Bouki


Bouki’s North-American relative, Br’er Fox.

Lapin and Bouki contribute to the culture of American folklore outside of Louisiana, as well. In most areas of the United States, the two are well known thanks to their repeated appearances in Uncle Remus (a compendium of African-originated folktales popular in the American south) as Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox [29] , respectively. As in the original Senegambian tales, the stories are focused primarily on the trickster Br’er Rabbit, with Br’er Fox acting as the dupe [30] to his schemes. It is important to note Bouki’s nominal transformation into Br’er Fox, which allows for his character to be more relatable to a vast American audience. Bouki as Br’er Fox demonstrates the degree to which African cultural tropes have been appropriated by American folk traditions, thus resulting in a more diverse, culturally-creolized society.

External Links

The Site of Laura Plantation
http://www.lauraplantation.com/

Full Text of Alcée Fortier’s Louisiana Folk Tales:
http://archive.org/stream/louisianafolkta00fortgoog#page/n6/mode/2up

A Collection of Brer Rabbit Stories (several of which include Brer Fox)
http://americanfolklore.net/folklore/brer-rabbit/

Works Cited

Cartwright, Keith. “Part II. Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie.“Reading Africa into American literature: epics, fables, and gothic tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 93-114. Print.

Fortier, Alcée. Louisiana Folktales: Lupin, Bouki, and Other Creole Stories in French Dialect and English Translation. Lafayette, LA: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2011.

Gaudet, Marcia. “Bouki, the Hyena, in Louisiana and African Tales.” The Journal of American Folklore. Accessed February 21, 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/542000.

Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. “Chapter 2: Senegambia During the French Slave Trade to Louisiana.” Africans in colonial Louisiana: the development of Afro-Creole culture in the eighteenth century. Louisiana paperback ed. Baton Rouge, La. [u.a.: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1992. 28-56. Print.

Seck, Ibrahima. “Alcée Fortier’s Encounter with Bouki in Louisiana.” America: History and Life. Accessed February 21, 2013. Ebsco.* Gaudet, Marcia. “Bouki, the Hyena, in Louisiana and African Tales.” The Journal of American Folklore. 66. Jstor.

  • Cartwright, Keith. “Part II. Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie.“Reading Africa into American literature: epics, fables, and gothic tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 109. Print.
  • Cartwright 112
  • Cartwright 109
  • Cartwright 112
  • Cartwright 109
  • Seck, Ibrahima. “Alcée Fortier’s Encounter with Bouki in Louisiana.” America: History and Life. 146. Ebsco.
  • Seck 147
  • Seck 146
  • Seck 146
  • Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. “Chapter 2: Senegambia During the French Slave Trade to Louisiana.” Africans in colonial Louisiana: the development of Afro-Creole culture in the eighteenth century. Louisiana paperback ed. Baton Rouge, La. [u.a.: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1992. 29. Print.
  • Hall 29
  • Hall 29
  • Hall 29
  • Hall 34
  • Cartwright, Keith. “Part II. Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie.“Reading Africa into American literature: epics, fables, and gothic tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 109. Print.
  • Cartwright 112
  • Cartwright 109
  • Cartwright 113
  • Seck, Ibrahima. “Alcée Fortier’s Encounter with Bouki in Louisiana.” America: History and Life. 149. Ebsco.
  • Seck 149
  • Seck 149
  • “Laura Plantation.” Laura Plantation. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2013.
  • Cartwright, Keith. “Part II. Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie.“Reading Africa into American literature: epics, fables, and gothic tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 110. Print.
  • “Laura Plantation.” Laura Plantation. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2013.
  • Seck, Ibrahima. “Alcée Fortier’s Encounter with Bouki in Louisiana.” America: History and Life. 149-150. Ebsco.
  • Fortier, Alcée. Louisiana Folktales: Lupin, Bouki, and Other Creole Stories in French Dialect and English Translation. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1895. Archive.org. Electronic.
  • Cartwright, Keith. “Part II. Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie.“Reading Africa into American literature: epics, fables, and gothic tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 109. Print.
  • Gaudet, Marcia. “Bouki, the Hyena, in Louisiana and African Tales.” The Journal of American Folklore. 66. Jstor.
  • Cartwright, Keith. “Part II. Bound Cultures/The Creolization of Dixie.“Reading Africa into American literature: epics, fables, and gothic tales. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002. 110-111. Print.

This page was last modified on 11 April 2013, at 01:36

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