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Reviewed by:
  • Matengo Folktales
  • Cynthia Ward (bio)
Matengo Folktales. Recorded and translated by Joseph L. Mbele, with commentaries. Bryn Mawr, PA: Buy Books on the, 1999. 142 pp.

Each of the ten tales presented in this collection is accompanied by commentary by Joseph L. Mbele, who collected them in the 1970s from Matengo relatives, friends, and primary school students in southern Tanzania. Modest in scope and purpose, the book is not intended for a professional audience, but to introduce Matengo folktales to "the average reader between high school and college" (2). Indeed, Mbele explains that at the time he recorded the tales, his own "understanding of folklore fieldwork was rather rudimentary" (3), and he briefly describes some of the deficiencies in his methodology. The tales themselves are entertaining, with Hare tricksters, monsters, infanticide, patricide, matricide, sororicide, and a Solomonic pair of baby halves—though the three tales told by the unidentified schoolchildren are clearly inferior to those of the adult storytellers: Mbele's father, brother, and Mrs. Kangologo, "a woman in her late twenties or early thirties" (3). Mbele's commentaries, many of which are longer than the tales they discuss, analyze literary devices such as conflict, characterization, and theme to produce close readings that would please any literature teacher. They also tend, however, to extrapolate from the tales overgeneralizations about Matengo society, often imparting glib Eurocentric pronouncements on such issues as "male domination" and the Oedipus complex—a problem exacerbated by the commentaries' lack of attention to the gender, age, or social status of the individual teller. While the postscript, "Notes on the Folktales," ultimately provides a good outline of important issues and concerns faced by the collector, translator, and reader of folktales, the text's usefulness as an introduction to folklore studies for high school or college students tends to be compromised by its shortcomings.

Cynthia Ward
University of Hawai'i, Mānoa
Cynthia Ward

Cynthia Ward is Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai'i, Mānoa. Her research interests include oral theory, African literature and culture, comparative cultural studies, and critical visual studies.



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