The Power of Sharing Indigenous Knowledge Through Folk Tales

Growing up on the outskirts of Nairobi city, a trip upcountry to visit grandmother’s village was the highlight of my school breaks. I enjoyed quiet moments spent sitting amongst coffee trees tucked inside the rolling green hills. A snow-capped Mt. Kenya provided the perfect backdrop to my childhood fantasies.

Mt. Kenya base campsite. Photo credit: Emma Withill

In the village, grandmothers filled our heads with stories while grinding corn on a hand-carved wooden mortar. The resulting paste transformed into a delicious, fermented porridge, served on a calabash bowl over more storytelling.

The protagonist in these folk tales was almost always a characterful animal: the cunning hare, the mischievous fox or the lazy hippo. They all exhibited human-like behavior that I could relate to. During unbearably long school days, or when friendships failed, these stories transported me into a boundless world filled with unlimited possibilities.

Passing Down Indigenous Knowledge

As a storytelling mother, I now understand the educational value of these folk tales. I see how the plot conveys lessons about human survival on this planet. References of drought-resistant plant species that evolved with the changing climate are intricately weaved through these engaging stories.

Trail of exotic plant species along the foothills of Mt. Kenya. Photo credit: Luisa Esposito Melvin

The dramatic endings of some folk tales detail grim consequences that humans living at the time faced when they destroyed an ecosystem. They illuminate the great odds we face to continue living on this earth. From learning about the roles that all animals play to understanding why our ancestors revered nature, these stories paint a complete picture of what Mufasa in the Lion King called the Circle of Life.

In sharing these stories with children, indigenous knowledge about human coexistence with other species lives on. Folk tales offer a reference guide for humanity’s survival on this planet. They help us consider how humans went from being connected by nature to being divided by cultural differences.

The following story about a boastful baobab tree is a favorite that I share with my children. Many variations of this tale exist in legends across African indigenous communities.

The Upside Down Giving Tree

A long time ago, there lived a beautiful baobab tree, with flowers that bloomed all year round. The enormous tree’s long trunk and wide roots spread deep into the ground.

Animals walked past the baobab tree to admire its beauty. Bees built their hives on their branches. Throughout the seasons, they could enjoy sucking the sweet nectar from the baobab’s flowers.

But the baobab tree was not modest about its beauty. “I am the most beautiful tree in all of the savanna!” It shouted loudly for all to hear. Some of the other trees felt diminished. They were not as pretty and their flowers were not as beautiful as those of the baobab tree.

Then one dry season, a big drought came and lasted for many, many months. The baobab tree bragged, “Ah, ha, ha! The drought does not affect me, my roots go deep and wide!” Indeed, the baobab remained green and its flowers bloomed while the rest of the trees and shrubs wilted away.

The grass became a yellow field, dry and brittle. Grazing animals such as zebras and impalas could only sit all day and listen to trumpeting elephants destroying trees in search of water. But the baobab tree kept all the water in its trunk and continued to boast of its beauty.

The animals, together with all the trees and shrubs, decided they were fed up. They called upon the Creator to punish the baobab for all that boasting and for holding water in its trunk while everything else around it died.

“I will teach him the biggest lesson of all time!” The Creator responded to the pleas.

Suddenly, a great big thunder shook the entire savanna. Some animals ran and hid inside hyena’s holes. Jackals shared their holes with warthogs. The imminent flood was a period of great fear and there was no time for arguing about holes in the ground. Even squirrels hid snugly next to birds nestled inside thorny, acacia trees.

The animals all sat in horror and watched as the baobab was uprooted out of the ground, propelled high up into the sky and brought back down to earth upside down. Its leafless, bare roots spread out above ground. The baobab was no longer the beautiful, flowering and ever-green tree that it once was.

“Eh!” Cried the baobab tree, no longer boasting. “I am the ugly upside-down tree!”

After the great thunder came the rains. The savanna grassland began changing from a burnt yellow to a brilliant green carpet. The impalas, the zebras, and all the other grazing animals rejoiced in delight.

The baobab tree, having realized its horrible mistake, welcomed the small animals to seek shelter in its branches. Colorful weaver birds built their nests where flowers used to bloom.  

The elephants were also welcome to drink the water stored inside the trunk. They began eating the delicious bark of the baobab tree, which would magically grow back to provide more food for other animals.

The baobab was no longer the boasting tree, but the upside-down giving tree.

The Power of Indigenous Knowledge and Folk Tales
The ‘dancing’ baobab tree outside a holiday home in Kilifi, a coastal town along the Indian Ocean in Kenya. Photo credit: Wakanyi Hoffman

Oral Storytelling as a Pedagogical Approach to Teaching Universal Values

The indigenous knowledge system uses oral storytelling as a pedagogical approach to learning. Folk tales examine the interdependency between humans and other species.

Egyptian folk art. Photo credit: Pixabay

From the outside, these stories look like mere fairytales invented to entertain young children. However, on closer inspection, these stories reveal a great deal about the diverse cultural backgrounds of the people who invented them.

In these stories, we find anecdotal references about the origins of human beings. When teachers bring these folk tales into a modern classroom, students learn about universal values shared by all citizens of the world.

Connecting Past and Present World Citizens

Since orally told stories are neither written down nor individually owned, new storytellers can change the elements. Characters can be added or removed to reflect current times. Ultimately, though, the moral of the story remains.

In the story of the baobab tree, children learn what it means to be humble and how to share resources fairly. Additionally, the tale of the baobab tree highlights how to positively use one’s gifts and talents to benefit society. Above all, these characteristics are a reflection of a true citizen of the world.

Fun Facts About the Baobab Tree

  • The fruits of the baobab tree are hardened bulbs that are shaken to produce the superfood baobab powder.
  • Carbon dating indicates that a baobab tree may live to be 3,000 years old!
  • An ancient baobab tree discovered in Zimbabwe is so large that up to 40 people can fit inside its trunk!
  • In some parts of Africa, people have used baobab trunks as a house, shop, prison, storage barn and even as bus parking!

Generations connect through these folk tales. Children learn what past civilizations considered to be the positive attributes of a good citizen. That’s why it’s important to pass down this knowledge to our children.

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Wakanyi is a global nomad (with strong African roots). Together with her husband, they raise their four multicultural and mixed-race children as world citizens of Kenyan and American heritage in different parts of the world. So far they have called Kenya, the US, Nepal, Philippines, Ethiopia and Thailand home. They are currently based in The Netherlands. A former journalist with a Masters in Development Education, she researches cross-cultural identity narratives, and their impact on global citizenship. She also collects and curates folktales from Africa, and is the recent author of The Twelve Days of Christmas Safari-, a picture book set in the vast landscapes of her birth country, Kenya. She is the founder of The African Folktales Project-, an open resource that lends a voice to indigenous people's knowledge about sustainable development and environmental citizenship, and, through a selection of courses on offer for children and educators, she helps learners explore and gain a deeper understanding of the ancient, cultural values and practices that connect us as global citizens. She likes to blogs about her global 'home' at, and her hobbies include: forest walking, knitting, and experimental cooking.
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