Integrating African folklore and metaphors into Narrative Therapy

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This article outlines some of the metaphoric use of language for situating externalising conversations to use in narratively influenced therapeutic practices.  It attempts at highlighting how utilizing folklore and mythology can inform communication and understanding when dealing with traditional African clients in particular.

Therapists who use narrative ideas found in the work of Michael White and David Epston (e.g. Epston 1989, 1993; White 1989, 1991, 1994. 1995; White & Epston 1990) are interested in how people resist the influence of problems and become the authors of their own lives with the consideration of the socio-political contexts within which this occurs.

Narrative therapy applies two metaphors – ‘narrative' and ‘social construction' to organize clinical work. Using the narrative metaphor leads us to thinking about people's lives as stories and to work with them to experience their life stories in ways that are meaningful and fulfilling. Using the metaphor of social construction leads us to consider the ways in which every person's social, interpersonal reality has been constructed through interaction with other human beings and human institutions and to focus on the influence of social realities on the meaning of people's lives.(Freedman & Combs 1996: 1) .

 A guiding metaphor is no small matter. The metaphors through which we organize our lives and practices have a powerful influence on both what we perceive and what we do. Proposing the use of metaphors or examples from folklore or mythology in therapy may be applicable since they are in most cases known to the African, handed down from one generation to the next. Not utilizing these metaphors, or at least exploring their possible contributions, could in many cases add to thin descriptions of a person's life story and could therefore again be considered cultural oppressive.

"Thin descriptions are often expressed as the truth about the person who is struggling with the problem and their identity…these thin conclusions, drawn from problem saturated stories, disempowering people as they are regularly based in terms of weakness, disabilities, dysfunctions, or inadequacies… thin descriptions allow little space for the complexities and contradictions of life. It allows little space for people to articulate their own particular meanings of their actions and the context within which they occurred." (Morgan 2000:12-13).

Until quite recently the African continent possessed the greatest concentration and variety of wildlife. One of the legacies of Africa's erstwhile teeming wildlife is the wealth of folklore and mythology surrounding it. Many of the tales even as told differently by the different tribes from region to region, are basically similar and they remain a source of knowledge to its people and future generations. (Greaves 1988:9) The tales of old need not be a thing of the past. Instead it should be considered a part of heritage that should not be forgotten and can be integrated into the therapeutic conversation to assist externalization, and to contribute to more thick descriptions and narratives supportive of African clients' talents and skills. Sensitivity for culture does not only imply sensitivity to help the client to distinguish between the dominant oppressive stories and to allow him/her in rewriting the alternative stories of their lives, but also to allow a person more freedom and choice while using the richness and safety of his/her existing and known ethno -cultural/religious history and practices (Kotze 1994:118).

In African culture, traditional wisdom or advice are furthermore often relayed by ways of stories from their rich heritage of land, and animals. This aspect in particular links with a postmodern approach where live is seen as narrative. ‘Straight' answers are seldom forced upon the listener, instead stories will portray the answer he or she is seeking, always also, leaving it open to the personal interpretation and experiences of the individual. The rich metaphoric use of language of the African resonates in the wisdoms handed down to each generation:

In Kotze & Kotze (2002:1) Credo Mutwa (1996:183) tells the story of the the two fighting male kudu, large antelopes sacred to Africa,  who often get their horns so entangled that they are unable to free themselves.  "…the chief…would put them [the horns] in his house to show young people the price that living things pay for indulging in senseless strive".

In Smith (1984) one of the main characters in his novel, Tom, receives advise on his love life also by ways of folklore: "The young and foolish hunter chases the game who runs because they are chased, and the hunter chases because the game runs. But the wise hunter does not need to know the feeding place of the game, because he knows where they drink. The wise hunter waits at the waterhole for the game to come to him".

I therefore propose that when drawing on metaphor and practices of African folklore and mythology, new opportunities in the therapeutic conversation when dealing with Africans for understanding and dialogue may develop. 

The term "African" here is used to refer to a polymorphous grouping of the indigenous peoples of the sub-Saharan region of Africa. This includes geographic differences as well as the human diversity of different population groups, linguistic diversity, and religious diversity, together with the diversity that comes with ways of life that falls somewhere between traditional and western (Moore 1997:645). 

The African Worldview is at times vastly different from main stream, European thought. According to Ruch and Anyanwy (1981) Pasteur and Toldson (1982) and Sogolo (1993) Africans in contrast with Westerners rely more on intuition and emotion in their cognitive functioning than on pure rationality (Viljoen 1997:622).  This difference is an offshoot of the different views of humankind that underlie behavior.  A white european view of mankind is anchored in the Cartesian reification of reason in terms of the Descartes maxim "I think therefore I am" (Viljoen 1997:622) as opposite to the African maxim of "I am because we are; and since we are therefore I am" (Viljoen 1997:620).

‘Time' for the African again is not a mathematical concept, but is instead associated with the natural rhythm of the universe. Mibiti (1990) in Viljoen (1997:623) points out that in Western society time is seen as a commodity that can be bought and sold, because time is seen as ‘money'. For Africans again, time is seen as something that has to be created and produced.  Africans are not enslaved to time, since they create time to suit themselves. Westerners seldom understand this difference, which may lead to misunderstanding between people from different cultures. In this regard the approach of narrative counselling might be more applicable to multi-cultural use. According to Viljoen (1997:624) the African view of time struggles to accommodate the notion of future orientation as expressed in the notion of traditional psychological theories.

Externalizing conversations contribute to the deconstruction of a dominant story present in a person's life. In the view of social construction, problems are socially constructed and do not reside in the individual him/herself. Externalizing the problem opens up space for people to move further away from the problem and separate from the effects of the dominant story. It allows them space to consider their own ideas and commitments. Personal preferences and choices become more visible (Morgan 2000:72)

Africans function from a Meso-cosmos level where behavior is explained with reference to supernatural beings and powers that influence and determine human behavior (Viljoen 1997: 619).

"The meso-cosmos is a kind of no-man's land, where coincidence and the forces of malignant spirits and sorceress hold sway. This level is situated in the wild of individual and collective imagination, and it involves the living reality (animals and humans) as well as the natural physical reality such as forests, bushes, trees, rivers, and others".(Viljoen 1997:618).  Africans are inclined to explain all conflict, sickness or death, with reference to this level.

To the African then, externalizing the problem would be logical in the sense that the origin of the problem is not located in him- or herself as proposed by most traditional European psycho-analytical theories. Externalizing the problem therefore ‘links' with traditional beliefs and contributes to a feeling of understanding and respect in the conversation.

A problem can also be aptly, metaphorically described or named in terms of known mythology. Characteristics of the problem as example take on attributes of known animals: "The problem has the nose of the hyena, and the appetite of the vulture."

The hyena is typically seen as a cowardly though clever animal with excellent smell, sight and hearing. Because of their gruesome habits and unnerving cries they figure in many African tribes' superstitious beliefs. (Greaves 1984:44) The hyena watches for vultures in the sky circling over a kill and use them as guides. They typically organize in efficient packs – Similarly the ways the problem is seen in the narrative process as normally/often having many ‘friends' assisting him in his onslaught on the individual.

The vulture again seldom leaves the carcass until the bones are bare and no meat is left. Like the vulture, and the hyena, the intention of the problem is also the total demise of the client, not leaving (unless chased away) until it has destroyed the client's life completely. Both of these species are greedy and too cowardly to hunt alone – such as a problem per se.

Various folklore then lends itself to characteristics of various problems. In ancient Bushman lore, the buffalo was once a meat eater and a much feared hunter. (Greaves 1984:73) So feared was he that it was Lion's job each day to hunt and bring buffalo his breakfast, lunch and dinner. Buffalo would greedily devour each animal, not even leaving Lion a bone to reward him for his work. One day Buffalo ordered Lion to go out and kill him one of every kind of animal in the bush.  Lion was hungry and worn out, but Buffalo's greed was enormous, and he had no pity. Lion was honor bound to agree to Buffalo's request ….so he began with Buffalo himself.

Even though this story mainly is told to demonstrate how Buffalo became a grass eater and why he lives in herds (to protect him from lion) the story also portrays the characteristic ending of greed and vanity, of a heartless being with no pity for others, warning  people against its dangers and pitfalls. It becomes a moral lesson situated in folklore and communicated by ways of a story instead of a moralizing event.

Naming a problem then ‘Buffalo' as above, would be a metaphor for greed and vanity. The enormity of the problem and its influence on the client's life is acknowledged (the buffalo is quite a large and strong animal) while simultaneously, by linking it to folklore itself, the downfall of the problem is also inherent in the name chosen for the problem, leaving or creating space for its defeat.

Naming alternative stories could also be derived from folklore. In a Hambakushu story, Mbwawa, the jackal, had to rely on his craftiness to outwit Lion from stealing his thaa fruit (Greaves 1984: 18-20). By playing a simple trick on the King of the animals- acting as if he was dead after eating the fruit and then leaving the skeleton of another dead jackal thereby-  Lion was led to believe that the fruits were extremely poisonous so he left them be. Jackal has so doing succeeded in establishing the thaa tree for him and the other small animals of the bush.  Folklore is rich with examples where jackal survives or outwits other larger more deadly animals than him.

Interpreting the client's description of the effects of the problem on his life, could also be drawn from the metaphorical use of African language:

"When the man-eating crocodile knows the hunter is searching for him, he buries himself in the mud at the bottom of the deepest pool and when the leopard hunts he hunts in darkness." (Smith 1984:83) The wiliness and craftiness of the problem is acknowledged above in language the traditional African understands and can relate to.

Family therapy could also become more effective. L* and P*, struggled with communication and understanding each other's needs. L*compared herself to the raisin bush (Grewia Flava), which burns brightly but with a tendency to cool down and turn into cold ashes quickly unless it receives regular kindling and attention. P* understood himself to be the combretum (south African leadwood) which when used for fire, stay hot and can burn for weeks without any attention. Only by utilizing these metaphors, they started to understand the differences in their needs and were able to address them (Neethling 2005).


Epston D [2001] Playful Approaches to Serious Problems. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Freedman, J & Combs, G 1996. Narrative therapy: The social construction of preferred realities. New York: Norton.

Greaves, N & Clement, R  1984. When Hippo was Hairy. And other Tales from AFRICA. Mbabane, Swaziland: Bok Books International

Kotzé, E & Kotzé, D (eds) 2001. Telling Narratives: Spellbound Edition. Pretoria: D & P Prepress.

Morgan, A  2000. What is narrative therapy? Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.

Moore, C 1997. The ecosystemic approach, in Meyer, W F, Moore, C & Viljoen, H G (eds) 1997. Personology: From individual to ecosystem, 555-588.  Sandton: Heinemann.

Neethling, I 2005. Personal case study.

Viljoen, H G 1997. Oosterse en Afrika perspektiewe, in Meyer, W F, Moore, C & Viljoen, H G (reds) 1997b, Personologie: Van individu tot ekosisteem, 619-656. Sandton: Heinemann.

White, M 1991. Deconstruction and therapy. Dulwich Centre Newsletter (3):21-40.

White, M 1995. Re-authoring lives: interviews and essays. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications.
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