How the Leopard Got His Spots Tangling with a Strong Female: An Ashanti Folk Tale Retold by Verna Aardema

Years ago I found this picture book of a West African folk tale at the going-out-of-business sale of a children’s book store.   Half-a-Ball-of-Kenki (Frederick Warne, 1979) may not be as popular as Verna Aardema’s other retellings of African stories such as  Who’s in Rabbit’s House, Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears, or Bringing the Rain to Kaputi Plain, but it’s impossible not to laugh at a story about a leopard, a fly the girls can’t get enough of, a dainty peanut, a cautious banana, and the righter of wrongs, a ball of cornmeal mush.  Half a ball, to be precise.

“I do not really mean that this story is true, “ the Ashanti storyteller begins, as if to prepare the audience for the absurd plot culminating in an epic battle.  Leopard invites Fly to go look for girls to marry, ignoring his friend’s warning that they will like him better.  He oils up his fur, puts on gold ornaments, and gives his dirty old sleeping blanket to Fly to carry, figuring no one will pay him any attention.  But Fly is greeted warmly when entering a village, while Leopard is driven out.   The mat must drive the girls crazy for Fly, Leopard supposes, so he shoulders the bundle and gives Fly his jewelry.  His luck does not improve in the third village, where he hears the girls whisper that Fly is so handsome they’d run away with him in a minute if their fathers wouldn’t beat them.

The spurned Leopard takes back his ornaments, then grabs Fly and ties him to a tree.  He guards his prisoner concealed in the bushes close by.   Nkatee the peanut comes down the path pip pip pip and calls out to the fly, who replies, “It’s I, the Fly, tied / By Leopard to this tree, / Because the girls hated him, / But they loved me.  / Oooo! Please come and set me free.”  Nkatee has no intention of letting Leopard making her into peanut soup and runs off. Tuk-pik, tuk-pik, Kwadu the banana passes by  and won’t help for fear of Leopard mashing her to a smooth paste.  (In the version Aardema retold from Akan-Ashanti Folktales (1930) collected by the early Africanist Captain R. S. Rattray, every vegetable in the garden passes by and ignores Fly’s plea for help, making the prospects for release nearly hopeless.)

Then Donkonfa, the half-a-ball of kenki comes rolling down the path singing her song.  She doesn’t waste any time setting Fly free, and the infuriated Leopard bursts out of his hiding place and challenges her to a fight.  She accepts and they build a big fire in the middle of the path so they will be able to see if the struggle goes on after dark.  When Leopard fails to get the better of his shapeshifting opponent after two rounds of wrestling, she gets serious and uses all her strength to pick him up and throw him in the fire.  He concedes and emerges from the fire a changed beast.  His once beautiful yellow coat has been transformed by black scorch marks where the burning wood touched it and white where the ashes settled.  To thank Donkonfa for saving their ancestor, flies never sit on balls of kenki, only the leaves in which they are wrapped.   The Ashanti storyteller closes with “This is my story.  If it be sweet, or if it be not sweet, take some and let the rest come back to me.”  Half-a-Ball-of-Kenki would not be half as sweet or nearly as funny without Dianne Stanley’s vibrant illustrations  in which she took on the challenge of bringing to life a highly unlikely heroine—amorphous, powerful, and deliciously absurd at the same time.  And that’s that!