African American Storytellers are most familiar with the cowtail switch through a story that has been declared a requirement in a Black Storyteller’s repertoire. “The Cow-tail Switch,” as collected from West Africa by Harold Courlander, is a tale in which we learn that as long as we call out the names and tell the stories of our ancestors, we keep them alive. In the story, the child who earns the cow-tail switch is the one who inquires as to the whereabouts of his father after a long absence, as opposed to the other children who apply their talents to aid in the father’s return after he was found.
The story brings to light ancient symbolism of the cow-tail switch, sometimes referred to as the fly whisk. Its significance has been deemed both authoritarian and spiritual. A King’s whisk upon the shoulder could mean a change of circumstance, and the Yoruba Orisha, Oya’s irukere (cowtail switch) is known to cause wide spread transformation through her forceful winds. Centuries old and laden with stories, the importance of the cowtail switch is legendary until this day.
Many African presidents and tribal chiefs carry a fly-whisk as a badge of authority to processes with his switch at traditional ceremonies. This past December,”Who will Inherit Kajwang’s Fly-whisk,” was a newspaper headliner. The winner of the Kenyan political campaign was marked by his ability to work his fly-whisk:
It was Raila’s turn next. Waving a black fly-whisk, he knew how to work the crowd. He demanded obedience and acceptance of his newly appointed ODM officials, those previously labeled Jubilee moles and rebels who were excelling in singing “Raila for president”.
In total control, waving the black fly-whisk and singing “Mapambano”, Raila was the inheritor of Kajwang’s mantle. – Business Daily, December 8, 2014.
When visiting Ghana last May, I had the honor of interviewing, Nana Opoku one of the Asantehene of Kumasi’s protectors and orators. To the left you see Nana rendering all the names and attributes of the King while the Asantehene, Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, stands before him holding his symbol of authority – the white-tailed cowtail switch. To the right is a photo of Nana during our interview.
Here in America, it is the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. (NABS) that carries on the empowering tradition. We continue, perpetuate and promote “In the Tradition…” the customs and rituals of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. which are rooted in our African Heritage.
Mother Mary Carter Smith, the co-Founder of NABS brought the cowtail switch to the NABS. During the 1980’s she used the cowtail switch as she told the Cow-tail Switch story. In 1992, the cowtail switch was ceremoniously bestowed upon the third president of NABS, Baba Jamal Koram during the 10th Anniversary of the Annual National Black Storytelling Festival in Baltimore, MD. Since then, it has been known as the “Passing of the Cowtail Switch Ceremony.” However, the cowtail switches were either borrowed or belonged to that President.
Part of my quest while traveling in Ghana was to bring back a cowtail switch that would be the permanent property of NABS. But first, it had to be regaled to reflect its authority, prestige and prominence. The journey began in Accra where the switch was purchased. A few days later, I traveled to the historical bead market of Koforidua, where Yoseda Hasan helped me search for brass beads to symbolize our co-founders – The Sankofa (Mother Mary Carter Smith) and the Asante Stool (Linda Goss, NABS 1st President). Understanding the royal nature of the switch, Yoseda extended its handle. Upon my return to the states, the switch was shipped to Pittsburgh, PA where Temujin Ekunfeo masterfully beaded the switch using red, black and green glass beads to represent the national collective consciousness of our people and cowry shells to exemplify wealth. Butterflies were added in memory of Brother Blue (Hugh Morgan) and to symbolize the transition between presidents. The esteemed switch received its distinguished finishing touches from Nashid Ali of Philadelphia, PA, who jeweled NABS brass acronym and logo.
The NABS Presidential Cowtail Switch is one-of-a-kind and considered high ceremonial regalia. It will be exhibited and stored at the National Great Black and Wax Museum in Baltimore, MD. Illustrious yet functional, the President will carry the switch during special occasions, for it symbolizes:
Honor: Honoring the incoming President and giving him/her the authority to preside over of the NABS’ Board, and to represent the organization, as witnessed and recognized by the membership of NABS.
Respect: Honoring the collective works and continuing efforts of the NABS association family, including contributions by the elders and ancestors.
Wisdom: Using African/Universal wisdom to guide and uplift our youth. “To know is good. To learn is better. To teach and share is best of all.”
Remembrance: Remembering our ancestors: “The ancestors are alive as long as we remember to tell their stories.
It is a great honor to be the bearer of the National Association of Black Storytellers’ Presidential Cowtail Switch.
Karen “Queen Nur”Abdul-Malik is the 14th President of the National Association of Black Storytellers, Inc. and a lauded National Storyteller, Teacher Artist and Cultural Worker with a Masters in Arts in Cultural Sustainability from Goucher College. She is the winner of MidAtlantic Artists-As-Catalyst Awards, NSN Brimstone Grant, and featured in the book Legendary Locals of Willingboro. She is the founder and executive director of In FACT, Inc., a cultural sustainability organization.
Resources: Cowtail Switch and Other Stories by Harold Courlander; Business Daily; Smithsonian Institute Collections; Look for Me In the World Wind by Makeda Kemit; The Yoruba Religious Concepts.
Near the edge of the Liberian rain forest, on a hill overlooking the Cavally River, was the village of Kundi. Its rice and cassava fields spread in all directions. Cattle grazed in the grassland near the river. Smoke from the fires in the round clay houses seeped through the palmleaf roofs, and from a distance these faint columns of smoke seemed to hover over the village. Men and boys fished in the river with nets, and women pounded grain in wooden mortars before the houses.
In this village, with his wife and many children, lived a hunter by the name of Ogaloussa.
One morning Ogaloussa took his weapons down from the wall of his house and went into the forest to hunt. His wife and his children went to tend their fields, and drove their cattle out to graze. They day passed, and they ate their evening meal of manioc and fish. Darkness came, but Ogaloussa didn’t return.
Another day went by, and still Ogaloussa didn’t come back. They talked about it and wondered what could have detained him. A week passed, then a month. Sometimes Ogaloussa’s sons mentioned that he hadn’t come home. The family cared for the crops, and the sons hunted for game, but after a while they no longer talked about Ogaloussa’s disappearance.
Then, one day, another son was born to Ogaloussa’s wife. His name was Puli. Puli grew older. He began to talk, and the first thing he said was, “Where is my father?”
The other sons looked across the ricefields.
“Yes,” one of them said. “Where is father?”
“He should have returned long ago,” another one said.
“Something must have happened. We ought to look for him,” a third son said.
“He went into the forest, but where will we find him?” another one asked.
“I saw him go,” one of them said. “He went that way, across the river. Let us follow the trail and search for him.”
So the sons took their weapons and started out to search for Ogaloussa. When they were deep among the great trees and vines of the forest they lost the trail. They searched in the forest until one of them found the trail again. They followed it until they lost the way once more, and then another son found the trail. It was dark in the forest, and many times they became lost. Each time another son found the way. At last they came to a clearing among the trees, and there on the ground scattered about lay Ogaloussa’s bones and his rusted weapons. They knew then that Ogaloussa had been killed in the hunt.
One of the sons stepped forward and said, “I know how to put a dead person’s bones together.” He gathered all of Ogaloussa’s bones and put them together, each in its right place.
Another son said, “I have knowledge too. I know how to cover the skeleton with sinews and flesh.” He went to work, and her covered Ogaloussa’s bones with sinews and flesh.
A third son said, “I have the power to put blood into a body.” He went forth and put blood into Ogaloussa’s veins, and then he stepped aside.
Another of the sons said, “I can put breath into a body.” He did his work, and when he was through they saw Ogaloussa’s chest rise and fall.
“I can give the power of movement to a body,” another of them said. He put the power of movement into his father’s body, and Ogaloussa sat up and opened his eyes.
“I can give him the power of speech,” another son said. He gave the body the power of speech, and then he stepped back.
Ogaloussa looked around him. He stood up.
“Where are my weapons?” he asked.
They picked up his rusted weapons from the grass where they lay and gave them to him. Then they returned the way they had come, through the forest and the ricefields, until they had arrived once more in the village.
Ogaloussa went into his house. His wife prepared a bath for him and he bathed. She prepared food for him and he ate. Four days he remained in the house, and on the fifth day he came out and shaved his head, because this was what people did when they came back from the land of the dead.
Afterwards he killed a cow for a great feast. He took the cow’s tail and braided it. He decorated it with beads and cowry shells and bits of shiny metal. It was a beautiful thing. Ogaloussa carried it with him to important affairs. When there was a dance or an important ceremony he always had it with him. The people of the village thought it was the most beautiful cow-tail switch they had ever seen.
Soon there was a celebration in the village because Ogaloussa had returned from the dead. The people dressed in their best clothes, the musicians brought out their instruments, and a big dance began. The drummers beat their drums and the women sang. The people drank much palm wine. Everyone was happy.
Ogaloussa carried his cow-tail switch, and everyone admired it. Some of the men grew bold and came forward to Ogaloussa and asked for the cow-tail switch, but Ogaloussa kept it in his hand. Now and then there was a clamor and much confusion as many people asked for it at once. The women and children begged for it too, but Ogaloussa refused them all.
Finally, he stood up to talk. The dancing stopped and people came close to hear what Ogaloussa had to say.
“A long time ago I went into the forest,” Ogaloussa said. “While I was hunting I was killed by a leopard. Then my sons came for me. They brought me back from the dead, but I have only one cow tail to give. I shall give it to the one who did the most to bring me home.”
So an argument started.
“He will give it to me!” one of the sons said. “It was I who did the most, for I found the trail in the forest when it was lost!”
“No, he will give it to me!” another son said. “It was I who put his bones together!”
“It was I who covered his bones with sinews and flesh!” another said. “He will give it to me!”
“It was I who gave him the power of movement!” another son said. “I deserve it most!”
Another son said it was he who should have the switch, because he had put blood into Ogaloussa’s veins. Another claimed it because he had put breath in the body. Each of the sons argued his right to possess the wonderful cow-tail switch.
Before long not only the sons but the other people of the village were talking. Some of them argued that the son who had put blood in Ogaloussa’s veins should get the switch, others that the one who had given Ogaloussa breath should get it. Some of them believed that all of the sons had done equal things, and that they should share it. They argued back and forth this way until Ogaloussa asked them to be quiet.
“To this son I will give the cow-tail switch, for I owe most to him,” Ogaloussa said.
He came forward and bet low and handed it to Puli, the little boy who had been born while Ogaloussa was in the forest.
The people of the village remembered then that the child’s first words had been, “Where is my father?” They knew that Ogaloussa was right.
For it was a saying among them that a man is not really dead until he is forgotten.