Anansesem (Anansesɛm in Twi) is an oral storytelling tradition of the Akan people in West Africa and their diaspora in the Caribbean. Meaning “Ananse stories,” Anansesem refers to Kweku Ananse, the protagonist of many of these tales.

In Akan, ananse means spider and Kweku is a Wednesday-born male, so Kweku Ananse is literally, a male spider born on Wednesday. As Akan speakers spread to the Americas through slavery, they took Ananse along. There, he is called Anansi, Nancy, Anancy, Aunty Nancy, Kompa Nanzi and Sis Nancy.  

As a trickster, Kweku Ananse often outwits those around him, but ultimately his greed is usually unsuccessful. These fables are recounted by elders with songs and proverbs to teach moral lessons about greed and selfishness to children in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. However, in the diaspora, Anansesem also became a tool of resistance: there, the trickster is a folk hero using his cunning against European hegemony.

How Ananse Became King of All Stories

Once upon a time, all stories belonged to the Sky God, Nyame, but Kweku Ananse wanted to be King of All Stories. In exchange for this title, Nyame demanded a steep price: Osebo, the Jaguar, Mmoboro, the fire Hornets and Onini, the great Python. To catch Mmoboro, Ananse wet their nest, lying that it was raining. He offered a dry calabash, and after they flew in, he plugged the hole and trapped the fire Hornets. Then, Ananse pretended to argue about the Python’s length. Onini agreed to be measured. Because he couldn’t straighten himself, he allowed Ananse to tie him to the measuring pole. Thus, Ananse caught the Python. Lastly, Kweku Ananse dug a covered hole where Osebo walked at night. When he fell in, Ananse offered to extract Osebo with his web. Bound up in spider webs, the Jaguar was caught too. Thus, Ananse captured Osebo, Mmoboro and Onini, a feat that all other chiefs, warriors and magicians had failed at. Delivering all three to Nyame, Ananse became the King of All Stories. And this is why all stories, not only those about Kweku Ananse, are called Anansesem.

By Nnenna Onuoha

(Image: Seven Ponds)

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