"South & East Africa 2011" story # 9

Roma, Lesotho           April 11, 2011

When I spoke of the Basotho people's addiction to monotheism in the introduction to the last story, I of course didn't mean anything against Tlhatlhamacholo, traditional God of Lesotho. I didn't know much about him.
     I imagined him being a jolly and playful character who half-walked, half-floated (among the grassy mountains) - like a big, inflated balloon.
     I owed this image to my having read a novella by Jorge Amado. Set in Brazil's very African state of Bahia, the novella told of a man who contraversially chose an "orixi" (one of several gods in a certain African religion) to become the godfather at his son's Christian baptism. This story appeared in Amado's book, "The Pastors of the Night", which captured the beauty of the lives of several good-hearted vagabonds/womanizers.
     No, I didn't have anything against Tlhatlhamacholo. I even considered becoming his first white missionary and moving to the countryside to preach of his mercy and benevolence.
     But, I didn't know enough about Southern African religion to do that. I did, however - thanks to A.C. Jordan's book, "Tales from Southern Africa" (University of California Press, Ltd., London, 1973) - know some things about Southern African fiction.
     It was interesting like religion. Its stories had been told orally by active story-tellers who let their audiences partake in making sounds and singing and describing events. A.C. Jordan had listened to and recorded these tales of his culture. Three were especially lovely.
     I'll quickly retell them for you. One was ...


An unbeatable, war-mongering king gave birth to a daughter. Joyously, he declared, "The day this daughter of mine comes of age, the cattle I shall present her will be so numerous that they will darken the sun." Her name was Nomxakazo.
     She grew up. She made "her first visit to the moon (menstruation)". With pride, she said she wouldn't move until her father had fulfilled his promise.
     He brought her fifty cows. "How do you expect these to darken the sun?" she said.
     Her father brought her thousands of cows. She said:
     "I can still see the sun."
     Her father brought her all the cattle of his kingdom. She said: "I still see the sun." Her father's army traveled to neighboring lands where they killed countless people, and they brought all the cattle back to Nomxakazo.
     She said, "I still see the sun."
     The king's army traveled far, until it came to a huge number of cows filling a valley. An enormous monster perched above the valley: "On its body were tall mountains and low hills, large rivers and small streams, big deep lakes and small shallow puddles, large forests and small thickets, fertile lands and barren deserts. In some regions of its body it was summer, and everything was fresh-green and beautiful: in others it was winter, and everything was covered in snow."
     The army went to lead the cattle away. The monster asked them, of the cattle, "Do you know whose they are?" The army told the monster, "Ugh! Get away!" Calmly, the monster said, "Very well! Take them away."
     The great herd of cattle, in following the army back to Nomxakazo, kicked up so much dust that the daytime sky became completely dark. Nomxakazo said, "Now, in truth, I cannot see the sun." She smiled. "You can carry me home."
     But ...
     a short time later, the monster came and carried Nomxakazo away. Nomxakazo's mother ran after them. "But she was just like a hen trying to overtake a hawk that had just grabbed one of her chickens and soared into the sky."
     The monster took Nomxakazo to a far-away cave and left her there. The king of a tribe of one-legged cannibals took her to be his bride, accidentally spoiled her so much that she became hideously obese, and then decided to eat her. She escaped.
     She wandered back towards her home, becoming "thin as a thread", begging for food from the people her father's army had devastated, being nursed to health by strangers whenever she fell. She reached home.
     She found that, due to the excess of dying and rotting cattle, and to the diseases her father's army had imported, the once-rich land had become barren, sick, and impoverished. Her father had gone crazy.
     Finally, Nomxakazo restored honor to her family, by going directly to a neighboring prince who planned to dishonor her family by having her kidnapped. The neighboring prince gladly went ahead with his plans to marry the strong princess. He sent her hungry people many, many cattle as a bridal dowry.

Another great story was ...

The birds held a public meeting, and they decided they'd choose one bird to be King of the Birds. Many nominated the biggest bird, Ostrich.
     But, Ostrich humbly declined, saying the King of Birds ought to be able to fly. He suggested they hold a flying contest. Whoever stayed in the air the longest and flew the highest would be crowned king.
     The next day, the contest was held, and Eagle appeared to win. But, as he was coming down, he looked up, and everyone saw the smallest bird, Grass Warbler, flying in the air above Eagle. Grass Warbler showed off a bit and sang. "Ting-ting! Ting-ting! Ntilo-ntyilo!"
     The birds didn't know Grass Warbler had won by climbing on Eagle's back and hitching a ride. Yet, most of them challenged Grass Warbler's victory. Angry Hawk even lunged at him murderously. Grass Warbler hid in a hole.
     Because the meeting was becoming disorderly, the birds decided to search for a fresh field to continue it in. The bird with the biggest eyes, Owl, was left to watch the hole so Grass Warbler wouldn't escape.
     But, as soon as the other birds had left, Grass Warbler deftly sculpted a mouse out of clay. He pushed it towards Owl, who pounced on it. It exploded. Dust got into Owl's eyes. And Grass Warbler escaped, without Owl knowing it.
     The other birds returned, announcing Grass Warbler was to be "hanged at once".
     But, when they couldn't find him, many blamed and attacked Owl. He ably defended himself and ducked into the hole. The birds could only attack him one at a time there, and not even Hawk was brave enough to do that.
     The unfortunate meeting disassembled. No King was crowned. Since this time, Grass Warbler has mostly hidden in the grass, so Hawk and other birds won't kill him.
     And Owl has been forced to hide during the daytime and move around at night. But, he still misses the "House of Bird", and he calls out:
     "Isizungu! O, Isizungu!" (Loneliness! Oh, loneliness!)

A third great story was ...

Famine struck a village.
     All the cows died. All the goats died except one.
     The family that owned the remaining goat was made up of three children: a beautiful girl named Nomabhadi, her little brother Ngubendala, and the littlest brother Sihele. They drank the milk of the goat. Meanwhile, all the other children of the village died.
     "This calamity so hit the village that all the grown-ups, except Nomabhadi's parents, seemed unable to speak." Yet, the sight and sound of Nomabhadi and her brothers made even the other grown-ups happy. These helped Nomabadhi's parents hoe their fields. When even Nomabhadi's goat had stopped giving milk, Nomabhadi's parents killed it so the whole village could take part in the feast.
     A short while later, the two remaining boys of the village fought over the little soup they had to share. "All the soup fell to the floor. In his rage, Ngubendala struck his brother on the head with the empty bowl and killed him."
     Once the grown-ups of the village heard what happened, they shouted, Oh, no!, and struck each other on the head with their hoes, until all of them had died except Nomabhadi's parents. When Nomabhadi's parents heard this, they "caught Ngubendala, killed him, and buried him next to his brother without saying a word to him or to each other."
     The crying Nomabhadi was instructed to walk over the mountains to her uncle's house. And Nomabhadi's parents set themselves and their house on fire.
     Going her way, still crying, Nomabhadi was met by a mbulu:
     "It was walking on its hind-limbs but could not hold its body up. Its body was wrapped in the skin of some animal resembling the baboon ... What (Nomabhadi) could see of its face was human, but all the facial bones were sticking out, and the cheeks were hollow, as if they'd been sucked in. Its body was hard and dry, as if drained of all blood and water. Its hands were coarse and dry, and its nails long and ugly. It had a long, lively tail that contrasted with the tail of the baboon-like animal ..."
     The mbulu called the girl 'sister' and taught her games. It became a friend for the journey.
     It also asked Nomabhadi to share the last piece of bread her mother had given her. But, when the girl offered to share, the mbulu greedily stole the bread. Nomabhadi sang:
     "My mother did warn me - mpanga-mpa! -
     "My mother did warn me - mpanga-mpa! -
     "That a mbulu would chase me - mpanga-mpa! -
     "And rob me of my bread"
     Later, the mbulu tricked the girl into bathing in a river, and while she did so it stole her clothes. Nomabhadi objected. But, the mbulu told her it would be merely a temporary exchange, as it tied its baboon-like skin in many knots around the girl.
     They approached Nomabhadi's uncle's house. Suddenly, Nomabhadi's travel companion became vicious, saying, "From this moment onwards, I am Nomabhadi and you are 'Msili-wanja' and my dog. ... If you ever open your mouth in this house, I'll kill you."
     They entered the house. The mbulu was welcomed as Nomabhadi and given "meat, milk, bread, and pumpkin". Nomabhadi was sent to lay with the dogs and feed on scraps. The poor girl despaired.
     As a dog, she was made to scare away birds from the family cornfields. She sang:
     "Tayi! Tayi-bo!
     "Three birds are eating my mother's brother's corn,
     "No mother's brother in truth,
     "For today I am a mere msili-wanja,
     "Whereas in truth I was Nomabhadi."
     But, Nomabhadi's parents appeared to her, to let her know they wanted her to live.
     Nomabhadi's uncle soon discovered the truth, the mbulu was killed, and poor Nomabhadi was restored to her rightful spot in the family.

happy endings,
Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Pitso, Lisebo, Morena Ralph Sefali, Katleu, & Mamarena; and Ntsiki Mashologu for rides in Lesotho!

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