«Compiled by Joseph G. Healey Founded in 1970, Orbis Books endeavors to publish works that enlighten the mind, nourish the spirit, and challenge the ...»
Once Upon a Time in Africa
Stories of Wisdom and Joy
Compiled by Joseph G. Healey
Founded in 1970, Orbis Books endeavors to publish works that enlighten the mind,
nourish the spirit, and challenge the conscience. The publishing arm of the Mary-
knoll Fathers and Brothers, Orbis seeks to explore the global dimensions of the
Christian faith and mission, to invite dialogue with diverse cultures and religious
traditions, and to serve the cause of reconciliation and peace. The books published reflect the views of their authors and do not represent the official position of the Maryknoll Society. To learn more about Maryknoll and Orbis Books, please visit our website at www.maryknoll.org.
Compilation and text copyright © 2004 by Joseph G. Healey.
Artwork by Samuel Bullen Ajak Alier and Manolito Corpuz copyright © 2002 St. Paul Communications/Daughters of St. Paul, Nairobi, Kenya.
Published by Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York 10545-0308.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Once upon a time in Africa : stories of wisdom and joy / compiled by Joseph G. Healey.
ISBN 1-57075-527-2 (pbk.)
1. Christian life—Catholic authors. 2. Folklore—Africa, Sub-Saharan. I. Healey, Joseph G.
BX2350.3.O53 2004 276—dc22 2003019931 In the Beginning “All that God has created is good.” Akan proverb from Ghana The nature of God is a mystery. Traditional African religion ac- knowledges God as the One Creator and Sustainer of all things.
It speaks of God’s eternal nature, which distinguishes God from what God has created. It also speaks about God’s relation to cre- ation, especially to humankind. Many of the best known scientific theories of the origins of humankind assert that indeed we came from Africa, from around the Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti in northwestern Tanzania or from South Africa or from Chad.
Because nearly all African ethnic groups have creation myths or myths of origin, more than two thousand exist. They tell of the creation of the universe, the earth, animals, and especially human beings. They also describe the separation of God and human be- ings. Unlike the story of creation and the fall in the Bible, where humans were driven from Paradise by God, most African ver- sions tell of how God withdrew into heaven because human be- ings did something wrong. Some of these stories also describe the origin of death.
Here are some African stories of how the world came to be.
Once upon a time in Africa, God created man and an elephant.
These he put in a beautiful garden and he walked with them every day. Pure water for drinking flowed in a river until the elephant started muddying the waters. He would listen to neither God nor man who told him to stop. In the end, man killed the elephant. God, though, was upset at this act and drove man out of the garden.
Hence it is that the Borana people in Ethiopia and Kenya now live in a ceaseless search for water in drought-stricken lands.
There was once a man known as Leeyio. He was the first man that Naiteru-kiop [literally “The Beginner of the Earth”] brought to earth. Naiteru-kiop called Leeyio and said to him, “When a person dies and you dispose of the corpse, you must remember to say, ‘Person die and come back again, moon die and remain away.’” Many months elapsed before anyone died. When, in the end, a neighbor’s child died, Leeyio was summoned to dispose of the body. When he took the corpse outside, he made a mistake and said, “Moon die and come back again, person die and stay away.” So, after that, no person survived death.
A few more months elapsed, and then Leeyio’s own child went “missing.” So the father took the corpse outside and said, “Moon die and remain away, person die and come back again.” On hearing this, Naiteru-kiop said to Leeyio, “You are too late, for, through your own mistake, death was born the day your neighbor’s child died.” That is how death came about, and that is why up to this day when a person dies he or she does not return, but when the moon dies, it always comes back again.
God created two people, Mulonga and Mwinambuzhi, who were to become the first man and woman. When God created them, they had not yet been differentiated into male and female. In fact, they were lacking in the things that would enable them to relieve themselves. This made them very uncomfortable.
Mulonga went to God to seek help. When God heard their problems, he realized that he had left out some important things. So he gave Mulonga two small packets and said, “One is yours and one is for Mwinambuzhi. Take them home, and before you go to bed, put one packet in your crotch and tell your companion to place the other packet in her crotch.
Mulonga took the packets and began his journey home immediately. However, the journey was a long one and he became very weary. He lay down and went to sleep, but, before he slept, he put his packet in his crotch.
When he got up, in the morning, he was surprised. He had been changed into a male and the other things that he had lacked had also been provided. He picked up the packet that he had been ordered to give to Mwinambuzhi, but he noticed that it had a bad odor and he threw it away, saying, “It’s rotten—and besides, it’s heavy.” He continued on his journey and, when he arrived home, Mwinambuzhi noticed that he had been changed. So she asked him, “What happened to you?” Mulonga told her what God had instructed him to do, but did not tell her about the packet that God had sent to her.
Mwinambuzhi decided to go to God and get some medicine too. When she found God, she told him of her problem.
God said in surprise, “Didn’t Mulonga give you the packet I sent along for you?” Mwinambuzhi replied, “No, he didn’t. He told me only about his packet.” In the Beginning / 5 So God gave Mwinambuzhi another packet along with instructions. She followed the instructions and when she awoke in the morning she found her all missing parts.
Then something new happened to them. They desired each other and they had intercourse. However, afterwards they felt strange and afraid of this new thing of knowing one another.
They decided to go to God and tell him about it because they had their doubts. God heard what they said and told them not to fear knowing one another, because this was the way in which they would conceive and bear children. After that, Mulonga and Mwinambuzhi bore many children. They cared for them and their family grew. Their children were the parents of many clans.
One day God said to Mulonga, “Why did you not carry out the orders I gave you regarding the packet for your companion?
Why did you throw hers away?” Then God said, “You did a bad thing when you did that. Therefore, as punishment from now on, when a man marries a woman, he will have to pay a dowry.”
Time passed. One day God called Mayimba, the Honey Bird, who was a friend of our ancestors. God gave Mayimba three gourds that were plugged up. He said, “Go to the man and woman I created and give them these three gourds. But you are not to open them on the way. When you get to their village, you are to tell them, ‘Open this first gourd with the seeds of all things and plant them for food, but do not open these other gourds until I come. When I come I will tell you what to do with the other two.’” Mayimba began the long journey. He grew overwhelmed with curiosity about the contents of the gourds, so he stopped and opened the first gourd with the seeds. When he verified that such was the content, he put them back in the gourd and plugged it up again.
Then he opened the second gourd. It contained medicine for curing death, illness, and tiredness and for calming wild and dangerous animals. But no one had ever experienced these things, so Mayimba did not know what they were. He put the medicine back into the gourd and replugged it.
When he got to the third gourd, he found that it was filled with death, disease, and dangerous animals. When he opened it, they all escaped and dispersed throughout the world. Mayimba tried in vain to recapture them and return them to the gourd.
Eventually, God came as he had promised, and when God saw what Mayimba had done, he became exceedingly angry.
Together they tried to recapture the bad things Mayimba had let loose, but they were unable to do so.
God was furious with Mayimba, and said to him, “You did very, very badly. It is your fault.” When Mayimba heard this, he was very frightened and escaped into the wilderness. From that time on, he ceased to live in the village of his friends.
In the Beginning / 7 Then God called the first man, Mulonga, and his wife Mwinambuzhi, and said, “Your friend Mayimba has done a great evil in failing to follow my instructions about waiting to open the gourds until I came. He has caused you great trouble. I am unable to repair what he has done. However, I will teach you how to sew clothes and build houses wherein you can stay and protect yourselves.” He taught them to kill wild animals and to use their skins.
He taught them to smelt copper. He taught them to make fire with two dry sticks. He taught them to make axes and spears and pots for cooking and collecting water. He taught them all things.
A very long time ago in Africa, God, named Ghitema, lived very near the world of human beings. God was with the people and totally involved in their affairs, helping them in their work and assisting them in their daily tasks. The people did not feel the hardships of life. In order to maintain this harmony, human beings were absolutely forbidden to shoot their arrows into the sky.
Ghitema told them it would disrupt the entire tranquility of life.
One member of the hunter clan was very inquisitive about the sky. He wanted to know whether it was so hard that an arrow could not penetrate it or whether it was as soft as butter.
So—against the command of God—this hunter shot an arrow into the sky. The sky immediately started to bleed and moved far up, away from the earth’s surface. God also went far away.
From that day on, people started to feel the hardships of life. There was no link between human beings on earth and their God on high. This is why people introduced the practice of spirits as intermediaries to present their needs to God, with each spirit having its own special function. Various sacrifices were offered to God through the spirits in order to attain God’s favor. So it is today.
A long time ago, the animal world was divided into kingdoms. At that time, the cheetah was the king of the small animals such as rabbits, tortoises, lizards, rats, worms, snails, and chameleons.
The king wanted to make his subjects more active. So, he announced that there was to be a big marathon. Whoever came first in this race would marry his daughter.
The animals practiced for a long time in preparation for the race. All of them were pleased with their progress except for the snails, the worms, and the chameleons, who didn’t seem to be improving much.
As the months passed, each animal planned various strategies for the big day. The chameleon discovered while he was practicing that he had a special talent for grasping, gripping, and holding. He was also very smart.
The day for the race came. The king lowered the flag at the starting line and the race was on! The rabbit took off at a fast pace and was soon ahead of all the other animals. He realized he was winning by a large margin and so, just for the fun of it, he stopped to take a little nap by the side of the road.
When the rabbit awoke, he ran straight for the chair that had been specially prepared for the winner. As soon as he reached the chair, he sat on it at once. He was elated at the thought of marrying the king’s daughter.
Then he heard a soft voice and felt something alive under him on the seat of the chair. He turned and looked. There— attached to his bottom and half squeezed out of existence—was the chameleon!
“Friend,” the chameleon said, “do not sit on me. I arrived on this seat before you.”
Central to the African worldview is the value of life itself. This “vital force” is described as abundant life, the fullness of life.
Many stories of everyday life in Africa portray the humor, vibrancy, energy, and creativity of the people and their culture.
As a rule, Africans take life as it is. They play the cards they are dealt and don’t feel sorry for themselves. They make the best of their lives despite daily struggles, widespread sickness, and often harsh environmental conditions. They feel God’s presence in their lives and are optimistic.
At the same, death is an important part of the African worldview. Many proverbs, myths, folktales, stories, and songs tell about death, focusing often on the transitory nature of life on earth. All people who are alive are also on the verge of dying.
Death is seen as part of living. It is nondiscriminatory and universal; eventually it claims everybody.
This emphasis on the fullness of life is significant for African Christians. In some parts of Africa, Jesus is named the “One from Whom All Life Flows” or “Proto-Ancestor.” This latter title for Jesus also reflects the African belief in the continuity of life, which includes the not-yet-born, the living, and the “living dead.” The “vital force” of life is greatly valued, but death, in the end, does not totally separate the dead from the living.
Here, then, is a taste of life in Africa.
11 I Am the Dancing Man
In a small village in southern Africa, near a river, there once lived an orphan boy named Joseph. When he was still very small, Joseph knew that life in the village was dreary and hard.