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Dennis DrabelleIn these folktales, Smith (who was born in Zimbabwe and now teaches law at Edinburgh University) acts as a veritable bridge between cultures.
— The Washington Post
A girl discovers that her young husband might actually be a lion in disguise, but not before they have two sons who might actually be cubs . . . When a child made of wax follows ...
A girl discovers that her young husband might actually be a lion in disguise, but not before they have two sons who might actually be cubs . . . When a child made of wax follows his curiosity outside into the heat of daylight and melts, his siblings shape him into a bird with feathers made of leaves that enable him to fly into the light . . . Talking hyenas, milk-giving birds, clever cannibals who nonetheless get their comeuppance, and mysterious forces that reside in the landscape—these wonderful fables bring us the wealth, the variety, and the particular magic of traditional African lore.
Pitipiti loved her husband and it made her sad to see his affection for her vanishing as he waited for the birth of children. Eventually, when it was clear that she was not a woman for bearing a child, Pitipiti's husband married another wife. Now he lived in the big kraal with his new young wife, and Pitipiti heard much laughter coming from the new wife's hut. Soon there was a first child, and then another.
Pitipiti went to take gifts to the children, but she was rebuffed by the new wife.
"For so many years Mzizi wasted his time with you," the new wife mocked. "Now in just a short time I have given him children. We do not want your gifts."
She looked for signs in her husband's eyes of the love that he used to show for her, but all she saw was the pride that he felt on being the father of children. It was as if she no longer existed for him. Her heart cold within her, Pitipiti made her way back to her lonely hut and wept. What was there left for her to live for now--her husband would not have her and her brothers were far away. She would have to continue living by herself and she wondered whether she would be able to bear such loneliness.
Some months later, Pitipiti was ploughing her fields when she heard a cackling noise coming from some bushes nearby. Halting the oxen, she crept over to the bushes and peered into them. There, hiding in the shade, was a guinea fowl. The guinea fowl saw her and cackled again.
"I am very lonely," he said. "Will you make me your child?"
Pitipiti laughed. "But I cannot have a guinea fowl for my child!" she exclaimed. "Everyone would laugh at me."
The guinea fowl seemed rather taken aback by this reply, but he did not give up.
"Will you make me your child just at night?" he asked. "In the mornings I can leave your hut very early and nobody will know."
Pitipiti thought about this. Certainly this would be possible: if the guinea fowl was out of the hut by the time the sun arose, then nobody need know that she had adopted it. And it would be good, she thought, to have a child, even if it was really a guinea fowl.
"Very well," she said, after a few moments' reflection. "You can be my child."
The guinea fowl was delighted, and that evening, shortly after the sun had gone down, he came to Pitipiti's hut. She welcomed him and made him an evening meal, just as any mother would do with her child. They were both very happy.
Still the new wife laughed at Pitipiti. Sometimes she would pass by Pitipiti's fields and jeer at her, asking her why she grew crops if she had no mouths to feed. Pitipiti ignored these jibes, but inside her every one of them was like a small sharp spear that cuts and cuts.
The guinea fowl heard these taunts from a tree in which he was sitting, and he cackled with rage. For the new wife, though, these sounds were just the sound of a bird in a tree.
"Mother," the guinea fowl asked that night, "why do you bear the insults of that other woman?"
Pitipiti could think of no reply to this. In truth there was little that she could do. If she tried to chase away the new wife, then her husband would be angry with her and might send her away altogether. There was nothing she could do.
The bird, however, thought differently. He was not going to have his mother insulted in this way, and the following day he arose early and flew to the highest tree that overlooked the fields of the new wife. There, as the sun arose, he called out a guinea fowl song:
Come, friends, there is grain to eat!
Come and eat all this woman's grain!
It did not take long for the new wife to realize what was happening. Shouting with anger, she ran out into the fields and killed Pitipiti's guinea fowl and his friends. Then she took them back to her hut, plucked out their feathers, and began to cook them.
Mzizi was called to the feast and together he and his new wife ate all the guinea fowl at one sitting. It was a tasty meal and they were both very pleased with themselves for having made such a good start to the day.
No sooner had they finished the last morsel than Mzizi and the new wife heard the sound of singing coming from their stomachs. It was the guinea fowls singing their guinea fowl songs. This, of course, frightened the couple and they immediately seized long knives and stabbed at their stomachs to stop the noise. As the knives pierced their skins, bright blood flowed freely and they fell to the ground. As they fell, from out of the wounds came the guinea fowl and his friends, cackling with joy at their freedom. Soon they were back in the field, eating the last of the grain that was left.
Pitipiti was pleased that she no longer had to suffer the taunts of the new wife. She now owned her husband's cattle, and because of this there were many men waiting to marry her. All of them, of course, were happy at the thought that they might marry a wife who had such a clever and unusual child.
A Bad Way to Treat Friends
It used to be that Leopard, Goat, Guinea Fowl, and Wild Cat were all good friends. They lived together in the same place, near some hills that came out of the plains, and where there was good water and cool places to sleep.
Goat had some very fine children, of which she was justly proud. They were strong and healthy, and they could stand on their back legs and eat the leaves from the shrubs that other animals could not reach. They were very clever children, too, and knew a lot about the world, which made other children envious. Leopard's children were not very strong. They could not run as fast as leopard children normally run, and their coats were dull and matted.
When Leopard saw Goat's children playing in the grass, her heart was filled with hatred for them. These children made her own children look so thin and weak that she wished that they could be got rid of. In that way her own children would be the healthiest and strongest children in that place. But how was she to get Goat to go away long enough for her to deal with Goat's children? The idea came to her that she would ask Goat to go and look for a new dress for her, as she had been invited--or so she would say--to a party to be held by her cousins.
Goat agreed to Leopard's request, and she went off to the other side of the river to look for a fine new dress for her friend Leopard. She left her children behind, telling them not to wander away but to stay within sight of Leopard, who would look after them. These strong children, who were also very obedient, agreed to do what their mother had asked them. All the time, Leopard was watching this, watching, watching.
Once Goat had gone, Leopard crouched down and began to stalk Goat's children through the long grass. The poor children, not knowing the danger that was now so close to them, were full of happiness. Then, in an instant, Leopard was upon them. She seized them and carried them back to her place by the scruff of their necks. The children thought that this must be a game, as Leopard was their mother's friend, and they continued to laugh and smile even as they were dragged along.
Once she had captured all the children, Leopard tied up their mouths and wrapped them in leaves. Now they were bundles ready to take off to the party, where they would be eaten by Leopard and her cousins. Unknown to Leopard, though, Guinea Fowl and Wild Cat had returned from a journey, and they watched in dismay as they saw what Leopard was doing. They were saddened by the thought that these happy children of Goat would no longer be jumping up and down in the grass and singing their goat songs that they all so liked to hear. They could not believe that Leopard would be wicked enough to do such a thing, but now they saw it all before their very eyes.
Shortly afterwards, Goat returned from the other side of the river, bearing a fine new dress which she had bought for Leopard. Leopard was very pleased with this, as she was a vain person who liked to wear fine dresses and admire her reflection in the water. While Leopard was busy trying on her new dress, Guinea Fowl and Wild Cat crept round to the place where the parcels were stored and they took the leaves off Goat's children.
"You must go and hide," they said to the children. "Make sure that Leopard doesn't see you, though, for she is very wicked."
Goat's children, shocked by what had happened to them, went off into the bushes, stifling their tears as they did so. Guinea Fowl and Wild Cat did not go with them, as they had business to do. Seeing Leopard's children nearby, they went over to them and very quickly overpowered them. It was not difficult to do, as Leopard's children were weak and sickly. Then they wrapped them in leaves--the very leaves which only a short time ago had been wrapped around Goat's children.
It was now time for everybody to set off to the party. Leopard, who was pleased with herself in her new dress, did not bother to find out where her children were and had no idea that they were inside the parcels which she was carrying. So when Guinea Fowl and Wild Cat asked her what was in these parcels, she replied only that there was good meat for them to have at the party.
When they arrived at the party, Leopard told her cousins that they should put the parcels into the pot unopened. She did not want Goat, who was there, to see that her children were being put into the pot. Guinea Fowl, though, realized the danger that they were in, and she whispered to Goat and Wild Cat that they should all run away before the parcels were taken out of the pot.
When Leopard took out the parcels and opened them, she saw that her own children were inside and had been cooked. This made her cry out in anger and run back to their place by the hills, so that she might catch Goat and her children and punish them. But they had left by the time she got there, and that is why even to this day we see leopards searching for goats.
A Girl Who Lived in a Cave
A girl who had only one brother liked the place where she and her parents lived. There was a river nearby, where she could draw water, and the family's cattle enjoyed the sweet grass which grew by the riverside. The huts were shaded from the hot sun by the broad leaves of the trees, and at night there was a soft breeze from the hills, which kept them cool. Passersby who called in to drink water from the family's calabashes would say how much they envied that quiet place, and how their own places were so much drier and dustier.
Then a terrible thing happened, which spoiled the happiness of the family. The girl had gone to fetch water from the river and was walking back to her hut with a large calabash on her head. Suddenly she began to feel that she was being followed. At first she did nothing, but then, when the feeling became quite strong, she turned round and looked behind her. There was nothing to be seen, although the tall grass moved and there was a faint sound, rather like that which a creature makes when it scurries through a bush.
The girl continued on her way. After she had taken a few more steps she again heard a noise. This time she swung round more sharply, dropping the calabash to the ground. There was a man behind her, crouching down, half in the grass, half out of it.
The girl was frightened by the sight of the man, but she tried not to show her fear. He smiled at her, and rose to his feet.
"You must not be afraid of me," he said. "I am just walking in the grass."
The girl could not understand why a man should wish to walk in the grass, but she did not say anything. The man came up to her and reached out to touch her.
"You are a nice, fat girl," he said.
The girl was now very nervous and moved away from the man's touch.
"My father's place is just there," she said. "I can see the smoke from his fire."
The man looked in the direction of the huts.
"If that is so," he said, "I can walk with you to your father's place, where I can eat some food."
The girl walked ahead of the man and soon they came to the circle of huts under the trees. There the stranger waited at the gate while the girl went in to tell her father that there was a man who wished to eat some food. The father came out, called to the man, and invited him to sit on a stone under one of the trees. Food was made by the girl's mother and given to the man. He took it and put it all into his mouth in one piece. Then he swallowed, and all the food was gone. The girl had not seen a man in this way before and wondered why he should be so hungry.
After the man had eaten, he got up and said good-bye to the father. He looked around him before he left, as if he was trying to remember what the family looked like and what they owned. Then he walked off and was soon obscured by the tall grass that grew in that part.
The girl went to stand by her father's side.
"That was a very wicked man," said the father. "I am very sorry that he visited this place."
"I am sure he will not come back," the girl said. "He was going somewhere else when I met him."
The father shook his head sadly.
"Now that he is here," he said, "we shall have to leave. I shall tell your brother to collect his sleeping mat and get ready for us to go to some other place."
|A letter from Mma Ramotswe|
|Guinea fowl child||3|
|A bad way to treat friends||8|
|A girl who lived in a cave||13|
|Hare fools the baboons||23|
|Sister of bones||36|
|Beware of friends you cannot trust||53|
|Children of wax||57|
|A tree to sing to||72|
|A blind man catches a bird||78|
|Hare fools lion - again||82|
|Why elephant and hyena live far from people||99|
|The wife who could not work||107|
|The sad story of tortoise and snail||119|
|An old man who saved some ungrateful people||125|
|The girl who married a lion||141|
|Two bad friends||146|
|How a strange creature took the place of a girl, and then fell into a hole||152|
|Greater than lion||160|
|The grandmother who was kind to a smelly girl||169|
|The baboons who went this way and that||173|
|Two friends who met for dinner||177|
|The Thathana Moratho tree||181|
|Tremendously clever tricks are played, but to limited effect||185|
Posted October 8, 2011
Many of us have read Aesop's Fables, which teach us about man's foibles and morality, but I had never heard of many of these tales from Africa. These folk tales from Zimbabwe and Botswana are told by former law professor Alexander McCall Smith, a native of Zimbabwe, who now makes his home far to the north in Scotland. Africa maintains a rich tradition of oral literature and these stories are told with humor and spirit. Allow me to describe two of these tales to give the reader some idea of what I mean.
In A Girl Who Lived In A Cave, a cannibal confronts a girl returning to her family's home. When the family invites him to share a meal with them, he gobbles it up and abruptly leaves. The cannibal's appearance makes the family uneasy and they decide to depart. The young girl objects to leaving her beautiful home, but decides to live in a nearby cave while her family is gone. Soon, the girl's brother returns to check on his sister, singing her a special song to gain entrance to the cave. Unfortunately, the cannibal overhears the tune and later tricks the girl into allowing him to enter her sanctuary. The girl is captured and trussed up, while the cannibal lights a fire, preparing to eat her for his dinner. Like an avenging angel, the brother returns, pushes the cannibal into the flames instead and happily frees his sister.
The Girl Who Married A Lion is about Kumalo's daughter, who married a fine strong man. Soon, the woman's brother begins to worry that his sister has really married a lion in disguise. Several years go by and the woman bears two fine sons, but the brother worries that his brother-in-law still may have deceived his bride. Using a goat as bait, they trick the brother-in-law, finally driving him off. Now, the woman worries that her sons may somehow become lions, too. In a daring test, they cage the two sons in an area infested by lions, judging that if the boys are truly lions, the huge carnivores will not attack two of their own kind. The uncle is forced to defend his nephews to save the boys from the charging lions. Thus reassured, the woman once again welcomes her sons home.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book! Children will really like this rare and wonderful departure from the more traditional folk tales. I embraced the difference and am the better for it.