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Death in African folktales

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When my father died in July, I was shattered. I became inconsolable. I rose and fell. My mind went into turmoil.
Then out of the blue, weeks later, an idea came into my mind; a new project, collecting African tales and legends on the origins and purpose of death. I would be gradual and meticulous and see what happens.
Across Southern Africa, there is one common tale about the origins of death. The following version is from the Zulu community. Records indicate that it was told to Dr Calaway by one Fulatela Sithole.

It goes: It is said he (Unkulunkulu) sent a chameleon (lunwabe), go and say, “Let not men die!”’ The chameleon set out; it went slowly, it loitered in the way; and as it went, it ate of the fruit of the bush which is called Ubukwebezane. At length Unkulunkulu sent a lizard (intulo the blue headed gecko) after the chameleon had already set out for some time. The lizard went; it ran and made great haste, for Unkulunkulu had said, “Lizard, when you have arrived say, ‘Let men die!”’

So the lizard went and said, “I tell you, it is said, ‘Let men die.”’ The lizard came back again to Unkulunkulu before the chameleon had reached his destination. At length the chameleon arrived and shouted, “It is said, ‘Let not men die!”’ But men answered, “Oh, we have accepted the word of the lizard; it has told us the word, ‘It is said “Let men die.’” We cannot hear your word. Through the word of the lizard men will die.”

This is a baffling tale! It does not say why lizard went at such great speed, overtaking chameleon. There is no mention too of why the Creator sent lizard when he had already sent chameleon. It is also unknown why men entertained lizard’s version which was clearly against men.
In the village where I grew up, when my brothers came across the lizard in the fields, they hit it, shouting, “He is the one who ran ahead of the chameleon to declare that men should die!”
When they came across the chameleon, they hit it, saying, “Here is the fool who took all day to come and declare the good news that men should not die!”

Then there is the story about the hare and death from the Nama community of Namibia, retold by Winifreda Hoernle. It goes: Once the Moon charged the hare to go to men and say “As I die and rise to life again, so shall you die and rise to life again.” So the hare went to men but either out of forgetfulness or malice, he reversed the message and said “As I die and do not rise to life again so shall you also die and not rise to life again.” Then he went back to the Moon and she asked him what he had said. He told her and when she heard how he had given the wrong message, she was so angry that she threw a stick at him and split his lip which is the reason why the hare’s lip is still split.

So it is said that the hare ran away and is still running to this day. Some people however say that before he fled, he clawed the Moon’s face which still bears the marks of the scratching as anybody may see for himself on a clear moonlight night. So the Nama are still angry with the hare for bringing death into the world and they will not let initiated men partake of its flesh.
So you can see that it is a tale about the dangers of not getting clear details and running to act more out of impulse. The results can be irreparable. Strangely it is the people on the receiving end who suffered from hare’s impetuousness.

The Baganda people in Uganda have an interesting tale on the origins of death, recorded in the African American institute, school services diary. The story says that Kintu, the ancestor of all Baganda in Uganda, fell in love with Nambi, the beautiful daughter of God. After Kintu had proved himself a worthy husband for her, God decided they could marry. The wedding took place in Heaven and after-wards; the couple was to return to earth.
To help them establish themselves there, God gave the couple a goat, sheep, fowl and the banana tree. Then He told them to leave early the next morning before Nambi’s brother, Walumbe (Death), returned from his journey. Walumbe was very fond of his sister and would be very angry if he thought she went away without him; on the other hand, God did not want Walumbe to descend to earth for he knew his capacity.

The next morning, Nambi and Kintu left very early. As they were half-way to earth, Nambi remembered she had forgotten the grain to feed the fowl. Against her father’s warning, she rushed back to Heaven hoping to avoid running into Walumbe. But she did not. Her brother was furious and he refused to let her out of his sight, insisting on going with her to her new home. And that is how Death came to people on earth.
That is a tale showing that death came as a result of the great love between siblings and that life and death were inseparable because they came into the world together. They go everywhere together! But you also wonder if Nambi had really forgotten the grain. Was she not simply afraid of coming down to earth without her terrible brother?

From the same African American institute, school services diary is a tale about the origins of death from the Ngbandi of Zaire. It says that long ago, Death and Soul were enemies. Death used to brag that he could kill Soul; Soul always answered: “I will not be killed.” Every time Death tried to defeat Soul, something happened to his plans and he failed.
One day Death decided he had a foolproof plan for getting Soul. First, he sent Soul an invitation to come to a feast where they would swear to live at peace forever. Then he called in all his soldiers for a meeting. Now Soul was somewhat suspicious of Death’s real intentions so he asked his friend Bat to go to Death’s town and see what he could learn.

Bat went and hung upside down under the eaves of Death’s roof, where no one noticed him. Soon he heard Death say to his soldiers, “Finally I am going to kill Soul. I have invited him here as my guest. I shall let him sleep in my house and I shall move into a smaller place so he sees that I want the very best for his comfort. When he is asleep, you, Lightning, will go up to a cloud and as it passes over the house, you will jump from it on to the place and destroy Soul.”
Death’s soldiers thought this was a very good plan. Bat flew home to tell Soul. Soul arrived at Death’s town and was received with great ceremony. Death vacated his house for his honoured guest and everyone, but Bat, settled down for a good night’s sleep. When Bat saw the cloud approaching, he quickly awakened Soul and they rushed away from the town back to their home. The house was destroyed totally.

Death was ecstatic and ordered a large celebration, especially to honor Lightning, because he had finally killed Soul. Just as they were about to begin, they heard the noises from afar of the celebration Soul had begun because he was saved. Death was so angry and humiliated; he vowed never to have an encounter with Soul again. Since then the Soul has been immortal.
This tale is crucial in identifying why death only kills the body and not the soul itself.

However, in certain African traditions, death is actually seen as a necessity! They think that without magic, diseases, knives, lances, war, and death, life would be just eating, drinking, sleeping, digestion. It would not be good to live without dying. Therefore death is actually a good and it is thought that man actually desires death!
According to a Tunisian legend, as reported in the writings of Hans Abrahamsson, it was ‘Azrā’īl who “brought early death into the world.” The first people lived for hundreds of years. Thus one virgin had lived for five hundred years before she died. Moses one day found her anklets, which had been taken off before her death, and prayed to Allah that he might be allowed to see the owner.

Allah made the woman rise up from the grave, but in the course of her conversation with Moses she bewailed the fact that she had been brought back to life. She had already lived for far too long and had become tired of life. Moses then prayed that Allah might let people die earlier, more especially as they had begun to become too numerous, “so Allah decreed that they should die after some sixty or seventy years, and told Azrael to see to this is implemented!”

In line with the above legend, it is reported that among the Yoruba of Nigeria, there is the notion that men had at one time actually desired death. It is said that a very long time ago, people did not die. Instead, they grew to an immense size; but when they became older; they shrank, and became as little as children. They were then transformed into stones. “There were so many old folk crawling around that people asked Olorun to free them from life. Olorun agreed, and so the very elderly died.”

According to a tradition among the Bamum of Cameroon, God had created men healthy and strong. He could therefore not understand that many of them suddenly became cold and stiff. One day he met Death, and asked him if it was he who caused this. Death declared that he would show God that the people themselves summoned him. God concealed himself behind a banana-hedge, and Death sat down by the wayside. First came an old, racked slave, who bewailed his lot and said: “Oh, the dead are well off! If only I had never been born!” He immediately fell down dead.
The next to come that way was an old woman. She, too, complained about the troubles of life and fell lifeless to the ground. Death then said to God: “Do you see now that she has called for me?” God then went away grieved, since his creatures called upon Death.

Also among the Ngala of Congo, men wished to die out of weariness with life’s difficulties. Formerly, there were human beings in heaven. They did not die, nor do they die now. There were also people on earth, and they did not die either. But one day God asked the people on earth: “Would you like to live forever, or live well for awhile and then die?” And the people on earth answered: “We want to die because there are too many bad things in the world!” Since then, men are subject to death!
As indicated in the writings of given by R. Maugham, the same notion of the origin of death occurs also in the “Zambezi region.” The information is that among the Ravi, Yao, Teve, Nyungwe, Nyanja, Lolo, Makua, Rgwe and Sena, people say that a long time ago, death occurred only as a consequence of war, murder or attacks by wild animals. Human life was otherwise unlimited. Children grew up to become men and women and lived on without becoming either old or infirm.

The consequence of this was such a rapid increase of the population that far-sighted persons in the community began to become uneasy at the prospect of a time when the resources of the earth could not possibly suffice for the needs of all.
They therefore held a meeting, and decided that a change must be brought about that would set a limit to the length of human life. “To compass this, the only possible method was to petition the world of spirits so to order the destinies of mankind that, after a reasonable period of life on earth, the sons of men might qualify for admission to the celestial circle by the processes of bodily decay.”
Ladies and gentlemen, my project on collecting African tales and legends on the origins and purpose of death continues! This is all I could share.

Memory Chirere

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Conclusion

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Last week I was talking about how jokes, or humour generally, can help get one through the most desperate situations (although it’s like taking a paracetamol for a headache; a much, much stronger resort is faith). I used the example of how Polish Jews, trapped and dying in the Warsaw ghetto, used humour to get them through day by day.

A similar, though less nightmarish, situation obtains in today’s Nigeria. Conditions there are less hellish than those of the Warsaw ghetto, but still pretty awful. There are massive redundancies, so millions of people are jobless. Inflation is at about 30% and the cost of living is sky-rocketing, with the most basic foodstuffs often unavailable. There is the breakdown of basic social services.

And endemic violence, with widespread armed robbery (to travel by road from one city to another you take your life in your hands) and the frequent kidnapping for ransom of schoolchildren and teachers. In a recent issue of the Punch newspaper (Lagos) Taiwo Obindo, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Jos, writes of the effects of economic hardship and insecurity on his people’s mental health.

He concludes: “We should see the funny side of things. We can use humour to handle some things. Don’t take things to heart; laugh it off.”

Professor Obindo doesn’t, regrettably, give examples of the humour he prescribes, but I remember two from a period when things were less grim. Power-cuts happened all the time — a big problem if you’re trying to work at night and can’t afford a generator.

And so the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) was universally referred to as Never Expect Power Always. And second, for inter-city travel there was a company called Luxurious Buses. Believe me, the average Lesotho kombi is a great deal more luxurious (I can’t remember ever having to sit on the floor of one of those).

And because of the dreadful state of Nigerian roads and the frequent fatal crashes, Luxurious Buses were referred to as Luxurious Hearses.

Lesotho’s newspaper thepost, for which I slave away tirelessly, doesn’t use humour very much. But there is Muckraker. I’ve always wondered whether Muckraker is the pen-name of a single person or a group who alternate writing the column.

Whatever, I’d love to have a drink with him / her/ them and chew things over. I like the ironic pen-name of the author(s). Traditionally speaking, a muckraker is a gossip, someone who scrabbles around for titbits (usually sexual) on the personal life of a celebrity — not exactly a noble thing to do.

But thepost’s Muckraker exposes big problems, deep demerits, conducted by those who should know and do better — problems that the powerful would like to be swept under the carpet, and the intention of Muckraker’s exposure is corrective.

And I always join in the closing exasperated “Ichuuuu!” (as I do this rather loudly, my housemates probably think I’m going bonkers).

Finally I want to mention television satire. The Brits are renowned for this, an achievement dating back to the early 1960s and the weekly satirical programme “TW3” (That Was The Week That Was). More recently we have had “Mock the Week”, though, despite its popularity, the BBC has cancelled this.

The cancellation wasn’t for political reasons. For decades the UK has been encumbered with a foul Conservative government, though this year’s election may be won by Labour (not such very good news, as the Labour leadership is only pseudo-socialist). “Mock the Week” was pretty even-handed in deriding politicians; the BBC’s problem was, I imagine, with the programme’s frequent obscenity.

As an example of their political jokes, I quote a discussion on the less than inspiring leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer. One member of the panel said: “Labour may well have a huge lead in the polls at present, but the day before election day Starmer will destroy it by doing something like accidentally infecting David Attenborough with chicken-pox.”

And a favourite, basically non-political interchange on “Mock the Week” had to do with our former monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Whatever one thinks about the British monarchy as an institution, the Queen was much loved, but the following interchange between two panellists (A and B) was fun:

A: Is the Queen’s nickname really Lilibet?
B: Yes, it is.
A: I thought her nickname was Her Majesty.
B: That’s her gang name.

OK, dear readers, that’s enough humour from me for a while. Next week I’m turning dead serious — and more than a little controversial — responding to a recent Insight piece by Mokhosi Mohapi titled “A reversal of our traditions and culture.” To be forewarned is to be prepared.

Chris Dunton

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Insight

Reading, writing and the art of reflection

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There is a close thread that runs through what you reflect on, what you read and what sticks in your mind. It’s almost a cyclic process with regards to how all these processes unfold. Today, in this installment we focus on the thread between reading, reflection and writing.

This appears a bit cumbersome to explain. But let’s simplify it. Let’s begin with a beautiful poem which encompasses what we have so far spoken about. Here we are! The poem is penned by “Tachibama Akemi.” It goes:

It is a pleasure
When, rising in the morning,
I go outside and
Find that a flower has blossomed
That was not there yesterday.

Seemingly, the poem is simple. But, on close analysis, it reflects very deep reflection and thoughtfulness.

The persona, in an existential fashion, reflects all about the purpose and meaning of life and his place in the overall matrix of life.

The persona carefully reflects on nature. This is what makes all this poem rustic and romantic.

The persona thinks deeply about the blossoming flowers and how the process of the growth of flowers appears almost inadvertently.

It is a poem about change, healing, the lapse of time and the changes or vissiccitudes in the life of a person are reflected creatively through imagery and poetry. We all go through that, isn’t it? We all react and respond to love, truth and beauty.

So far everything appears very interesting. Let’s just put to the fore some good and appealing thoughts. Let’s enlarge on reading, writing and reflection.

Kindly keep in mind that thoughts must be captured, told, expressed and shared through the magical power of the written word.

As a person, obviously through keeping entries in a journal, there is no doubt that you have toyed about thoughts and ideas and experiences you wish you could put across.

Here is an example you can peek from Anthony. Anthony likes writing. He tells us that in his spare time he likes exploring a lot. And, more often than not he tells us,

“I stop, and think, and then when I find something, I just keep on writing.”

So crisp, but how beautiful. Notice something interesting here; you need to stop, to take life effortlessly and ponderously, as it were; observe, be attentive to your environment; formulate thought patterns and then write.

To some extent, this article builds on our previous experiences when we spoke at length about the reading process.

But how can you do it? It’s not pretty much different. I can help you from my previous life as a teacher of English Languge.

The most important skill you must cultivate is that of listening, close listening. Look at how people and events mingle.

What makes both of you happy; enjoy it. I am sure you still keep that journal in which you enter very beautiful entries. Reflect about Maseru, the so-called affluent city. So majestic!

How can you picture it in writing!

I am glad you learnt to reflect deep and write. Thank you very much. Kindly learn and perfect the craft of observing, reflecting and writing. Learn that connection. Let’s meet for another class.

Vuso Mhlanga

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Insight

The Joker Returns: Part One

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Don’t be put off by the title, esteemed readers; what follows has nothing to do with the Batman films. As you will be happily (or unhappily) aware, I am a big fan of jokes. There’s a common understanding that a joke is ruined if you have to explain it, and this is true, but some jokes do need a bit of background explanation. Anyway. I like jokes and I like thinking about how they work.

Many of my favourite jokes have to do with language and the way we use it. For example: “I just bought myself a thesaurus. I similar it very much.”

Other jokes have to do with human behaviour and here it is important, out of respect for others, to avoid jokes that perpetuate stereotypical ideas about gender, race, nationality, and so on. I’m afraid the following joke does depend upon a stereotype (I’ll come back to that), but here goes, after a bit of background information.

In Lesotho you have an insect called a praying mantis — stick-like, bright green, and with great bulging eyes. They are rather lovable, despite the off-putting fact that the female practices insect cannibalism; after mating, she consumes the male. So, now you’ve had your zoological primer, here goes.

Two praying mantises are getting up close and personal. The female says to the male: “before we have sex and I bite your head off, could you help me put up some shelves?”

Apologies to female readers, because, as I said, that joke perpetuates a gender stereotype, namely, that women are good with a vacuum cleaner or a dustpan and brush, but hopeless with a hammer and nails.

There are many jokes that are, as it were, much more serious than that. As I rattled on about in a couple of earlier columns, many of these are satirical — jokes that are designed to point a finger at human folly or even wickedness. In another column, titled “Should we laugh?”, I explored the question “is there any subject that should be kept out of the range of humour?”

Well, apparently not, if we take on board the following account of the Warsaw ghetto.

Historical preface first.

The Warsaw ghetto represents one of the worst atrocities in modern history. In November 1940 the genocidal Nazis rounded up all the Jews in Poland’s capital and herded them into a small sector of the city, which they euphemistically, cynically, dubbed the “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw.”

Here nearly half a million Jews were in effect imprisoned, barely subsisting on tiny food rations. An estimated quarter of a million were sent off to the death camps. An uprising against the Nazi captors was brutally crushed. Around 100 000 died of starvation or disease.

Not much to laugh about there, you might say. But then consider the following, which I’ve taken from the New York Review of Books of February 29th this year:

“In the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1941 Mary Berg, then a teenager, wrote in her diary about the improbable persistence of laughter in that hellish place: ‘Every day at the Art Café on Leszno Street one can hear songs and satire on the police, the ambulance service, the rickshaws, and even the Gestapo, [on the latter] in a veiled fashion. The typhoid epidemic itself is the subject of jokes. It is laughter through tears, but it is laughter. This is not our only weapon in the ghetto — our people laugh at death and at the Nazi decrees. Humour is the only thing the Nazis cannot understand.’”

To be concluded

Chris Dunton

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