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Death in African folktales



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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