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On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 5

Moyra has been exploring the universal meaning of mythical stories, the connection between the ancient stories and our present lives. She continues…

I will tell you a story now that is so rich in meaning and fascinated me so much I put it in my own book: Mythical Journeys, Legendary Quests.

Before people as we know them today existed, very different beings walked the earth. One of these, Kivanga, felt lost and lonely, for his twin sister had been given in marriage to one of the cannibalistic Nzondo who lived in the Underworld. He chose eight companions he could trust, and set off on the long and difficult journey to the Underworld. They climbed mountains and crossed rivers but always kept moving westwards – for it is in the west that the sun sinks and enters the Underworld.

All the time they ran, the companions sang.

At last they came to the great shimmering sheet of water that divides the one world from the other. There they paused – for to cross this water took more courage than any of them knew they possessed.

Kivanga stood upon the shore and raised his arms. This was not the ocean in which he and his sister had bathed as children. This was the water that was before the First Things. To step into this was to risk everything.

‘Let us call to your twin,’ one of his companions urged. ‘She may hear you and come to you.’ ‘If we step in, we may never step out,’ another said. ‘I can fight any warrior on dry land,’ a third spoke up, ‘but I cannot swim.’

‘There will be no swimming,’ Kivanga said, ‘for this is not the ocean we played in as children.’ He looked each one of his companions in the eye, and each one then knew that he would not give up the journey until he had been reunited with his twin. He stepped forward.

One by one they followed him, gripping their weapons, singing the song of warriors going into battle.

Kivanga felt nothing as his foot touched the water between the worlds. It was as though there was nothing there. He looked around himself and thought at first that nothing had changed. His companions were behind him, singing boldly but gazing around themselves in nervous bewilderment. They were among fields and forests and mountains as they had been before. It was all so familiar and yet – and yet there seemed to be a subtle difference, a strange, haunting ‘otherness’ about the place he could not have explained or described.

He straightened his shoulders and clutched his assegai more tightly. He beckoned to his companions to move forward. As they did so, they found themselves confronting a huge door set in walls so thick and high not even a gazelle could leap over them. It was made of the mighty trunks of hardwood trees, studded and hinged with bronze, and its surface was carved with a myriad leering faces. The faces were staring at Kivanga and his companions.

The warriors sang louder to cover their fear, as Kivanga examined the door to see how it could be opened. There was no handle. No catch. No lock. It was a door meant not to be opened. Several of the companions suggested they should retreat while the others looked fearfully over their shoulders, wondering how they could go back when the water they had stepped through was no longer there.

‘If we are to open this,’ Kivanga thought, ‘we will have to make magic.’ And out of a pouch at his side he took a small cult figure made from the white river clay of his home village. He held it up to the door. ‘Mbenza,’ he declared. ‘Master of the earth! Great being beyond all beings! Give me the strength to open this door – for my twin sister is unhappy and I feel her unhappiness.’

The image in his hand trembled, for the great god understood unhappiness. Had he not been lonely before he created the world? The companions, seeing the image shaking, took heart and sang louder than ever. It was no longer a battle song – but a song of power for the earth.

The earth moved, and the door swung open. Singing in triumph, the little band of warriors passed through.

Before them they saw a landscape that was dark, yet its features were somehow visible. It was frozen, yet it did not freeze them. They ran in step with the rhythm of their song and passed deep into the Land of Mystery until they came to the village of the Nzondo. They paused and looked down on it from a hill. They saw the creatures moving about; the women grinding corn; the men sharpening their assegai tips. The companions no longer sang, but at Kivanga’s command stayed silent, scarcely daring to breathe. He stared into the village, watching every movement. At last he saw his twin sitting by the ashes of a cooking fire, her shoulders bent, her eyes on the ground. He longed to rush in and sweep her up in his arms, but he knew the Nzondo were strong and vicious and might soon overpower his small band.

He thought deeply, his great head in his hands. Then he whispered to his companions. Very slowly, very quietly they began to sing again. At first they sang so softly that not even they could catch the sound, then gradually, gradually they increased the volume. The ground began to vibrate as though there were drums being beaten in caverns deep under the ground. One or two of the Nzondo paused what they were doing and looked up, but the sound was such that it made them feel sleepy. One by one they yawned and stretched and fell down where they were, fast asleep. Only Kivanga’s twin did not sleep. She recognised the song of her people and she lifted her head to listen. She wept with joy when she saw her brother coming towards her – his huge, ungainly figure was the most beautiful sight she had seen in a long, long time.

The companions stayed on the outskirts of the village, still singing while Kivanga and his sister were reunited.

‘Come,’ he said. ‘We must go. The song cannot hold them forever.’ He took her hand. ‘Wait,’ she said. ‘There are things we must take with us.’ And she led them to the chief’s hut. Inside the dim exterior he could see that the walls were hung with masks.

‘See,’ she said. ‘My husband’s people stole these from Mbenza, the Master of the Earth. We must take them back. With these masks the people will become who they were meant to be.’ Kivanga helped her load the masks into a cloth, which she hung on her back.

They heard a sound outside the hut. The Nzondos were beginning to wake. ‘Hurry!’ he whispered. And they ran. Seeing that their enemies were waking, the companions gripped their assegais and changed their song to one of battle, but as soon as Kivanga and his twin were with them they turned and ran back the way they had come. The Nzondo pursued, yelling imprecations and throwing their spears.

The door was still open and they rushed through, Kivanga helping his sister who was staggering under the weight of the masks. Then he turned and put his great weight against the door. At last, with a groan, it moved and creaked shut, closing them off safely from their angry pursuers.

Kivanga lifted the burden from his sister now that he no longer had to be prepared to fight and, hand in hand, they stepped into the water that was between the worlds and emerged in their own land. There, Mbenza rewarded them for the return of the masks and founded the first village of humans as we know them today.

But humans are never safe from the revenge of the Nzondo and the masks must be used in sacred rites continually, to hold the dark forces at bay. Underworld spirits lurk under pebbles, seeking to blind and paralyse their enemies, to break bones and deform limbs. The priests of Mbenza with their allies, the water spirits, have to work hard to counteract their malice and keep the human form intact.

Next time – Commentary and conclusion…

On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 1
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 2
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 3
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 4
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 5
On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 6

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