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On Myths and Legends of Africa: Part 6

Last time, Moyra told the story of Kivanga. Now she provides the commentary….

Many African mythologies assume that the first beings were deformed versions of the human race, and had to undergo transformation with the help of some hero or heroine. In the case of Kivanga, it is significant that the human race comes into existence as a result of a being who was sundered and made whole again. Kivanga and his twin cannot be happy, cannot be whole, without each other. Nor can we exist without the union of the ‘yin’ and ‘yang’ (to borrow terms from the Chinese), the masculine and feminine, the positive and negative, the spiritual and the material parts of ourselves. The loneliness we feel when we are sundered, and the efforts we have to make in order to bring ourselves back into a state of wholeness, are prodigious. Kivanga has to use physical prowess, mental agility, magic, courage and persistence. He must not give in to his own doubts and the persuasion of others. He must not despair. He must remember the religious teaching of his people. The image made from the white river clay of his home village combines the power of the natural forces from the earth with the power of the supernatural forces symbolically protection from a world we are not yet ready to confront, as to keep us out of a world that is not yet prepared to accept us.

Note the continuous ritual chant of his companions, the song that is also a magical incantation. According to Yves Bonnefoy many African people (for example, in the Mande region) believe that the universe came out of a word from the creator God. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ said St John in the Bible. ‘In the beginning was the Big Bang’, say the modern astronomers. Both stories tell us that vibrations like that of sound have played, and still do play, an important transformatory role in the universe. The songs of Kivanga and his companions are crucial.

Before the Europeanization of Africa, carved and painted objects were not seen as art, but as vital functioning parts of a living ritual. Masks were used in traditional rituals to recall the mythic events of the early stages of existence, in order to understand and control better the events of the present. The priest or shaman takes on the persona of the ancient mythic being by covering himself with the symbols of the story he is re-creating. Note that this is re-creating, not enacting. This is not drama, but magic. The masks now hung in museums and galleries were not made to be so displayed, but to be used in magical ceremonies and, in many instances, they have become so impregnated with the feelings engendered at these ceremonies that they are not comfortable ornaments to have about the home.

Masks are used for the transformation of one form into another. Paradoxically, by putting on the mask of an ancient mythic being, the shaman was actually taking off the mask of his everyday persona and so becoming free to act, once more, in the supernatural realm of the ‘first days’. A man who is seen around the village as an ordinary family man becomes a frightening supernatural being when he dons the mask of his calling as witch doctor or medium. Conversely, Kivanga’s people in the story become like ordinary people of today by donning Mbenza’s masks. The implication is that what we consider to be our normal faces these days are actually masks behind which our true selves are hidden. No wonder we find it so difficult to recognise each other for what we are and to read each other’s minds! Serial killers still get away with their terrible murders for so long because, sitting beside them on the train or standing beside them in the street, we are fooled by their innocent looking ‘masks’. Increasingly, as the power of the television image grows, we may vote into power those politicians with the most attractive masks rather than those with the most worthy policies.

May we learn from the ancient stories enough wisdom to preserve us from such mistakes.

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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