Magic in a Gourd of Water
An African Folktale
À mône. Hello, child. I see you, standing at my door. Come close. Sit with me, here by the fire while I roast these peanuts. Can you smell them? The toasty aroma makes your insides speak out loud with hunger, doesn’t it? We’ll feast soon. Yes, we will feast.
What’s that? You want one of Mama’s tales to drown out the noise of your hunger? Hmm, now, yes. Mama Okome has a tale for you. A tale where bravery tangles with treachery. A hand stretched out in generosity, and another to prevent bloodshed.
Gomo Afane, the great African forest has secrets where mystery and wisdom slip in and out of the shadowy wilderness. Here, deep in the tangled bush, you will discover power that hangs in the air as rich as the heavy perfume of ripe mangoes. If you are sturdy enough to brave the depths, you will taste the treasures this lush landscape has to offer.
Do you possess such courage, my young one? Does an adventurous heart beat within your strong body? Yes? That is good. But one more trait you must demonstrate to travel safely through the deepest, darkest places of this jungle and learn its secrets. Do you know of what I speak? Do you know the one quality you need to survive in a world filled with danger?
Hmmm? Do you?
Listen, child. Listen to Mama Okome’s tale and tell me if you understand. I wonder if you have this quality.
This is a story of two young men. Both, proven to be the most courageous of their individual clans. Many years of hunting made them strong and clever, too. They would each claim their birth right and become chief of their own village in their rightful time.
Powerful, handsome, and wealthy, they set out to brave the wilds of the jungle – for it was time for them to choose a wife. They both travelled to the same village. Yes, that’s right. Both young men travelled from afar to seek the hand of the same young woman. Word of her renowned beauty reached to the farthest corners of the land.
Each one would provide a respectable and beautiful home. But one of the men had a special gift – a treasure, held not in his hands, but in his heart. Have you guessed yet, of what I am speaking?
Soon, child. Soon you will understand. Now listen to the tale of Mondonga and Mapango and a gourd of water that saved the life of the giver. Of the giver, you ask? Yes, you heard right. The magic of a giving heart . . . you will see.
Mondonga lived in a village in the heart of the Gomo Afane in deepest Africa. He sought the daughter of the chief in a village on the other side of the jungle.
Mondonga packed up his gifts: richly colored hand-woven pagnes, hand-crafted statues carved in glossy, red padauk wood, and smooth mbigou stone, and food enough to feed a village for months. Thirty of Mondonga’s bravest and strongest men, laden with these gifts, formed a caravan and trekked five days through the forest.
Dense and savage, their road; lianas draped from the majestic trees and tapped their heads, making their climb through the underbrush even trickier. Not wanting to draw attention to themselves, they sliced a path through the overgrowth with their sharp-edged machetes and a gentle touch. They kept on full alert for any creature that could slip out of the shadows and onto their trail. They heard, but didn’t see, hungry predators lurking about.
Imagine their surprise when they came upon an old man alone in the forest – so skinny his bones almost poked through his skin. His cheeks so hollow hummingbirds could build nests there. His dirty clothes in tatters and his hair and beard tangled with leaves and twigs. How he escaped the ferocious hunger of the animals, they knew not. He resembled a man teetering on the edge between life and death.
“Please . . .” He stretched his hand out to them. His voice a dry croak – barely a whisper. “Please, I beg you for some water!”
Without hesitation, Mondonga stopped the caravan and took his own gourd of water and handed it to the stranger.
The strange old man couldn’t stop saying, “Thank you, Akiba, thank you”. He emptied the gourd and held his hand out for more.
Mondonga invited the old man to join their caravan and travel to the village where he would find food and shelter. The man refused to budge.
“Please, you must come where you’ll be safe,” said Mondonga, for he feared the old soul would perish if left alone. But no amount of persuasion convinced the old man to leave his home in the forest.
What home? Mondonga asked. He searched for a habitat and found none. Deciding he couldn’t leave the man without protection, Mondonga, with his men, built a small hut and filled it with as many provisions as it could hold.
“Zô à Zô, until we meet again,” Mondonga said, and the men continued on their way until they arrived at the village.
The villagers greeted the travellers with singing and dancing. Voices, drums and tambourines blended in exuberant joy. Every pair of hands and every foot whirled about in rhythmic vivacity. After a day-long greeting ceremony, the two parties exchanged gifts.
Mondonga then stood in front of the village chief. “Tata, respected one, we come in peace. Our two villages know no conflict.” Mondonga stood tall and proud, describing the beauty and prosperity of his peaceful village.
“I have come here today to bring your daughter back to my home as my wife. Our village will welcome your daughter as our own.” Smiling at the beautiful girl beside the chief, Mondonga spoke of all he would do to ensure her happiness and well-being.
After his speech, he presented the chief with a staff as tall as himself made of rich, dark wood, intricately carved with the fauna and flora of the Gomo Afane.
“Ah, yes,” the chief’s booming voice rang through the village with the practiced ease of one in authority for many years. “We are also waiting for another man named Mapango, who will be here shortly for the same reason. We will listen to you both, and my daughter will decide herself who she wants to marry.”
Mapango and his group arrived, and the village celebrated with another day-long ceremony of singing, dancing and gift exchanging. Then came the time for decision making. Mondonga and Mapango stood before the chief and his daughter. Both men were handsome and of equal strength. Both men demonstrated the same amount of generosity in the gifts they brought to the village.
Ada, the chief’s daughter, graceful and dignified, stood before the two men. The sun glowed on her silky, brown skin. Her almond-coloured eyes spoke of laughter and cleverness. As each man stood in front of her, Ada searched his eyes with a fierce intelligence. She gazed with the intensity of a woman who could see into their hearts. She spoke not a word.
Neither man blinked nor moved. The entire village leaned in to hear her declaration. Even the birds seemed to hold their breath so as not to miss this announcement.
Then a warm smile lifted the comers of her mouth and filled her eyes with light. “Mondonga.” Her voice lilted as she said his name again – singing it as though it were a joyful melody. The whole village exploded with delight.
Laughter and singing rang throughout the village, and they celebrated with a week-long ceremony: more gift-exchanging, dancing and abundant feasts.
When the time came for Mondonga and his bride to leave, the parents and the villagers lavished them with blessings and gifts. Ten more men were needed to help Mondonga’s caravan carry the wealth back to his village.
In the meantime, Mapango slipped away early with his own men and hid in the forest. He had stayed for the feasting, pretending, to be happy for Mondonga. But behind the false smile, he hatched a plan for revenge.
A long line of villagers accompanied Mondonga’s caravan into the forest. Dancing and singing in vivacious joy, they walked with him for half a day. No one suspected Mapango’s trap. Eventually, the villagers left the caravan to return home.
Mapango and his men had been lurking in the forest, preparing their ambush. As the sun began its descent, leaving long shadows on the forest path, the skulking party attacked. They surrounded Mondonga’s group, holding their machetes high, ready to strike on Mapango’s word.
“Give me the girl!” Mapango growled. His men beat their feet on the ground and waved their weapons in the air – machetes, poised and hungry for blood.
Mondonga placed himself directly in front of Ada with his machete pointed at Mapango. He surrounded Ada with ten armed men as a human barrier. Each man was prepared to give his life to protect the new bride.
Without warning, the ground shook as thunder rumbled from the shadows – loud and sudden enough to shake machetes from hands. Mapongo’s men dropped their weapons as if struck by lightning. Astonished silence filled the air. No one saw how the ancient man had come to stand among them.
A mône, my child, do you know who this man is? This man who appeared out of nowhere? Where do you think he came from?
Everyone stood gaping at the man, who looked as though he’d lived a thousand seasons. Skin as leathery as an elephant, hair and beard as white as a snowy egret. The Gnamoro, the sage, had eyes wizened with time and troubles. Dressed in a rich colourful robe, the Gnamoro stood in front of them and raised an eyebrow at both men. He asked, “What’s this? You don’t recognize an old man when he no longer needs a drink of water?”
His voice, sonorous and deep, thundered through the whole jungle; his words rustled the leaves, sending birds soaring from their nesting places and into the skies. He stretched out his hand as if in judgement. “Mapango, you scorned a poor old man in need of one gourd of water from among your many. You spat on me and mocked my misery. Your men followed your lead and did the same. Two even kicked me.”
The ancient one cursed Mapango’s group for their insolence. While he spoke, animals emerged from the forest. Elephants nudged his men into a circle; monkeys jumped on their shoulders, pulled their hair, and tugged at their clothes; big, hungry-looking cats wove around them. As if waiting for a signal from the Gnamoro, the predators watched their captives, licking their chops in anticipation.
Not a single animal looked at, nor moved, toward Mondonga’s group.
“Mondonga, I bless you and your marriage with many children and long, fruitful years. You may go in peace. The forest will welcome you with safe passage any time you need,” said the Gnamoro.
And so, Mondonga and his village lived in prosperity and abundant tranquillity for many long years. No one from his village ever felt the pang of hunger nor the bite of an animal or snake again.
Mapango? Well, no one really knows what happened to him and his group. They never returned to their village.
Have you listened, mône, with open ears? Do you know now the treasure of which I speak? Yes, that’s right. Do you have a generous heart? Remember, it is in giving that we truly receive. An unselfish gift from the depths of one’s heart, even when it is given to a stranger, will always be returned in one way or another. So do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, my child, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels.
Adapted into English by Mama Okome from a traditional Gabonese Fable, “Le Magicien et la Calebasse d’Eau”, as collected and chronicled by André Raponda-Walker in ‘Contes Gabonais: la Nouvelle Edition’ (2011: 23). Adapted and translated with permission.
Mama Okome’s Gabonese village is nestled in the Congo Basin Forest. After working in her plantation, Mama Okome returns home carrying her harvest in a hand-woven basket on her back. She prepares meals over a wood fire in her kitchen, visiting with villagers hungry for her stories and for her delicious food.
Stephanie Liebetrau lives and works in Port Elizabeth/ Gqeberha. She completed a Diploma in Graphic Design at Cape Technikon. Her evocative oil paintings & collages fuse South African women with natural elements to create hybrids that diffuse the boundary between the real and recreated. She explores themes such as Eco-Feminism and remains fascinated by the “fragile hieroglyphics” in nature’s design. Her work is often ekphrastic, inspired by poetry, scripture and sacred texts.