Art and Literature for Africa and the World

Shutdown – Shotdown

Shutdown – Shotdown

One of the joys of Johannesburg’s summers are the quick, violent, electric thunderstorms that follow a day so hot that the tar on the road melts and sits in the cracks like black shiny lava.  Mid-afternoon relief comes in the form of large raindrops, forked lightning and, sometimes, even hailstones that pelt down from the heavens for three or four minutes and then move on, leaving in their wake rivers of mud on steaming roads, clogged storm drains and, on occasion, hail damaged cars, trees, flower beds and heads. I look forward to the tension of a building storm, the darkening sky, the surreal light, and then the climactic release – crashing chords and rolling tympani.

I love this about Joburg, but that’s not today. It’s late afternoon and, a few clouds are hanging onto the breathless sky – white, fluffy cumulus. “No precipitation,” as the weatherman says. I pull the Toyota Venture panel van into our driveway at 49 MacDonald Street in Kensington, Jeppe Town, and I let the engine idle in front of our tall, wood panelled front-gates. My wife climbs out to open them, her long blond hair swishing as she turns, so elegant in her red satin dress and ankle high leather boots. A cassette tape is playing one of our daughter’s favourite tapes: a Laxmi Devi story about Huberta the Hippo who loses her home to a Tugela River flood and embarks on a quest to find it. It’s one of my own favourites, too; recorded in 1975 with superb voice work and orchestral sound effects.

I’m listening and fiddling with the seatbelt buckle that has been jamming on its release. Half a matchstick seems to have, heaven-knows-how, stuck in it. My five-year-old daughter has her thumb in her mouth and a glazed far-away look as she listens, a sure sign of tiredness.

 

Huberta the Hippo woke up one day.

She saw that her house had been swept away.

It was only some branches and bits of cane

But it was cosy and warm and home in the rain.

 

My wife returns to the car, undoes our daughter’s safety-seat buckle, picks her up and carries her to the open gates. Mother and child in each other’s arms. Three young men are approaching us unseen; two on the right, and one on the left side of the road. I’m distracted; listening, digging out the match. I don’t see them. The seatbelt buckle gives.

 

She had slept like a rock through the storm and the mud.

The Tugela grew bigger and came down in full flood.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” she said to her friends.

“I slept through the storm and now evening descends,

And I can’t find my home, I must leave on a quest

To find where it went, North, South, East or West.

 

One of the young men pulls the car door open. Startled, I try to yank it back. “What are you doing?” I shout. He waves a gun at me. A World War II Luger. I had seen one before, in an exhibit at the Chris Barnard Museum, in Beaufort West. Barnard’s had a swastika on the handle. I step from the car looking across to see where my wife and daughter are? The other two guys are climbing into the vehicle.

 

“I can’t take you with me I’ll do it alone.”

She said to sad faces in her softest tone.

But the voice of a Hippo is a grunt, and a squeak.

She blew words through the water with a groan and a shriek.

 

The one youth and I are in an awkwardly close proximity to one another, as I climb out.

               

“Bye Bye,” they all said, and she moved through the swamp,

her feet in the mud going clompity-clomp.

Eating weeds where the river joins up to the sea,

She never looked up to the shadows in the tree

Where the hunter was waiting with his bullets and his gun.

Poor Huberta. She was too large to run.

 

I freeze. Silence. He has quite bad acne and is tall and tik lanky; eyes distant, dilated; tombstones of intoxication. All three are wearing baggy denims, collar shirts open showing T-shirts beneath, low-slung bucket hats. It is 5.30 in the afternoon and a neighbour is loading boxes into the back of a truck. He has a helper. They are oblivious of what is happening to us.

 

“I can’t take you with me I’ll die alone.”

She said with a sad face in her softest tone

But her voice was a wheeze, a grunt, and a squeak.

She blew words through the water with a groan and a shriek.

 

We’ve just returned from a pre-school Christmas event, and my daughter is dressed in her favourite, pink ballet tutu. Her angel wings lie discarded on the back seat, with her tiny satin ballet shoes. I suddenly remember the fourth member of our family, who isn’t with us, but who is in the house with the child minder. I get confused.

“Where is my son?” I ask the lanky youth. My eyes move across to see that my wife and daughter are moving through, past the gate.

 

A hippo is heavy and a hippo is strong,

Its teeth are sharp and very long,

 But the scariest thing is the blast of its voice

When it is trapped in a corner and faced with no choice.

 

He shoots.

The bullet enters my left leg, just above the ankle, ripping through my Levi’s, the Doc Marten boot, and the sock, and exiting on the other side, removing a chunk of me before slamming into the tarmac. The exhausted brass cartridge pings to the ground. The gun blast flashes a matrix of thoughts through my mind, a fast forward, freeze frame, suspended animation.

When dreaming, the human brain can incorporate external stimuli at lightning speed to ensure the credibility of the created scenario. Whilst in deep sleep, for example, the sensation of a cat jumping onto one’s stomach may be absorbed into a speedily augmented dream, as a stomach punch, or a chest bump, thus keeping one from waking. In the split second before the bullet’s impact, I worry that the sound is wrong. It needs to be re-worked. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to do this,” like when a pregnant woman changes her mind about giving birth, just as she goes into labour – a frequent occurrence according to our children’s midwife.

I am, and have been, involved in the business of sound design and music composition for most of my life. Commercial dictates have trained me to be a rapid sonic problem solver. I listen quickly through audio files, accepting or rejecting sonic fragments for composite assemblage. New sounds are often built from old. A good gunshot may have a  combination of a close-up twig snap, a volcano rumble, a bazooka firing, and an axe hitting a microwave oven, all speeded up by thirty percent and distorted through a sonic shredder. It may not even contain an actual gunshot sound.

My sonically suspended brain is thinking: “. . . it’s too compressed . . . too metallic . . . too rattly, maybe I could EQ it out?” It’s almost as if something is loose in the gun, a dropped mechanical part, or a kicked refrigerator. Also, the spatialisation is completely wrong. Gunshots occur in a space, whether a parking lot or a garage or even out on the street; sound bounces off surfaces. This is dead. A dead sound in a dead room.

Huberta and her house are sucked out of the environment and a silent hole is punched into the otherwise perfect suburban evening ambiance; a short-frozen eternity, an inhale into a vacuum, like when a toddler hurts herself . . . the long inhale before the scream-storm breaks. Beethoven, tension, and then the release. I am released. I am triggered to perform an instinctual, perhaps predictable, movie-inspired action. I hit-the-deck, hit-the-dirt hard, keep my head low; just as in the comic books of my youth. I dive into the neighbour’s driveway and lie on the short mown fresh grass. The sensation of searing heat climbs up from my leg, burnt nerve endings, I imagine. Huberta creeps back into audibility.

 

“I’ll take you with me, can’t do it alone.”

She said to the angels in her softest tone

But her voice was a wheeze, a grunt, and a squeak. 

She blew words through the water with a groan and a shriek.

 

The dull rumble of distant city traffic floods back into my audible consciousness. The truck next door is still being unloaded. Unaware, unconcerned, oblivious, other people’s lives continue within a normal day. My pathetic, rust ridden van has left, in a trail of grey exhaust fumes. The hijackers turn left onto Roberts Road. I stand up, watch the blood ooze over the top of my boot and wonder at the fact that there’s no actual pain – only a sensation of a blood boiling heat.

I limp into the house. My wife has quickly hooked our distraught daughter up to her favourite video: Disney’s Lion King. She’s watching with her thumb in her mouth, knows every bit of the dialogue by heart; normally her lips would move in sync with the movie; not today though. Today she’s still.

“Thank God they didn’t come inside,” my wife says shocked, cradling our toddler-son who is staring, wide eyed at us, plastic dummy firmly gripped between new teeth.

I call the police, staring at the bloody footsteps I’ve left on the newly varnished pine floorboards. I notice a pale bit of naked exposed wood in the corner that the workmen had missed.

A neighbour gives me a lift to the hospital a few blocks away. I am admitted only after being able to produce proof of my hospital-plan insurance, which involves phone calls to my wife, who is herself busy with four policemen who’ve eventually arrived from the Jeppe police-station. According to them, the youths, who are known as the “Luger Gang,” had stolen the weapon in a housebreaking and were responsible for other crimes in our area.

“The cops were useless!” my wife tells me later. “They spent ages looking for the cartridge, theorising about the trajectory of the bullet, and the calibre, and the weapon, and who stood where, and when. I eventually found it lying in the road where it must have bounced. They were more hinderance then help, I tell you, and then they all left, without even opening a docket or taking a statement.”

It was remarkable. They never even spoke to the main eyewitness – me – nor made any proper investigation. No mention of what had happened, anywhere, in fact. No newspaper article, not even a paragraph on page 6. It was just another day in Johannesburg, where being shot down in the street is as routine as buying a newspaper.

What was big news though, was cricket.

I awoke in a haze of painkillers and confusion as patients and staff crowded around a television set watching the match.

Sport isn’t high on my list of interests and I’m often the butt of jokes around a braai when I try to enter sporty banter and so when I asked the other patients what was going on, the man in the opposite bed informed me that we were watching the world’s greatest cricket player. His name is Sachin Tendulkar and, as my grogginess recedes, I see him hit the ball into the stands a number of times. India playing against South Africa, and I am enchanted with his performance – a carefully choreographed ballet. My leg has been cleaned and dressed whilst I was unconscious, it throbs a bit but, strangely enough, no great pain. I spend the day watching the batsman and the hospital inmates watching the batsman and bowlers and fielders and umpires watching the batsman, forgetting the world they’ve left, and being transported into another, watching, wishing, dreaming. “It all looks so easy,” they say. “It always does in the hands of a champion.”

I was thinking that while some people practice their bowling or batting or playing an instrument, others are practicing the art of criminality. They’re getting better every day and becoming more confident and brazen in their talent. They’re getting together with others of similar interests and forming gangs and syndicates and a lot of this becomes possible with an ineffectual, and therefore complicit, law enforcement.

After two days in hospital, I am sent home on aluminium crutches and a few days after this am back in the studio. I was one day into the middle of a recording project that had a looming deadline. Deadline – what a word – apparently a rough line marking the boundary of prisoner of war camps during the American Civil War. A single step over the deadline and you were shot by the guards.

The vehicle turned up a few days later, in Soweto. I received a call from a woman at the insurance company who said that it was at the Diepkloof police vehicle pound – also known as Midnight Spares – and that I should retrieve it as soon as possible. “Bits and pieces of the engine and body parts are being sold,” she said, “as we speak”.

A few months later a policeman from Diepkloof called me: “Mr. Swinney, we have found your car!”

“What do you mean?” I was staring through the lounge window at my vehicle, recently refurbished and repaired, by the insurance people. It looked new.

“We have your car—the white Toyota Venture.” He reads the registration number and other identifying texts out to me.

“Impossible,” I let him know. “I’m looking at it. It’s standing here in my driveway. This was all sorted out months ago. I’ve got the car, its fixed, and I drive it every day.”

It turns out they had a clone with the same vehicle, model, chassis and registration numbers. Later I thought that we should have driven over in the original and collected it; we would have had two identical cars.

At that time of the incident, I’d been working on a track for a British Channel 4 movie, titled Jump the Gun (1997) The movie was workshopped by the cast and contained South African stories, taken from the lives of the actors. I was working as a producer on the soundtrack with Joe Nina, a popular Kwaito star. Sony Music co-opted me to produce a track for the soundtrack album by a stoner-rap group called The Original Evergreen. The song, “Mr. Hijacker” (later titled “Peter and Jane”), is a scarily prescient rap written by Waddy Jones, and tells the story of a couple who get hijacked a short distance from their home, by three guys wearing blue overalls, balaclavas and using a 9mm Parabellum (another name for a Luger). The track employs found orchestral samples and ghostly sound effects under a lazy beat. Its narrative moves, like a film, through a hijack, a murder, a shoot-out with cops, arrest, incarceration, and then a prison rape. A hijack hauntology and a heavy tale told in a, still optimistic, “New South Africa”. Unsurprisingly, it was shelved by Sony and no actual soundtrack album was ever released.

Much of the later solo work I did with Waddy Jones after the hijack was lost when the Jaz Drive – a temperamental, new, removable one gigabyte hard drive system we were using – crashed irretrievably. Jones left the group shortly after this and started performing under the name Max Normal, and eventually as “Ninja” in the internationally famous Die Antwoord.⁠ This was the last job I did at the studio, before packing everything up and moving to Cape Town, a place of safer refuge . . . or so we thought.

 

This essay was made possible through a Mellon Fellowship grant.

 

 

Warrick Swinney is a sound specialist who has been writing and composing for most of his life. He completed an MA in Fine Art at UCT and is currently a Mellon Foundation Fellowship PhD candidate at University of the Western Cape (UWC). He is writing a series of essays on a segment of the socio-political and audible history of the South African transition period (1984-1998).

 

Griet van der Meulen was born in 1956 in the province of Mpumalanga, where she has a small gallery in Graskop, mainly to serve as a platform for local artists, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to exhibit their work. She has taken part in many local and overseas exhibitions in Canada and Germany. In 1991 she was awarded the Schweikerdt Prize for excellence in painting. In 2001 the Mpumalanga Government and German Frauen Kunstforum sponsored her for a residency in Dortmund Germany. Griet also lived in Ottawa for four years where she was part of a group of artists called The Women’s Environmental Network. She has taken part in various exhibitions, and her work is on permanent display in the Graskop Gallery.

A Room with No One in It

A Room with No One in It

speaks with copper-tipped tongues,

makes more rumblings against silence

than any riotous crowd in the market.

 

The dead’s presence is there as it never was

in the days of dinner parties,

hellos and goodbyes, teacups, roses.

 

A classroom screams out children’s names,

the great hall shouts of all those who will come

or have just left. Everything is there or will be soon.

 

There truth trembles, shimmers as light on a lake

at sunset, prepares itself in that pregnant space,

waits to let loose every never-said word.

 

 

 

 

 

Carol Hamilton taught 2nd grade through graduate school in Connecticut, Indiana and Oklahoma, was a medical translator and storyteller. She is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma and has published and received various awards for 18 books and chapbooks of poetry, children’s novels, and legends and has been nominated nine times for a Pushcart Prize.

 

Griet van der Meulen was born in 1956 in the province of Mpumalanga, where she has a small gallery in Graskop, mainly to serve as a platform for local artists, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to exhibit their work. She has taken part in many local and overseas exhibitions in Canada and Germany. In 1991 she was awarded the Schweikerdt Prize for excellence in painting. In 2001 the Mpumalanga Government and German Frauen Kunstforum sponsored her for a residency in Dortmund Germany. Griet also lived in Ottawa for four years where she was part of a group of artists called The Women’s Environmental Network. She has taken part in various exhibitions, and her work is on permanent display in the Graskop Gallery.

-ness

-ness

Sunshine, and the veld is suddenly green.
More than green – feel the -ness-ness of it all,
the lush-ness, avocado-ness, verdure
bottled in a rich seenowwetoldyou-ness
unfolding across a pregnant hillside.

Hatching, emergent, oceanpearlgreen-ness
opens its arms in simple greeting, its
olive glow an embrace, new abundance,
the welcomehomeourhumanfriend-ness
of an elephant’s mountainous smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harry Owen is author of eight poetry collections and editor of three anthologies. Originally from Liverpool, he moved in 2008 to South Africa’s Eastern Cape from UK, where he had been the inaugural Poet Laureate for Cheshire. He now lives in Kylemore in the Western Cape.

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.

Two Poems

Two Poems

A Brief Account of His Escalating Petulance

His silence, at the start, a small nuisance
like gnats in a cramped kitchen.

His silence, a snorted Harumph, smug
sniggering from a secret room.

His silence behind a bogus smile
like a clown, or a hyena.

A silence whose tongue grows dry.
A silence that’s seen

its own shadow in forgotten things.
Silence with questions,

unanswered, coiled like a cottonmouth.
Silence that lies

in wait, that shakes its head
and points at someone else.

His silence, a behemoth in a glass factory,
broken pieces,

like so much rubbish and roadkill,
lie in its wake.

Silence that says you can’t go back:
it’s time to pull up stakes.

 

 

By The Water’s Edge

 

 A toad flicks its tongue
out and back
in a fraction of a second,

captures prey and
retracts its eyeballs
into the roof of its mouth.

Above, stars
flame and flash out,
their charred remains

reduced to the dust
on a picture frame or
his lately unused chair.

And I’m left bereft
by the sudden death
of love (first, the duplicity,

then, hurried desertion),
and by loneliness’s morbid
growth, heavy and slow.

Haunted, for days
I yearn to go back
to the edge of the water

and sit. I’m tired
of waiting for whatever
is waiting for me.

 

 

 

Lenny Lianne is the author of four books of poetry, most recently THE ABCs OF MEMORY, reissued by Unicorn Bay Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from George Mason University and has taught poetry workshops on both coasts of the US.  She lives in Peoria, Arizona (USA) with her husband and their dog.

 

Annette du Plessis is a South African artist who works in many different media, including embroidery. She has been awarded an FNB Craft Vita Award and a Certificate of Excellence from the Eastern Cape Department of Arts and Culture. She has been involved in several community art projects, serving some of the poorest communities in South Africa. Her work is in many private and public collections. Read more about her creations here: https://annetteduplessisembroideryart.wordpress.com/

 

Kayaking on Lady Bird Lake

Kayaking on Lady Bird Lake

Google me this,

you Ozymandian phalluses

rising from Lady Bird’s plantings:

 

who has done more—your Titans of Tech,

changing history with their (mis)information,

or one cosseted Southern woman,

caught up in the toils of a hardscrabble boy

from the hill country, but nonetheless

relentlessly persistent in her vision?

 

From a distance, your towers dominate,

but down here, almost in the water,

her little wilderness provides

heron and egret roosts,

turtle nurseries, cover

for a million bats or more

departing, in season,

on their nightly quest for corn moths—

 

a whole rich and fertile legacy

of urban biome that now,

uniting me with water,

earth, and gentle morning sky,

distinguishes my small vessel

from all the other plastic

floating in the lake.

 

Passing under the railway bridge,

I take the vibrant advice

of a graffiti artist: “BREATHE,”

remembering those who can’t now.

 

It is a prayer that the world

will not prove disposable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lorna Wood is a violinist and writer in Auburn, Alabama. Her poetry has appeared in Angel Rust (Best of the Net nominee), Coastal ShelfEscape Wheel (great weather for MEDIA), and Poetry South (Pushcart nominee). She has also published fiction, creative nonfiction, and scholarly essays. Find out more at amazon.com/author/lornawood.

Griet van der Meulen was born in 1956 in the province of Mpumalanga, where she has a small gallery in Graskop, mainly to serve as a platform for local artists, who otherwise would not have the opportunity to exhibit their work. She has taken part in many local and overseas exhibitions in Canada and Germany. In 1991 she was awarded the Schweikerdt Prize for excellence in painting. In 2001 the Mpumalanga Government and German Frauen Kunstforum sponsored her for a residency in Dortmund Germany. Griet also lived in Ottawa for four years where she was part of a group of artists called The Women’s Environmental Network. She has taken part in various exhibitions, and her work is on permanent display in the Graskop Gallery.

Magic in a Gourd of Water

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.

 

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