Art and Literature for Africa and the World

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.

 

The Middle Field

The Middle Field

Through the steady hiss of traffic rolling through standing water, I hear a voice speak at the other end of the line. It is my mother’s care home. I am in my garden, raindrops dance and bounce on the tiled roof. There is a sign on the pebble-dashed wall of the house.  It reads: Achadh Meadhanach.

‘She says she’s expecting visitors today. I thought maybe it’s you that’s coming?’

I tell her, ‘No, not today – I’m on my way somewhere, actually.’

‘She says today is “bye-ram”; do you know what that means? She seems upset no one is here.’

Bayram,’ I say. ‘It’s Turkish for festival. She means Eid.’

‘It doesn’t say she’s Muslim, here on the system,’ the voice says.

‘Well, she celebrated it where she grew up, in Turkey, but then she met my dad, an agnostic Scot. She switched to Christmas.’

Behind the garden gate, by a bridge humped over a swollen river, a traffic light flashes from amber to green. I see a woman with a pram at the crossing, strands of wet hair sleek across her cheek, skin under her eyes dark with fatigue.  I tell the voice that I’ll visit briefly. She sounds relieved. The voice then says, ‘She sometimes forgets English or drops into Turkish without realising. It happens with her illness; sometimes the second language gets forgotten. She might eventually revert to her mother tongue.’

I sit, facing my mother. She has a shimmering, violet powder on her eyelids, and a chiffon scarf which delicately shifts about her shoulders when she moves. She is thin, eyes sharp.

Merhaba,’ she says.

‘Hello,’ I reply.

Mutlu bayramlar,’ she says, lifting her veined hand in greeting. ‘I can tell you’re Turkish.’

‘Happy bayram to you, too,’ I say. ‘Yes, I’m half Turkish. Though I don’t speak the language. I’m sorry.’

‘What do you do?’ she asks.

I tell her I’m a lawyer. A woman with a yellow apron comes over and pours us black tea. She smiles at my mother.

My mother ignores her and says, ‘Ben avukatım. I am a lawyer too.’

Casting a sidelong glance at the aproned woman, she continues, ‘It’s good to finally meet someone here of my own class in society. You know, there are some here who sold their homes to pay for care. There are others who get the very same care for free, from the state, because they have nothing!’

I sip the tea, which is steaming and bitter. She says, ‘When my brother was at university in the 60s, in İstanbul, he was always in trouble for being a communist. He protested, plastered posters all over Galata, fighting for the working class. He was a good boy, evet, evet, helping the disadvantaged. We are lucky, being lawyers. Secure. We can hold our heads high.’

I remember once watching her cry. When she moved to the UK her qualifications were worth nothing. Her degree certificates, enclosed in plastic wallets, lay limp across her raw palms. I can’t tell her that she spent years cleaning, after my father left her, and that she doesn’t pay for her care here either. I do.

She scowls at the greenery outside the window, Scottish firs with branches waving in the wind. In her mind, her life here is now unlived, like a touching book once read is shelved, and forgotten. Scotland became her home, its happy memories scrubbed away with the bad. To her, I am just a dream figure. A doctor told me the heart never forgets a child. If true, hers guards the memory of me like a jealous secret.

I remove a Turkish dessert from its wrapping. Strings of golden pastry, straw-like, saturated in syrup and covered with crushed pistachio. ‘Kadayıf,’ she says. ‘My sister-in-law made the most güzel kadayıf one bayram.’

‘It was good kadayıf,’ I say.

We eat it together, washing away its sweetness with lukewarm tea. When I was five, my mother took me to Eastern Turkey to visit family, during bayram. I sat on her lap in the shared dolmuş taxi. My cousins and I wore new clothes, the neighbours gave us treats and toys. My father brought a crumbling Scottish sweet, called tablet. Each square was wrapped with a violet bow. After dinner, we ate kadayıf. My cousins then asked me to choose a favourite, tablet or kadayıf; ‘Taaah-blet veya kadayıf?’ I loved them both, but I chose one. Another night, I would have chosen the other. I watch my mother savour the dessert now. We both remember her sister-in-law serving it. It is a shared memory, yet she does not see me in it. She is steeped in love she cannot taste. Our eyes meet, and she smiles.

I arrive home. The night sky is thick with cloud and I am held in the cool, featureless darkness. The engine is off, the cold slowly seeping into the car. I look at the sign on the house: Achadh Meadhanach. It means ‘the Middle Field’ in Gaelic, which is what the land once was, sandwiched between two estates, before all of it was sold to developers. There is a river that runs through the land, weaving it together. As it flows, the river takes with it pebbles, dirt, drips and trickles from streams, churning, breaking up and remoulding, making all part of itself. This river has a name, an identity, as it is always the same, and yet its rushing water is renewed and different from one moment to the next.

‘What’s brought me to this country, in particular?’ my mother had asked, looking out at the green, alien landscape.

‘Love,’ I said.

‘Am I visiting?’

Evet,’ I replied. ‘We’re both winding our way through.’

 

 

 

 

Ayla Douglas is a Scottish-Turkish writer. She is published in Product and No Parties magazines. In 2021 she was selected by Extra Teeth magazine for a writing mentorship and shortlisted by the Glasgow Women’s Library for their Bold Types creative writing competition.

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/

The Wolfman

The Wolfman

Growing tired of the pointless routines of everyday life, Keith decided to become a wolf. He would give away all his belongings since they’d be of no use. Wolves don’t need phones to communicate, or clothes, or books to dream of alternative lives, or electricity polluting the light of stars. First, he donated his raincoats, suits, and formal shirts to charity, and used his savings to buy a gorgeous grey and brownish fur coat, to make himself a wolf suit.

To get rid of his furniture, his flat, and every household item, he called Rick, his only friend.

“You can keep my things, mate. Yeah, yeah, do whatever you want with ‘em. You can move into my flat. I won’t need any of that where I’m going.”

Rick was a good chap, but Keith wouldn’t miss him. In fact, he looked forward to befriending a better sort of creature: a brave, bold, wolf – two times bigger, a zillion times more interesting. And he wouldn’t have just one wolf friend but a fierce pack. He could picture it, his new life, with the wolves.

Keith practiced every day for his time in the woods and once he quit his job at the Post Office, he’d spend his afternoons from 1 to 6 dressed up in furs, running four-legged around the apartment, imagining how the twigs and grass and mud would feel under his feet and hands. The carpet flooring didn’t help – too comfortable. So, he’d wet it and pretend it was soil; then, he’d add some dry leaves from the neighbour’s garden and make mock twigs by spreading dry spaghetti sticks across the floor. After running in circles for a few hours, he’d stop by the window and wait for the moonlight to come. There, he would raise his chest, bring out his sweaty face from beneath the fur cape, and clear his throat to let out the loudest howl his non-wolfish voice could make. He’d howl to the moon and raise his face again and again and howl to the skies as if demanding an answer. But none would come. The crickets and cicadas would resume their songs, and the neighbour’s Great Dane would stare at him from the window across and tilt his head. That silence wouldn’t last much longer, Keith thought. In just a matter of days, his howls wouldn’t go unnoticed.

A few times Keith hesitated, though. Would the wolves accept him? Was it a good idea to forsake the life he had, the people he knew? But then, he mused, few would miss him. He had no pet to feed. Rick was already planning to sell the flat. His neighbours ignored him outright, and no one depended on him. Yeah, the human world wouldn’t care if he was gone.

Apart from his mother. Mum would be heartbroken. Keith loved her dearly, so he had to prepare her for his departure from the human world: he could change his profile picture for a wolf in all his social media and share with her some playlists with howls and running water and wind in the trees.

“Nature’s peaceful, isn’t it? Sometimes I wish I could live in the woods,” he’d hint to her, and Mum would send a smiling emoji.

“That’s lovely, son 😊 Xx.”

The last time he visited her, they watched a movie together: Dances with Wolves. Keith pointed at the protagonist and told her, “He’s my favourite character”. He liked his journey, befriending ‘Two Socks’ the wolf, finding a family, a pack, no longer being alone. Mum laughed and said, “I think I like Spaghetti Westerns more”.

The day to leave came, and he wrote a letter to Mum:

 

Farewell, Mum.

Don’t cry for me. I’ve found happiness somewhere else.

If loneliness is too much to bear, open the window and howl, and I’ll make sure you get an answer.

With Love,

Your son.

 

Early that morning, he’d driven to her place to leave the letter under a pot on the porch. Then, he drove down the highway, his last action as a human being. Finally, when the army of trees appeared on the horizon, Keith knew he’d reached his destiny. He left his car – the last trace of his past life – in a meadow, took his furs from the trunk to wrap himself in, and shot towards the forest, to find his friends.

The wolf once known as Keith contemplates the wild woodlands. The soil is colder than the wet carpet in his flat. This was no dry spaghetti sticks or neighbour’s leaves and trimmed shrubbery. His bare feet sink in uneven paths of rock and mud and stepping on branches and spiky plants rip and tear his sensitive skin. And yet, he runs and climbs rocks and slopes to find his pack.

The frequent cries of discomfort warm up his wolf voice. He considers that once the wolves hear him weeping, they’ll come and lick his wounds. He’ll pay them back by looking after the cubs and helping his new friends to hunt. He might not have flesh-tearing teeth, but a couple of hands with opposable thumbs will come in handy. The sun is already setting; he has to find them soon.

But no relief comes when the shadows of the pines fuse with the gloomy skies of dusk. Flocks of ravens caw; the wind shakes the leaves to accompany their melody. And the wolves are nowhere to be heard. Nevertheless, the background music of the woods reminds him of the hymn of wolves, the howl he had practiced to call them. Once more, he raises his chest, summons his wolfness and lets out the song of his spirit to his fellow kin and the whirlpool of sounds among the trees. Ahhoooo Ahhooooooo Aaaahooooooooooo he howls, louder and louder, but as he continues, he realises how small his voice is against the rumbling forest. His call wavers like the trail of sunlight on the horizon, and his fear grows, with the encroaching night.

Was this a mistake? Had he still time to go back to his car, to his home, to Mum? Would he be able to find his way back in the darkness? The path now seems so unfamiliar, and his decision, irreversible.

He sits on a rock as cool as a tombstone, unsure of what to do. As he thinks of turning around to find the way back to the human world, the silence of dusk is broken with the feral howl . . . of a wolf! Joy fills his heart; the forlorn cry of his new kin revives his feeble voice and loosens the tightness in his throat. He raises his head to the starlit skies, ready to let out a new howl, hoping the other wolf will find him. But before a thread of breath comes out of his mouth, a new howl answers its brother’s call. Like a domino chain of echoes, new howls follow the previous ones. The wolves are calling their scattered family, all together in a wondrous song. And he howls, howls, howls to be found, to be noticed by his pack. But, oh, his feeble cries go unheard under the choir of lonely creatures as it shifts into a fearsome wailing that engulfs the wolfman’s human voice.

And so, his call falters like a dying candle, and he grows smaller and smaller like his will, until he curls his non-wolf body into a moss bed. He closes his eyes and sinks his fingers into the soil – a welcome relief for his wounded skin and his cold bones.

Hush. The wind sings a melody unheard. Oh, at last his silence feels akin to something: the odd yet soothing language of the earth, the trees, and stars.

 

 

 

 

 

Andrea Mejía Amézquita is a Mexican writer who moved to the magical Edinburgh in search of new adventures and stories. She is a Creative Writing MSc graduate from the University of Edinburgh. Her debut novel, Los Sueños Más Oscuros, has been presented in festivals for independent authors in Mexico.

 

Pedro Figueras’s work is available on Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/search/pedro%20figueras/

error: Content is protected !!