A traditional African folktale about how stories came to be, excerpted from “We start the fire, you bring a story — African Community Storytelling”, an upcoming Ayzoh! book for Unesco.
Once, a very long time ago, so long ago that it must have been close to the time when the First Man and the First Woman walked upon the earth, there lived a woman named Manzandaba (mah-nzah-ndah’-bah) and her husband Zenzele (zay-nzay’-lay).
They lived in a traditional home in a small traditional village. They had many children, and for the most part, they were very happy. They would spend the day working, weaving baskets, tanning hides, hunting and tilling the earth near their home.
On occasion they would go down to the great ocean and play under the sun in the sand, laughing at the funny crabs they would see scuttling along there and rejoicing at the way in which the birds would dip and dive in the sea breezes. Zenzele had the heart of an artist and loved to carve.
He would fashion beautiful birds out of old tree stumps. With his axe he could make the most wonderful impala and kudu bucks from stone. Their homestead was filled with decorative works by Zenzele the carver.
But in the evenings when the family would sit around the fire before going to sleep they would not be so happy. It was too dark for weaving or carving, and yet too early to go to sleep.
“Mama,” the children would cry, “Sifuna izindaba!” (see-foo’-nah ezee-ndah’-bah) “We want stories! Tell us some stories, Mama!” Manzandaba would think and think, trying to find a story she could tell her children, but it was of no use.
She and Zenzele had no stories to tell. They sought the counsel of their neighbours, but none of them knew any stories. They listened to the wind. Could the wind be trying to tell them a story? No, they heard nothing. There were no stories, no dreams, no magical tales.
One day Zenzele told his wife that she must go in search of stories. He promised to look after the home, to care for the children, to mend and wash and sweep and clean, if only she would bring back stories for the people. Manzandaba agreed. She kissed her husband and children good-bye and set off in search of stories.
The woman decided to ask every creature she passed if they had stories to share. The first animal she met was Nogwaja (noh-gwah’jah) the hare. He was such a trickster!
But she thought she’d better ask him all the same. “Nogwaja, do you have any stories? My people are hungry for tales!” “Stories?” shrieked Nogwaja. “Why, I have hundreds, thousands, no–millions of them!”
“Oh, please, Nogwaja,” begged Manzandaba, “give some to me that we might be happy!”
“Ummm….” Nogwaja said. “Uhhhh…well, I have no time for stories now. Can’t you see that I am terribly busy? Stories in the daytime, indeed!” And Nogwaja hopped quickly away. Silly Nogwaja! He was lying! He didn’t have any stories!
With a sigh Manzandaba continued on her way. The next one she came upon was mother baboon with her babies. “Oh, Fene! (fay’-nay) ” she called. “I see you are a mother also! My children are crying for stories. Do you have any stories that I could bring back to them?”
“Stories?” laughed the baboon. “Do I look like I have time to tell stories? Hawu! With so much work to do to keep my children fed and safe and warm, do you think I have time for stories? I am glad that I do not have human children who cry for such silly things!”
Manzandaba continued on her way. She then saw an owl in a wild fig tree. “Oh, Khova (koh’-vah),” she called, “please will you help me? I am looking for stories. Do you have any stories you could give me to take back to my home?”
Well, the owl was most perturbed at having been woken from her sleep. “Who is making noise in my ears?” she hooted. “What is this disruption? What do you want? Stories! You dare wake me for stories? How rude!”
And with that the owl flew off to another tree and perched much higher, where she believed she would be left in peace. Soon she was sound asleep again. And Manzandaba went sadly on her way.
Next she came upon an elephant. “Oh, kind Ndlovu (ndloh’-voo),” she asked, “do you know where I might find some stories? My people are hungry for some tales, and we do not have any!”
Now the elephant was a kind animal. He saw the look in the woman’s eye and felt immediately sorry for her. “Dear woman,” he said, “I do not know of any stories. But I do know the eagle. He is the king of the birds and flies much higher than all the rest. Don’t you think that he might know where you could find stories?”
“Ngiyabonga, Ndlovu!” she said. “Thank you very much!” So Manzandaba began to search for Nkwazi (nkwah’-zee) the great fish eagle. She found him near the mouth of the Tugela River. Excitedly she ran toward him.
She called out to him as he was swooping down from the sky, talons outstretched to grab a fish from the river. “Nkwazi! Nkwazi!” she called. She so startled the eagle that he dropped the fish that had been his. He circled around and landed on the shore near the woman. “Hawu!” he barked at her. “What is so important that you cause me to lose my supper?”
“Oh, great and wise Nkwazi,” began Manzandaba. (Now fish eagle is very vain. He liked hearing this woman refer to him and great and wise. He puffed out his feathers as she spoke.) “Nkwazi, my people are hungry for stories. I have been searching a long time now for tales to bring back to them. Do you know where I might find such tales?” She gave him a great look of desperation.
“Well,” he said, “even though I am quite wise, I do not know everything. I only know of the things that are here on the face of the earth. But there is one who knows even the secrets of the deep, dark ocean. Perhaps he could help you. I will try and call him for you. Stay here and wait for me!”
So Manzandaba waited several days for her friend the fish eagle to return. Finally he came back to her. “Sawubona, nkosikazi!” he called. “I have returned, and I am successful! My friend, ufudu lwasolwandle, the big sea turtle, has agreed to take you to a place where you can find stories!” And with that the great sea turtle lifted himself out of the ocean.
“Woza, nkosikazi,” said the sea turtle in his deep voice. “Climb onto my back and hold onto my shell. I will carry you to the Land of the Spirit People.” So the woman took hold of his shell and down they went into the depths of the sea. The woman was quite amazed. She had never seen such beautiful things before in her life.
Finally they came to the bottom of the ocean where the Spirit People dwell. The sea turtle took her straight to the thrones of the King and Queen. They were so regal! Manzandaba was a bit afraid at first to look at them. She bowed down before them.
“What do you wish of us, woman from the dry lands?” they asked. So Manzandaba told them of her desire to bring stories to her people. “Do you have stories that I could take to them?” she asked rather shyly. “Yes,” they said, “we have many stories. But what will you give us in exchange for those stories, Manzandaba?”
“What do you desire?” Manzandaba asked. “What we would really like,” they said, “is a picture of your home and your people. We can never go to the dry lands, but it would be so nice to see that place. can you bring us a picture, Manzandaba?”
“Oh, yes!” she answered. “I can do that! Thank you, thank you!” So Manzandaba climbed back onto the turtle’s shell, and he took her back to the shore. She thanked him profusely and asked him to return with the next round moon to collect her and the picture.
The woman told her family all of the things she had seen and experienced on her journey. When she finally got to the end of the tale her husband cried out with delight. “I can do that! I can carve a beautiful picture in wood for the Spirit People in exchange for their stories!” And he set to work straight away.
Manzandaba was so proud of her husband and the deftness of his fingers. She watched him as the picture he carved came to life. There were the members of their family, their home and their village. Soon others in the community heard about Manzandaba’s journey and the promised stories and came also to watch Zenzele’s creation take shape.
When the next round moon showed her face Zenzele was ready. He carefully tied the picture to Manzandaba’s back. She climbed on the turtle’s back and away they went to the Spirit Kingdom.
When they saw the picture the King and Queen of the Spirit people were so happy! They praised Zenzele’s talent and gave Manzandaba a special necklace made of the finest shells for her husband in thanks. And then they turned to Manzandaba herself.
“For you and your people,” they said, “we give the gift of stories.” And they handed her the largest and most beautiful shell she had ever seen. “Whenever you want a story,” they said, “just hold this shell to your ear and you will have your tale!” Manzandaba thanked them for their extreme kindness and headed back to her own world.
When she arrived at the shore, there to meet her was her own family and all the people of her village. They sat around a huge fire and called out, “Tell us a story, Manzandaba! Tell us a story!”
So she sat down, put the shell to her ear, and began, “Kwesuka sukela…”
And that is how stories came to be.
A griot (/ˈɡriːoʊ/; French: [ɡʁi.o]), jali, or jeli (djeli or djéli in French spelling) is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a leader due to his or her position as an advisor to royal personages.