The mythologies created by the peoples who have dwelt for countless millennia in Africa are as sweeping and compelling as those of any culture in the world, including the ancient Greeks, Romans and Norse. They are also astonishingly diverse, as to be expected from a continent in which more than 700 languages are spoken.
Among students of African folklore and mythology, the epic tale of Mwindo, told by the Nyanga (sometimes called Banyanga) people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire, is a favorite. Mwindo is a miracle child who walks, talks and performs feats of magic from birth. When his father tries to kill him, Mwindo escapes and goes on to participate in fantastic adventures in the land of the Nyanga, as well as in the underworld and the sky. He slays monsters, argues with gods and pursues his murderous father. In the end, Mwindo and his people find peace in the wake of a seemingly endless cycle of violence and treachery.
During the years since it was first told to anthropologists, the Mwindo story has been recorded and retold many times. Last year, Aaron Shepard’s children’s book, The Magic Flyswatter: A Superhero Tale of Africa, Retold from the Mwindo Epic, was published by Skyhook Press. In 1989, the University of California Press published The Mwindo Epic from the Banyanga (Zaire). The text was edited and translated by Daniel Biebuyck and Kahombo C. Mateene.
As well, the Mwindo epic is included in Harold Courlander’s massive collection, A Treasury of African Folklore (Crown Publishers, 1975). I strongly recommend that volume as an invaluable source for research and inspiration for anyone who wants to write sword-and-soul.
It should come as no surprise that I. too, responded to the lure of the Mwindo saga. Many years ago, I took a crack at a Mwindo retelling. Amid the turmoil surrounding the publishing problems of my Imaro novel during the mid-1980s, Mwindo fell by the wayside, and I never finished the project.
In this and future posts on this thread, I will take you as far as I got with my version of Mwindo. And who knows … maybe I’ll take it farther.
A COUNCIL IN THE BUTU
In the Butu, the Sky Beyond the Sky, the deities known as the Bashumbu met in council. Their ornate stools gleamed in the light reflected by Kentse, Bashumbu of the Sun. Kentse’s stool was made of light, for his fiery essence would have melted or burned any other substance.
The only empty stool belonged to Ongo, the Creator of All Things and the Giver of Life. Ongo never attended the councils of the Bashumbu. He preferred to dwell in a place far beyond even the Butu, which in turn lay beyond the sky that was visible to the People of the Ground. There were some who said that Ongo fled the Butu long ago to escape the bitter tongue of Kiruka, Bashumbu of the Rain.
“Foolishness!” Kiruka complained now. As she spoke, water fell from her garment of gray cloud, slid down the legs of her ebony-wood stool, and seeped into the opalescent substance of the Butu.
“The People of the Ground can never be like us,” Kiruka continued. “It is foolish to believe they can. Did not Ongo make them to be exactly as they are, and nothing more?”
Her querulous voice drummed like a downpour. Gray mist eddied around her head as she folded her arms across translucent breasts.
“Ongo made them,” agreed Nkuba, Bashumbu of the Lightning. “But can we not make them better?”
“Why should we?” whispered Iyuhu, Bashumbu of the Wind. She was visible only as a slight thickening of the air above her stool, which was made of transparent crystal.
Nkuba’s spear of lightning emitted a sudden, dazzling flash that sent a clap of thunder reverberating across the Butu.
“We should do it so they can do for themselves what we now do for them!” he shouted.
“The mganga-priests say the People of the Ground are our servants,” mused Kentse, whose features were obscured by a golden haze. “Yet at time, it seems that we serve them. So many prayers and sacrifices that must be answered …”
“Is that not why we have always been here?” Kiruka demanded. “For what other purpose do we exist?”
She looked to Mweri, Bashumbu of the Moon, for support. But Mweri, as always, maintained her silence.
“Nkuba’s idea should not be ignored,” said Kubiku, Bashumbu of the Stars, whose body was surrounded by a pale, cold nimbus of light.
“What would you have us do, then, Nkuba?” Kentse asked.
Nkuba stood up. He gripped his lightning-spear firmly in one hand. His shape was that of a lean, shadow-dark silhouette with jagged edges.
“Let us cause a child to be born among the People of the Ground,” he said. “Could such a child not be like us, if we will it so? Could he not then do for his kind what their prayers and mganga constantly beseech us to do? Then we would be free from their tiresome demands – free to do as we wish here in our own place.”
Following the Bashumbu of Lightning’s proposal, the Bashumbu were silent for a time that seemed to stretch across an eternity. Then Kentse spoke.
“There is much in what you say, Nkuba. But – ”
“But what of the other Bashumbu?” Kiruka interrupted. “What of the ones who, like Ongo, live elsewhere?”
She rose from her stool, and rain dampened her thin shoulders as she continued her tirade.
“What of Mpaca, skulking and scheming in the forest? What of the Bashumbu of Kwirunga, the Underworld? Do they not love only the dead, while despising the living? Clearly, these others will oppose any plan to make a Bashumbu out of one of the People of the Ground. And … who knows what the Bashumbu of the River will do?”
“The child must be tested,” Nkuba said quietly. “Just as we once were, by Ongo, before he went away.”
The Bashumbu of Lightning’s gaze was the only element of light about him, other than his spear. His eyes burned with dazzling fire, forcing Kiruka to remember things she would rather forget. For once, she looked away.
“Who would be the parents of this Bashumbu of the Ground?” she asked. “Whose seed would spawn the child? From whose breasts would such a child feed?”
Nkuba shifted the point of his spear downward until it touched the bottom of the Butu. With a blinding flash, a hole appeared in the substance. As one, the Bashumbu bent forward and peered down past the sky and onto the ground. Their vision focused on a tree-clad mountain to which the houses of a certain tribe of the People of the Ground clung like infants to a mother’s skirt.
“In Tubondo, there lives a mwami – a chieftain – named Shemwindo,” Nkuba said. “Shemwindo has seven wives …”
Nkuba spoke on, and the Bashumbu listened intently to his words. And one listener, who was not of the Bashumbu, flew unnoticed through the hole in the Butu. Tiny, whirring wings carried the spy to its master, who dwelled far, far below.