A Trilogy of African Tricksters
A Four Course Meal with Uthlakanyana of the AmaZulu
From within the woman’s womb, Uthlakanyana demands to be born! “Mother – give birth to me at once. I am very hungry and I want to eat some meat!” The woman is shocked and yet thrilled to have such a prodigious child who has the power to speak even before birth. And just as soon as the woman exclaims the miraculous revelation of her genius child, Uthlakanyana delivers himself into the world. Cutting his own umbilical with his father’s knife – he speaks again: “Mother, I am hungry, where is my meat!”
SOUP DU JOUR
Uthlakanyana is of small stature, resembling a furless white weasel in the form of a tiny human child. His repeated deceptions depend on this common misperception. As each day passes, Uthlakanyana continues to discover new means of manipulation to get his meat. On the night before he leaves home for good, he brings all of the birds he has stolen from the villagers’ traps to the hut of the woman who bore him. “Mother, here is my meat. Place these birds in the big pot and lute them down with manure and cook them for me to eat, I am going out for the night.”
Returning to the woman’s hut before the sun finds time to arise, he eats all of the birds, fills in the pot with more manure, and leaves only the heads on top. Then he leaves and returns with the sun yelling: “Mother, I have returned, where is my meat!” Finding her still asleep he curses her, “you have been sleeping way too long – I bet all my birds have turned to manure! This is what happens when one leaves birds to lute past sunrise – I have seen it many times before.” The woman runs to the pot and discovers his accusations to be true. She throws herself at his little feet, begging forgiveness. “You are not even my mother – I gave birth to myself; and now I will leave you forever and make my own way into the world!” And this is indeed what he does.
Many months and many years pass as Uthlakanyana adventures the world on his own. Time and time again he gets himself in trouble and time and time again he manipulates himself out of trouble – always using trickery and deceit to save his hide and get his meat.
I remember this one time he came upon three leopard cubs all alone in their den and just as he was about to make a meal of them, the Leopardess returns with the beast she was hunting. Dropping her prey she leaps to attack only to be struck by Uthlakanyana’s melodic voice: “Oh Mother Leopardess, you do not want to kill me – I was sent here to you by your husband to help you raise the cubs and build a better den.” After some additional persuasion she agreed to let the weasel into her service and they eat her meat together. On the following day he built a new den while the Leopardess was out hunting, one with an entrance much too narrow for her to enter. When she returns she is confused and calls out to Uthlakanyana and he explains that this type of dwelling is more conducive to suckling the cubs, which he proceeds to bring to her one by one.
On the next day he has one cub for lunch and when the Leopardess returns home with the meat he hands her one cub and then another and then the first again to suckle before partaking of the meat she hunted. And the day after that he has yet another cub for lunch and then later passes the same cub three times for her to nurse before sharing her meat for dinner. The next day he eats the last cub and realizing the trouble he’s in plans his escape. When the Leopardess returns she calls to him again and again. Sensing her cubs are in danger she peeks her head in the tiny doorway and sees what has become of her little ones. Enraged, she forces her way into the den as Uthlakanyana taunts her and exits through an even narrower hole and thus returns to his mischievous adventures.
After many more months and years of getting in and out of trouble Uthlakanyana returns to the kraal where he came from. The poor old woman welcomes him back with tears of joy, still thinking of him as her child despite the many years that have passed. She begs of him to never leave again to which he responds, “I will stay on condition that you and your village feed me every day until I am satiated.” When she agrees he speaks again: “Mother, I am hungry, where is my meat!”
**Uthlakanyana, Zulu (South Africa)
The Mantis and the Moon
This story begins with a determined Mantis
who believed he could catch the Moon. So as she moved
through the sky, he flew through the trees. At the moment
he came close enough to catch her, his memory
of missing her, and falling, drives him to madness.
And she slips away again – Oh, evasive Moon!
So why, you wonder, was Mantis after the Moon?
Dreaming of her love and adoration, Mantis
sought to be seen as celestial. This madness
possessed him, and he was mesmerised as Moon moved
and danced slowly across the sky. All memory
of his world before her was lost in that moment.
He learned her rhythm and memorised the moment
she crossed closest to his perch. Once each year the Moon
passed so near to his lips. He searched his memory
to recollect every kiss they shared, and Mantis
began to feel so lonely as her zenith moved
her further from the world and him toward madness.
Her distance deepened his decent into madness,
and the Mantis began to plan for the moment
of her nadir. He would capture her as she moved
in for their kiss. Once she was close enough, the Moon
turned her cold cheek to receive his kiss, and Mantis
jumped hard and fell fast, which knocked out his memory.
Shards of light pierced his eyes and stole his memory.
Alone in the dark he was left with his madness.
Only in blindness did sense return to Mantis.
Clarity and peace dawned on him in that moment.
In shadows he found his love requited by Moon.
Deep in his heart he laughed, and then got up and moved.
Slowly his mind returned and his memories moved
behind his eyelids like clouds. But one memory
eclipsed all the others. Visions of his bright Moon,
his burning desire, and plunge into madness
forced him to face reality. From that moment
on, he became the repentant praying Mantis.
The majestic Mantis stands motionless and moved.
Blinded by a moment, now lost in memory
where dark dreams of madness meet the light of the Moon.
**Mantis, Khoi-San (Southern Africa)
Eshu's Elegy For Me
ESHU’S ELEGY FOR ME
I COME TO THIS FINAL JUNCTURE, WANDERING AND LOST,
TO LEAVE MY BODY OUT WHERE ESHU’S ROADS HAVE CROSSED.
THE MOMENT IS BEFORE ME, WHILE MY MEMORIES FALL BEHIND,
AND LIGHTNESS COMES TO BATTLE THE DARKNESS OF MY MIND.
I CHOSE THE WAY OF NATURE BUT HAVE FALLEN INTO GRACE,
AND FAITH HAS FORCED REASON TO BRING ME TO THIS PLACE.
ABANDONING TRUTHS CREATIVELY WROUGT OUT OF DECEPTION
UNBINDING MORTAL FANTASIES TO AWAKEN TRUE PERCEPTION.
MY SPIRIT TRANSCENDS UNTO A HIGHER WILL OF CONSCIOUS,
WHILE MY HEAVY HEART WEIGHS THE GRAVITY OF CONSCIENCE.
AND IN THIS STATE OF STATELESSNESS I BEGIN TO WONDER,
WILL FORM FOLLOW FUNCTION WHILE BEING TORN ASUNDER?
THE VOID RECLAIMS MY MIND AS I CONTINUE DOWN HIS PATH,
ONCE PAST THE POINT OF NO RETURN, ESHU BEGINS TO LAUGH.
HIS WICKED GRIN BETRAYS ME AND I RECALL THE FEEL OF FEAR,
AS MY PITHY PARTS DISSIPATE I PRAY FOR MERCY TO APPEAR.
I AM SLIPPING INTO SUFFERING AND FALLING INTO FIRE,
AND AS THE FLAMES BAPTISE ME I AM PURGED OF ALL DESIRE.
THE BEAUTY OF CREATION IS THAT LIFE NEVER ENDS IN DEATH,
FROM NOTHINGNESS I AM PRECONCEIVED IN MY DYING BREATH.
**Esh-Elegbara, Yoruba (Nigeria)
Author's Note: Each poem is an oral tradition from specific African Cultural Groups and the structures and styles of my poetry and prose is my own negotiation and reinterpretation of traditional forms – thus the notes in the footer and different fonts.
Scott Kristopher is a Book Artist and Storyteller from Buffalo, NY . He is also a Barista. In a past life, he was trained to be a disciplined Social Scientist; and in some life before that he was most likely a Baobab Tree