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Archive for September, 2010

Last year a friend who spent her early working life in Malawi gave me a dusty old hardback book of stories printed in ‘Nyasaland’ (ie. colonial Malawi).  She had been given it by an acquaintance whose father had worked in the diplomatic service in ‘Nyasaland’ and saw his little son – her acquaintance – only occasionally.  The father had bought this book so as to share some of the culture he was absorbing with his little boy.

The stories are short, pithy and humorous tales of the familiar anthropomorphised animals: the clever hare (Kalulu), the bossy elephant (Njobvu), the lazy Eland, a variety of other grass-chewers, and the slow but steady tortoise (Kamba) and his on-the-ball wife.  This has rapidly become one of my favourite stories, ideal for this time of mellow fruitfulness and relative abundance, and – so far – universally appreciated by both adults and children.  Here is a quick summary for your own elaboration.  You might want to briefly introduce the main characters first and give gestures to each of them for listeners to recognise/join in with.  And of course the refrain about the tree’s name will get everyone joining in whether you tell them to or not:

THE FAMINE AND THE FRUIT TREE

It had been hot, hot, hot and dry, dry, dry for far too long on the plains.  The grass had withered away to nothing, the fruits dropped off the trees without ripening, and the animals of the plain were hungry.  They were so hungry that they could hear each others’ tummies rumbling from miles off.  Njobvu went on a slow, heavy wander away from his usual foraging places and to his astonishment he saw a tree that was laden with bright red, juicy, tasty-looking fruits.  He called the other animals to see it and they all thoughtlessly began to reach out to fill their bellies – but Njobvu called ‘STOP!’

Always the cautious leader, he pointed out that they had never seen this tree before and didn’t know if the fruits were safe to eat.  The animals sank into moroseness again.  Then Eland suggested sending someone to ask the Wise Old Python, who lived on the island in the centre of the Great Lake – he would know.  But it was a day’s journey away.  Njobvu replied: “Excellent idea, Eland, you can go yourself.” At this Eland became much less keen and spluttered that he wasn’t the fastest or the best walker, and not so fond of fruit anyway…but Njobvu didn’t listen to his protestations, and off he went.

So Eland travelled the whole day to the Great Lake and the whole day back, and the other animals eagerly awaited his return.  When they saw him they called out, “Well? What did he say? What is the tree and are the fruits safe to eat?”  To which Eland said, “He said…he said…..oh, he did tell me but I can’t remember!  I did see him, I travelled over on a piece of bark and I asked him and he told me, then I travelled back and saw some juicy green grass, I ate that and then fell asleep for a while….”

Njobvu was furious: “You fell asleep?!  You lazy animal – I shall have to spank you for that!” And Eland was indeed punished.

It was suggested that Antelope, being faster and brighter than Eland, should go to Python.  And he did, and he came back a day or so later, and again the animals asked him what he had found out about the tree with the red fruits.  But when Antelope opened his mouth to tell them, he realised that he too had forgotten!  He had seen the same juicy green grass on his return from the island, he too had fallen asleep for a while….and now he could remember nothing.  And he too was punished.

Several other animals, by now weak from hunger, tried their own luck, but the same remarkable thing happened to each one of them.  All the fast runners made the journey, all to no avail.

Then little Kamba, the tortoise, raised a foot: “I could try going to see Python, I haven’t yet.”  They all spluttered with laughter.  “You!  You’re so slow, by the time you get back the fruits will have dropped off the tree!” But Kamba pointed out that there was no alternative.  So they agreed that, for all the good it would do them, Kamba could try.

Kamba’s wife walked a little way with him.  She said, “Now you listen to me.” (Kamba always did) “Those other animals are greedy and rude, that is their problem.  Mind that you are polite to everyone you meet.  And also – I don’t like the sound of that juicy green grass they have all been eating.  Don’t eat anything at all while you’re away.”  Kamba gulped, but promised.  And off he went.

After some days he reached the Great Lake and looked around for a way to cross.  A family of crocodiles was approaching, father, mother and four children.  They were hideous-looking and Kamba was naturally very afraid, but he remembered his manners.  “Good day to you,” he said. “What lovely children you have!”  At this the crocodile parents blushed and simpered and said, “Why yes, they are.  Is there anything we can do for you, traveller?” And they gave Kamba a lift on their backs to the island in the middle of the lake.

On the island he quickly found the great Python, coiled up and resting in the heat.  Python hissed and reared his head when he saw he was to be disturbed yet again.  “Another one!  And all of you so rude!  Have you come to ask me about this tree again?”  Kamba apologised profusely for disturbing Python once more and promised it would be the very last time.  “Well,” said Python. “I will tell you.  Listen carefully. ITS NAME IS MUNGULELE AND IT’S VERY GOOD TO EAT.  Now – GO AWAY!” And Kamba did, muttering to himself lest he forget it, “Its name is Mungulele and it’s very good to eat, its name is Mungulele and it’s very good to eat,” until he was sure he had it.

The crocodiles gave him a lift back to the shore and there he noticed a tuft of delicious-looking fresh green grass that he was sure had not been there before.  Hunger making him thoughtless, he rushed over to eat some to give him strength for the journey back home.  But a little grass snake came rustling out of the tuft and stared at him. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” said Kamba.  “Is this your grass?” The little snake replied, “You can eat some if you really want to.  But it does funny things to the memory, they say…” and he slithered off.  “Of course!” remembered Kamba and reluctantly he turned away from the tasty morsel and headed slowly, ever more slowly, for home.  It took him days and by the time he got back to the plain where he lived his head was dragging on the ground and he could barely walk.  The others saw him coming and thought it was too late.  But then they saw he was whispering something.  They put their ears to his mouth and heard, unmistakeably:
“Its name is Mungulele and it’s very good to eat….its name is Mungulele and it’s very good to eat….its name is….”

Looking at each other they smiled in amazement and ran to the fruit tree.  They picked the juiciest fruits and put them before Kamba’s mouth so he could reach them.  When he had eaten a few his strength flooded back to him, he stood up on all four legs and shouted at the top of his voice: “ITS NAME IS MUNGULELE AND IT’S VERY GOOD TO EAT!!!!!!” And all the animals raised a huge cheer for Kamba.  They feasted on the delicious fruits until their bellies were full, and the famine forgotten.

And you can be sure that they never teased Kamba for being slow, ever again.

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