1. The Origin of Cattle [Maasai]
In the beginning, the Maasai did not have any cattle. One day God called Maasinta, who was the first Maasai and said to him: "I want you to make a large enclosure, and when you have done so, come back and inform me." Maasinta went and did as he was instructed, and came back to report what he had done. Next God said to him: "Tomorrow, very early in the morning, I want you to go and stand against the outside wall of the house for I will give you something called cattle. But when you see or hear anything do not be surprised. Keep very silent."
Very early in the morning, Maasinta went to wait for what was to be given him. He soon heard the sound of thunder and God released a long leather thong from heaven to earth. Cattle descended down this thong into the enclosure. The surface of the earth shook so vigorously that his house almost fell over. Maasinta was gripped with fear, but did not make any move or sound. While the cattle were still descending, the Dorobo, who was a house-mate of Maasinta, woke up from his sleep. He went outside and on seeing the countless cattle coming down the strap, he was so surprised that he said: "Ayieyieyie!", an exclamation of utter shock. On hearing this, God took back the thong and the cattle stopped descending. God then said to Maasinta, thinking he was the one who had spoken: "Is it that these cattle are enough for you? I will never again do this to you, so you had better love these cattle in the same way I love you." That is why the Maasai love cattle very much.
How about the Dorobo? Maasinta was very upset with him for having cut God's thong. He cursed him thus: "Dorobo, are you the one who cut God's thong? May you remain as poor as you have always been. You and your offspring will for ever remain my servants. Let it be that you will live off animals in the wild. May the milk of my cattle be poison if you ever taste it." This is why up to this day the Dorobo still live in the forest and they are never given milk.
2. The Women's Cattle [Maasai]
One morning before the cattle were taken out to graze, a cow was slaughtered. Soon the cattle started moving away to graze by themselves and wandered off. One woman told another woman's child to go and drive the cattle back before they went too far. When the child's mother heard this she said: "Oh no, my child is not going until he has eaten the kidney." It followed that whenever a child was asked to go, his mother forbade him to go until he had a bite of the meat. This went on until all the cattle, sheep and goats wandered away into the bush and got lost. When all the children had eaten the meat, they tried to bring the cattle back, but they found that they had all gone wild. And so that is how it came about that women lost their cattle. They then went and lived with the men who had all along taken good care of their cattle. This is why up to this very day, all the cattle belong to the men and women simply wait for the men to provide for them.
3. Elephant and Hare [Maasai]
There was once a herd of elephants who went to gather honey to take to their in-laws. As they were walking along, they came upon Hare who was just about to cross the river. She said to one of them: "Father, please help me get across the river." The elephant agreed to this request and said to Hare: "You may jump on to my back." As Hare sat on the elephant's back, she was quick to notice the two bags full of honey that the elephant was carrying. She started eating honey from one of the bags, and when she had eaten it all, she called out to Elephant saying: "Father, please hand me a stone to play with." When she was given the stone, she put it in the now empty bag of honey, and started eating the honey from the second bag. When she had eaten it all, she again requested another stone saying: "Father, please hand me another stone for the one you gave me has dropped, and I want to throw it at the birds." Elephant handed her another stone, and then another, as she kept asking for stones on the pretext that she was throwing them at the birds, until she had filled both bags with stones.
When Hare realised that the elephants were about to arrive at their destination, she said to the elephant which was carrying her: "Father, I have now arrived, please let me down." So Hare went on her way. Soon afterwards, the elephant looked at his bags, only to realise that they were full of stones! He exclaimed to the others: "Oh my goodness! The hare has finished all my honey!" They lifted up their eyes and saw Hare leaping away at a distance; they set off after her. They caught up with Hare within no time, but as the elephants were about to grab her, she disappeared into a hole. But the elephant managed to catch hold of her tail, at which time the skin from the tail got peeled off. Elephant next grabbed her by the leg. Hare laughed at this loudly, saying: "Oh! You have held a root mistaking it for me!" Thereupon Elephant let go of Hare's leg and instead got hold of a root. Hare shrieked from within and said: "Oh father, you have broken my leg!" As Elephant was struggling with the root, Hare manoeuvred her way out and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. Elephant had by this time managed to pull out the root only to realise that it was not Hare's leg. Once more he lifted up his eyes and saw Hare leaping and jumping over bushes in a bid to escape. Elephant ran in pursuit of her once more.
As Hare continued running, she came across some herdsmen and said to them: "Hey you, herdsmen, do you see that elephant from yonder, you had better run away, for he is coming after you." The herdsmen scampered and went their separate ways. When Elephant saw the herdsmen running, he thought they were running after Hare; so he too ran after them. When he caught up with them, he said: "Hey you, herdsmen, have you seen a hare with a skinned tail passing along here?" The herdsmen answered: "You have passed her along the way as she was going in the opposite direction." While Elephant had been chasing the herdsmen, Hare had gained some time to run in the opposite direction.
Next, Hare came upon some women who were sewing outside the homestead and said to them: "Hey you, mothers who are sewing, do you see that elephant from yonder, you had better run away for he is coming after you." On hearing this, the women scampered for the safety of their houses immediately. But soon the elephant caught up with them and asked: "Hey you, honourable ladies, might you have seen a hare with a skinned tail going toward this direction?" The women answered: "There she goes over there."
Hare kept running and this time she came upon antelopes grazing and she said to them: "Hey you, antelopes, you had better run away for that elephant is coming after you." The antelopes were startled and they ran away as fast as their legs could carry them. But soon the elephant was upon them, and he asked them: "Hey you, antelopes, have you seen a hare with a skinned tail going in this direction?" They pointed out to him the direction that Hare had followed.
Still on the run, Hare next came upon a group of other hares, to whom she said: "Hey you, hares, do you see that elephant coming from yonder? You should all skin your tails for he is after those hares with unskinned tails." Thereupon all the hares quickly skinned their tails. At the same moment the elephant arrived and asked them: "Hey you, hares, have you seen a hare with a skinned tail going towards this direction?" The hares replied: "Don't you see that all our tails are skinned?" As the hares said this, they were displaying their tails confident it would please Elephant. On noticing that all the hares' tails were skinned, Elephant realised that Hare had played a trick on him. Elephant could not find the culprit, for all the hares were alike. And there ends the story.
4. Two Brothers Who Were Friends [Maasai]
There once lived two step-brothers who were such close friends that no one could separate them. One of the boys lost his mother at an early age, so the surviving wife was charged with the responsibility of taking care of both boys. And this woman, who was the boy's step-mother, had no liking for her step-son. And the boy's duty was to look after cattle, among which was one gentle cow that the boys used to milk each day whenever they became hungry. Each of the boys drew from two of the cow's four teats, and this became a rule which they always observed. The boys referred to each other as "son of my father" because they were the sons of one man.
Their mother, as the surviving wife came to be called by both boys, did not like the idea of the two boys being such good friends, and so tried unsuccessfully to separate them. She said to herself, "I must find a way of killing this boy." So, the next day, as the boys took the cattle out grazing, she told her own son to return home at the middle of the day to have a hair cut. The boy did as he was bid, and at around midday he went back home, had a hair cut and a drink of milk and returned to the cattle. The next day it was the turn of the other boy to have his hair cut. But before the boy went home, the woman dug a deep hole at the head of the bed. On arrival the boy was sent to fetch a razor from the head of the bed. But as he tried to rummage for the blade he fell into the hole, which the woman quickly covered with a big stone. The other boy waited expectantly for his friend until the evening when he drove the cattle back home, assuming that his friend must have been assigned some other duty at home.
As soon as he got home the boy looked for his step-brother; but not finding him he asked his mother where he was. She categorically denied having any knowledge of his whereabouts, saying: "I gave him a hair cut and he went back to the cattle." The people looked for the boy everywhere, and when they could not find him, they assumed he had been eaten by wild animals.
After some time, the villagers moved home and burnt up the old village. When the rains fell, some long grass grew at the old settlement. One day the surviving boy, who had cried for his brother until he could cry no more, took the cattle there to graze. While the cattle grazed he went and sat down on the big stone that covered the hole inside which was his brother. It so happened that the boys had a song they used to sing when they were milking their cow; and, as he sat on the stone, the boy remembered his step-brother and started singing the song:
Son of my father
The udder of the dapple grey is bursting with milk
But I will not draw from your teats
Son of my father.
When the boy in the hole heard the other one singing he responded in song:
Son of my father
You may draw and let it nurture you
Son of my father
It was your mother who put me into the hole.
When the boy on the top of the stone first heard the reply he thought his voice was simply being echoed by the forest. He sang one more time, and again his brother sang in response, so he realised that the singing was coming from underneath the stone. On rolling the stone away he was astonished to see his brother, whom he helped out of the hole. He had eaten soil and his clothes were all tattered. He could barely see, for his eyes had grown sensitive to light. The boy gave his brother clothes to put on, and he milked one of the cows for him to drink fresh milk. He first made him vomit all the soil he had been eating, and then fed him with some fresh milk. When evening came, he took him home with him.
On their way home the boy who had been rescued related to his step-brother how their mother had put him inside the hole. His step-brother became furious because he loved his brother more than any other person. When they were about to reach home, he sharpened his spear till it was razor sharp. On arrival he headed straight for his mother, whom he instantly speared to death. He next sought his father to inform him of what he had done. The men were then assembled, and when the story was told the people simply listened without comment. Nothing could be done.
So the boys lived happily without a mother.
5. The Girls of the Knee [Maasai]
Once upon a time, there lived a cruel old man. His wife conceived; but, as was his habit, the old man did not like seeing her take a rest. As soon as she had completed one task, she was told to take on another. And no sooner had she completed the second task, than she was commanded to take up yet another. This routine was repeated every day, from morning till night, so that the poor old woman, though pregnant, was kept on her feet each day until the early hours of the morning.
And so, many months went by. The woman persevered and kept on working, since her husband would never permit her to rest. She would wake up every morning before dawn to do the milking, after which she would lock up the calves in their pens. Having done this she would scamper to the river to fetch water for the household. Then firewood. It was also her duty to plaster the house. Every single job around the home was supposed to be her responsibility. And as though that was not enough, she was often called upon to water the cattle while her husband rested at home. The old man kept pestering his wife thus until one day, overwhelmed with fatigue, she collapsed and died. She was seven months pregnant.
The morning after his wife died the old man woke up with a large swelling on one knee. At first he thought it was a boil, but the swelling grew bigger and heavier by the day, until the old man could barely walk. After what seemed like months the old man's patience wore out. He took a knife and said to himself: "Since this boil is never coming to a head, I am going to lance it come what may." And as he lanced the boil, to his great surprise, there emerged two adorable little girls. Amazed as he was at this strange occurrence, the old man was nevertheless delighted at the arrival of his twin daughters. He named one of his daughters Nasira and the other Noltau.
The old man brought up his daughters with a certain amount of difficulty. Whenever he went to fetch water or firewood he strapped one child on his stomach and the other on his back. He also carried the children while he was out grazing cattle, when he plastered the house, and while he did everything else. He endured many difficulties but nevertheless succeeded in bringing up his daughters until they were big girls.
When they were big enough to be left on their own, the old man locked up the girls in the house whenever he had to go out. They remained there until his return. When he came back, he would sing a song he had composed to alert his daughters, thus:
It had grown tender
But would not burst
My daughters of the knee
Nasira, Noltau, my beloved ones
Let me in.
On hearing the song, the children would immediately know it was their father and they would open the door for him.
This went on for a long time. Then, one day, some people from an enemy country came into the old man's village. They heard the voices of the two girls talking inside the house. They hid away in the nearby bushes to await the parents of the children whose voices they had heard. In the evening the old man returned and sang his usual song:
It had grown tender
But would not burst
My daughters of the knee
Nasira, Noltau, my beloved ones
Let me in.
The enemies listened to the old man's song. They spent the night in that country. Early next morning, the old man took his cattle out grazing, leaving the children locked up in the house. The enemies timed the old man, and on realising that he was about to return home they went to the door and sang his song, asking the girls to open the door for them. The girls did so thinking it was their father who had returned. Thereupon the enemies abducted the twin girls to their country.
The old man arrived soon after, but when he sang his usual song he received no response. Finding the door ajar, he entered, only to find no one in the house. He realised that his children had been stolen. He conducted a search for them far and wide, but to no avail. The old man had lost a wife and then his children because of his cruelty. And there ends my story.
6. A Women's Prayer Song [Maasai]
O thou who is worshipped remember this debt
The debt that cows do not pay
Tree branches that I cut do not pay it
The water that I fetch for him does not pay it
If I go inside the well it does not pay
It is only the human child that would pay it
Chorus I come early to my God
O God who is worshipped I pray to thee
Thou who is prayed to with beer and with milk
Listen to what best suits womenfolk
It suits when long greasy hair is shaven
The beautiful one that is shaven with milk
My beloved one whom I pamper is never scolded
I look up at God's clouds
So that he could in short grant me repose
The beloved one of whom I have fed
I have entered the meat-camp like the warriors
The distinguished ox with the bell have I slaughtered
The one the owner swears by
There is none among our cattle that is favourite
I grant my beloved one the best of foods.
7. Why People Have to Dig [Luhya]
Long, long before our great-great-grandmothers were born, people never used to dig. They would take hoes to the garden, leave them there, and then go back in the evening to find that a portion of the shamba had been dug. They would take the hoes back to their homes and return them the next morning.
There was in one of the villages of Bunyore a man who married a young bride. Usually, after a girl was married, she was expected to work very hard in order to be approved of as a good wife. So this woman whose name was Nyakowa woke up in the morning and started her daily duties.
The work laid down for a young bride was quite a lot because she was expected to go to the river with a huge water pot which she had to lift on to her head all by herself. Next she had to grind a lot of millet within a very short time. These Nyakowa did with little difficulty, for she was renowned for industry long before she married her husband.
With most of the work done, she next had to take the hoes to the shamba. As she walked towards the shamba, she pondered to herself, "If I went and started digging, wouldn't I dig a bigger area than the hoes do? And wouldn't I earn a lot of admiration in my new village?" Many questions like these flashed through her head, and she was full of excitement. By the time she reached the shamba she had already made up her mind what to do. So without hesitation Nyakowa took one of the hoes and started digging very vigorously. She expected praise from everybody who saw her. Little did she know that her rash action would end in disaster.
Indeed, she enjoyed the whole exercise from the beginning and was very proud of it. Although she thought her act a most heroic one, the ancestors were disappointed. They thought human beings were not being grateful because Nyakowa had failed to appreciate the kind offer from the god, Were Nyasaye.
And so the ancestors conspired with Were Nyasaye to have him end his merciful act to the people. They had been infuriated to learn that a young bride should go against this old custom which had prevailed long before they lived.
As time went on Nyakowa started to tire of the heavy work she was doing. The sun was moving west, so she decided it was high time she retired to the village. In any case, she told herself, hadn't she done more than the hoes did by themselves? She was sure she would be praised when people came to see the work she had done.
However, in trying to please everyone, she pleased nobody. She explained what she had done, only to be met by reproach from everybody in her family and later in the whole village. Her bewilderment was such that she wished the earth could open up and swallow her. And what the people had feared proved true the next day. The hoes were taken to the shamba as usual, but they didn't dig. Those who had left them went in the evening to collect them, only to find them where they had left them.
People were therefore forced to take up their hoes and dig for themselves. And so, however strenuous it was, they were now forced to do it themselves. In the evening, people rushed to the young bride's home in anger. They were so enraged that they demanded she be sent back to her home. And so, the girl was ordered to go back to her people before anything serious was done to her.
She immediately ran away. However, this did not change the situation. People had to continue digging since the normal custom had been violated. They had to wake up early every morning and go out to dig in the hot sun. They would only stop for lunch and then continue digging until evening.
So, when people think of their suffering their thoughts go back to the bride who dug, and they always blame her for her silly, ignorant act. That is why in Bunyore if a suitor wishes to marry a girl he will first go and spy on her, to see how much she can dig.
8. Why Zebras have Striped Skins [Luhya]
Long ago before people started taming any other animal apart from the dog, it was said that donkeys could also be tamed. This rumour was told by one man who went to the bush to hunt. After killing the animal he had hunted he found that it was very heavy for him to carry alone. So he decided to find a way by which he could carry his prey. And as he was thinking, he saw a donkey pass nearby in the bush.
All of a sudden an idea came into his head. He thought that if he took his prey and put it on the back of the donkey, it would help him carry his load. So he went after the donkey. He put the load on its back easily, for it did not attack him or run away.
He led the way until they reached his compound. After unloading the donkey he gave it food and it ate with appreciation. From this time on, this man kept the donkey.
This story went round that somebody had tamed a donkey. Soon the donkey was famous for its hard work throughout the village and the surrounding area. People wanted to satisfy their curiosity, and they soon set out to hunt for donkeys and use them to carry heavy loads.
Donkeys did not know what was going on up to this time. They came to understand only after most of their friends had been taken away. They started to hide deep in the bushes. But all was in vain! People had realised that donkeys were very useful animals. So they made special efforts to hunt them down, wherever donkeys could be found.
This problem really worried the donkeys. Many of their kind had been captured. The rumours they heard were horrifying. Rumour had it that those donkeys which had been captured were working too much and they were given only food enough to keep them going.
This was indeed frightening. The rest of the donkeys decided to act quickly, lest they become victims of circumstance like their unfortunate friends. They therefore held an impromptu meeting. Here they discussed what should be done about the whole problem. One donkey suggested that they should seek help from Hare since he was known to be cunning and clever. All agreed that Hare should be asked for advice.
The next morning the donkey representative went to see Hare, who was only too willing to help. Hare asked him to tell all his friends to come to his compound early the next morning. This they did, and when they arrived they found Hare with whitewash in a huge can, ready to act.
As the donkeys were not fast enough in thinking, they wondered how whitewash could have anything to do with their problem. Hare tried to explain but they seemed rather stubborn. Nobody was willing to be the first one to be experimented on. Finally, one donkey volunteered and stepped forward. Immediately, Hare set to work. He started painting stripes of whitewash on the donkey's skin. Soon the donkey had black-and-white stripes instead of being plain black or grey.
As the first donkey was painted over, the other donkeys admired him. They all started wishing they could look like their friend. The moment that followed was full of struggle and scrambling over who should reach the paint first. The warning from Hare that they should be careful went unheeded. Hence, the struggling and fighting continued.
It happened that after a number of donkeys had been painted, one donkey pushed to the front with such force that he stepped in the bucket that contained the whitewash. The whole bucket overturned pouring out all the paint. This was the end of everything. The remaining donkeys were helpless because they were the unfortunate ones. Hare told them that he could not help them any more because the fault had been theirs. And so, although the aggressive donkey was cursed for this bad act, nothing was done for their betterment, for the spilt paint could not be recovered.
Hence, those donkeys that had been painted were safe from people's reach. They were the lucky ones and changed their name from donkeys to zebras. This name set them apart from the unfortunate donkeys who after this were all captured by men, and taken away to work for them. They were less fortunate and that is why they continue to be known as donkeys.
9. Kalisanga and Kaliyeto [Luhya]
There was a man who married two wives. Both wives gave birth to a daughter each. The first wife called her daughter Kalisanga, whereas the second wife called hers, Kaliteyo. These step-sisters were born at almost the same time. They grew up together and were very fond of each other. Of these two, Kalisanga was the more beautiful.
After a period of ten years Kalisanga's mother died, leaving her daughter under the care of her co-wife. As the girls matured they became even more fond of one another. When they went collecting firewood, they went together: when they went to fetch water from the stream, they were always together: when they went to bathe, they went together: when they ground grain, they did it together. In fact, they even shared a common boy friend!
But despite the great love the two sisters had for each other their mother hated Kalisanga and strove to find a way of destroying her.
One day, with the intention of separating them, she assigned them different tasks to do at the same time. This she did so as to be able to carry out her plan for Kalisanga. Kaliteyo was asked to fetch water from the stream while Kalisanga was to remain at home and grind grain. As was their habit, the girls begged their mother to allow them to perform these two duties together, but she demanded that they do as she asked them to. Out of respect they obeyed her and did as she requested.
When Kaliteyo took a water pot and left for the stream her mother called Kalisanga, who was grinding, into the house and stuffed her into a large drum. She then carried this away and threw it into a nearby lake. She then hurried back home and tried to appear calm as if nothing had happened.
When Kaliteyo returned from the stream and found her beloved sister missing, she asked her mother to tell her where Kalisanga had gone. The mother answered by saying she too had no idea. Immediately, Kaliteyo became uneasy and impatient. She went to her grandmother's place but did not found her sister. From there she went to each of her relatives but did not find Kalisanga. On her way home, she checked at their boy friend's home and she was told Kalisanga had not been there. Kaliteyo did not know what to think as she returned to her home. Once again she asked whether Kalisanga had shown up while she was away, but was told they hadn't seen her yet, although their father too had looked for her everywhere. Kaliteyo felt very heart-broken and in distress, refused to eat any meals. She began to mourn the loss of her beloved sister who was her companion and with whom she worked.
One day she left home and went to the lake shore. She began to sing as follows:
Oh Kalisanga, Oh Kalisanga
My mother's child, Kalisanga
With whom will you grind?
With whom will you walk?
With whom will you collect firewood?
My mother's child, Kalisanga.
Kaliteyo sang that mournful song for sometime. When she paused she heard a voice that sounded like that of a sick person, singing from the direction of the lake. She listened carefully and heard the voice sing:
Oh Kaliteyo, Oh Kaliteyo
My mother's child Kaliteyo
With your mother you will grind
With your mother you will walk, Kaliteyo
My mother's child Kaliteyo.
The song in answer to hers disturbed Kaliteyo very much. She repeated it again.
When she kept quiet again, she heard the voice answering her. Kaliteyo was convinced that the voice was her sister's and ran home to call her father. Their relatives and neighbours accompanied them to the lakeside. Again Kaliteyo began to sing as previously and Kalisanga too answered her as she had done earlier, with an even fainter voice which showed that she was nearing death as a result of hunger. Their boy friend too sang and the drum in which Kalisanga was stuffed floated close to the shore and was removed from the water. It was opened up and Kalisanga was removed. One of her sides was virtually rotten. When Kaliteyo saw her sister so emaciated to the point of death she ran home and brought back sour milk together with porridge which she helped Kalisanga drink.
So the two girls refused to go back to their home but instead accompanied their boy friend to his home and got married. Kaliteyo together with their husband carefully nursed Kalisanga until she healed. From then on they lived together in perfect love.
These tales (included in the author's book East Africa : Societies and Environments) come from Naomi Kipury's Oral Literature of the Maasai (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1993) and Kenyan Oral Narratives by K. Adagala and W. Kabira (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1994). They are but a small sample of the great wealth of tales reproduced in these two wonderful books.
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