Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Creation Mythology: East & Central Africa

Today we are going to explore the creation mythology from the tribes of East and Central Africa.  Central Africa includes Chad, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, Gabon, the Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Angola.  East Africa includes Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.  Every tribe has its own distinct language, culture, and religion and, as such, their views and stories of creation are many and varied.

The Efe people found in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are known as Bambuti or, more commonly, Pygmies.  They have lived in the area since around 2250BC.  To the Egyptian Pharaoh Nefrikare they were known as either ‘dancing dwarves’ or ‘people of the trees’.

The creator, Khvum, lived alone in his village.  He passed his time smoking, but he got bored.  There was no one to prepare his food, or to share it.  He decided to create people to keep him company.  He went into the forest and collected many, many ‘nkula’ nuts, so that they filled his game-bag.  Then he returned to his village and went to the waterfront, where he had left his canoe.  He got into the canoe and called his crocodile; the crocodile came, and he fastened a harness on it and told it to pull the canoe far out into the waters.
The crocodile swam far, far out, until there was nothing but water all around them.  There Khvum told it to stop.  He removed a nut from his bag and rubbed it in his hands for some time, then blew on it and threw it back towards the land, saying, ‘You shall be the first man.’  The next nut, he called a woman, and so on until all the nuts from his bag had been sent back towards the land.
When he reached the shore, all the people were waiting for him in the village.  He gave them their places, and for a time he lived with them there.  It was a wonderful time.

Another Pygmy origin story is much like that found in Genesis, revolving around a monotheistic God who resides in heaven.  However, while similar, it is clearly not derived from the Biblical account, and reflects Pygmy culture and surroundings.  It has been suggested that this ‘Garden of Eden’ creation myth is much earlier that the Biblical account and, possibly, the earliest.

Garden of Eden by George Mnyalaza Milwa Pemba
The Pygmy Garden of Eden 

One fine day in heaven, God told his chief helper to make the first man.  The angel of the moon descended.  He modelled the first man from earth, wrapped a skin around the earth, poured blood into the skin, and punched holes for the nostrils, eyes, ears, and mouth.  He made another hole in the first man’s bottom, and put all the organs in his insides.  Then he breathed his own vital force into the little earthen statue.  He entered into the body.  It moved…  It sat up…  It stood up…  It walked.  It was Efe, the first man and father of all who came after.
God said to Efe, ‘Beget children to people my forest.  I shall give them everything they need to be happy.  They will live forever.  There is only one thing I forbid them.  Now listen well.  Give my words to your children, and tell them to transmit this commandment to every generation.  The tahu tree is absolutely forbidden to man.  You must never, for any reason, violate this law.’
Efe obeyed these instructions.  He and his children never went near the tree.  Many years passed.  Then God called to Efe.  ‘Come up to heaven.  I need your help.’  So Efe went up to the sky.  After he left, the ancestors lived in accordance with his laws and teachings for a long, long time.  Then, one terrible day. A pregnant woman said to her husband, ‘I want to eat the fruit of the tahu tree.’  The husband told her, ‘You know that is wrong.’  His wife asked why and he told her it was against the law.  ‘That is a silly law,’ she said.  ‘Do you care more for me or for some silly law?’
They fought and fought, but the husband eventually gave in and sneaked into the forest, heart pounding with fear, to the forbidden tree.  He picked the tahu fruit and peeled it, hiding the peel beneath a pile of leaves, and then he returned to camp to give his wife the fruit.  She tasted it, then urged her husband to taste it.  And he did, then all other Pygmies followed their example and tasted the forbidden fruit.  They believed that God would never find out.
But the angel of the moon saw them and went to God, telling him, ‘’The people have eaten the fruit of the tahu tree!’  God was furious and he told the ancestors, ‘You have disobeyed my orders.  For this you will die!’

Another version of this myth can be found among the Mbuti or Bambuti, who are also an indigenous pygmy group found in the Congo region of Africa.

Garden of Eden
The Mbuti Garden of Eden

God made the first man and woman and put them in a forest.  They had everything, including an abundance of food, at their fingertips.  God told them that they should have children and that all humanity would live forever.  He warned them not to eat the fruit of the tahu tree.  Both the man and woman agreed that they would leave the fruit untouched.  The man was uninterested in the tahu fruit.  However, during her pregnancy, the woman found that she had a terrible craving for it.  So the man stole the fruit for her, and together they peeled and ate it.  They hid the peels beneath a pile of leaves.  But God created a wind and uncovered the peels.  He was very angry that the y would break their promise and, turning to the woman, God said that woman would suffer pain in childbirth.  God then told the couple that from that moment on they would both have to work hard, suffer illness, and would eventually die.

The Kuba people of the Congo tell the story of Mbombo, their supreme god, who created the world with vomit. 

Mbombo by dreamsnotover
Mbombo Creates the World

In the beginning, there was nothing but darkness and water.  All were ruled by the god Mbombo.  One day, he had a terrible pain in his stomach and vomited up the sun, the moon, and the stars.  There was light everywhere.  The rays of the sun made some of the water turn to steam and rise up to make clouds.  Dry hills emerged as the level of the water dropped.  Mbombo vomited once again, and trees, then animals and people emerged.  Among everything there was one trouble-maker and that was lightning.  It caused so much trouble that it was eventually chased into the sky.

A similar myth comes from the Boshongo people of Central Africa.  In this creation story it is Bumba, not Mbombo, who creates the world.  Their version has Bumba create Koy Bumba, the leopard; Ganda Bumba, the crocodile; and the Kono Bumba, the tortoise.  Men were created last, including Yoko Yima, who was white like Bumba.  The animals that were created by Bumba created other animals.  For example, the crocodile created snakes and the heron created birds.  This myth also includes the trouble maker, lightning, known here as Tsete, who was confined to the sky.  She is said to occasionally strike her old home in anger.

The Efik people of present day Nigeria and parts of Cameroon tell of Abassi who created the world and Atai, his wife, who created death.  The following myth is about the creation of man and the origin of death.

Atai: Goddess of Creation & Death
The Creators of Life and Death

Abassi created the world and the first man and woman.  Because Abassi did not want anyone to compete with him, he decided that the people he had created could not be allowed to live on Earth.  His wife, Atai, disagreed with him.  She insisted that Abassi allow the couple to settle on Earth.  Abassi finally permitted them to do so but with two conditions.  They could neither grow their own food nor have children.  To make it unnecessary for the couple to grow crops or hunt, Abassi rang a bell to summon them to the sky, where they ate all their meals with him.  The woman, however, began to till the soil and produce food.  Her husband agreed that the food she grew was better than the food Abassi gave them, so he joined her in the fields.  The couple stopped having meals with Abassi.  In time, they also began to have children.  Atai reassured him that humans would never be his equal.  To keep people in their place, she sent Death into the world.  Death slew the human couple and caused disagreements among their children.

The Fang or Fan tribe who inhabit areas of what is now Gabon, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea have the following ex nihilo myth which tells of creation and the fall of humanity. 

Nzame: God of Three Parts

In the beginning there was only Nzame, who was God.  He was made up of three parts: Nzame, Mebere, and Nkwa.  Nzame created the universe and the earth, which he breathed life into.  Then Nzame called upon Mebere and Nkwa to view his creation.  ‘What do you think?’ he asked them.  ‘Is there anything else I need to make?’  Mebere and Nkwa both agreed that Nzame needed to create a chief for the earth.  So Nzame created the elephant, the leopard, and the monkey who he made joint chiefs of the earth.  But he found himself unsatisfied.  So Nzame, Mebere, and Nkwa created a creature which resembled them.  The creature took his strength from Nzame, his leadership from
Mebere, and his beauty from Nkwa.  The three-parted God named this created Fam, meaning Power, and ordered him to take charge of the earth.  God then returned to the place above the world.
Nzame creates the first rulers by FireGlass
For a time there was peace.  The first three chiefs – the elephant, the leopard, and the monkey – obeyed the orders of Fam.  But Fam soon grew to become arrogant and proud and cruel to the animals.  He stopped worshipping Nzame.  ‘Let Nzame be where he is; I rule here,’ Fam sang and, when Nzame heard the son, he became angry and demanded to know who was singing the song.  ‘Look for him,’ Fam responded rudely, enraging Nzame, who brought down thunder and lightning.  He destroyed everything on earth except Fam, who had been promised life without death.  And Fam still remains, unseen, and creates trouble whenever he wishes.
Looking down at the now barren earth, Nzame decided that something needed to be done.  So the three-parted God applied a new layer of soil to the ground and when a tree sprouted from it he made it drop seeds to make new trees.  When the leaves fell into water, they transformed into fish and when they fell upon the earth, the leaves transformed into animals.  Soon the earth was as we now know it and, if you dig down far enough you willo find the old burned earth, which we know to be coal.
After this, Nzame decided to make a new Fam, only this one would one day experience death.  We know this creature as the ancestor Sekume.  Sekume created Mbongwe, the first woman, from a tree.  These first ancestors were made with Body and Soul, with Soul giving life to Body as well as its shadow.  When Body dies, Soul doesn’t die with it.  Soul is the tiny spot in the middle of the eye; a spot like a star in the heavens or the fire in the hearth.
Sekume and Mbongwe had many children.  They were always wary of Fam, who was always tunnelling up from the place beneath the earth where Nzame had put him to do evil things to them.  This is why the people tell their children to think before they speak in case Fam is listening, at the ready to bring them trouble.

The Buganda people of Uganda tell the following creation myth of Kintu, the first man, and Ggulu, the creator.

Kintu and Nambi by Gloria Ssali
Kintu, the First Man

In a distant past, Kintu was the only person on the earth, living alone with his cow.  Ggulu, the creator of all things, lived up in heaven with his many children, who occasionally came down to earth to play.  On one of these occasions, Ggulu’s daughter Nambi and some of her brothers encountered Kintu and his cow.  Nambi instantly liked Kintu and made the decision to stay and to marry him.  Her brothers, however, pleaded with her to return to heaven so she could ask her father for his blessing.  Nambi eventually agreed and, with Kintu, went to heaven to ask for Ggulu’s permission to marry.  Ggulu was not pleased, but he gave the couple his blessing and advised them to leave heaven secretly to prevent Walumbe, who was ‘that which causes sickness and death’, from insisting that he go with them.  It was feared that he would bring them misery.  So Kintu and Nambi set off for earth the next morning, taking Nambi’s chicken with them.  But, during their journey, Nambi realized that she’d forgotten the millet which he chicken liked to eat and while Kintu tried to stop her, Nambi returned to get it.  On the way back Nambi met Walumbe.  She refused to tell him where she was going but Walumbe was filled with curiosity and followed her.  And so Walumbe is the origin of all sickness, death, and suffering on earth.

Another creation myth of Uganda comes from the Lugbara tribe, who can also be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

African Spirit Series II by Ricardo Chávez-Méndez
Gborogboro and Meme

The people are all of one blood.  The creator, Adronga ‘ba o’bapiri, made this blood ex nihilo for the first two creatures he placed here.  These were Gborogboro, meaning Sky Person, and Meme, meaning Big Body.  Together they were a form of Heaven and Earth, and the two were married.  Meme was full of wild animals and these sprang out from her womb.  After this, the creator filled her womb with children.  Other versions have Gborogboro and Meme couple, with Meme conceiving a boy and a girl.  And the boy and girl coupled and brought forth another boy and girl, who did the same.  It is sometimes said that some of these brother-sister pairs never coupled, with the women becoming pregnant when goat’s blood was poured over their legs.  People also tell of how humans and their creator were eventually separated and that the people, who all carry the same blood, were separated into black and white.

The Maasai can be found in Kenya and Tanzania and number around 400,000.  Here the creator is known as Enkai.

Enkai the Creator

When time began, there was Enkai, who created the earth.  From a tree, which he split into three parts, Enkai created humans.  From one part he made the father of the Maasai, who he gave a stick with which animals could be herded.  From the other two parts Enkai created the Kikuyu and Kamba fathers, giving the Kikuyu a hoe with which to farm the land and giving the Kamba a bow and arrow with which to hunt.

Another Maasai account of creation tells of Ngai, meaning sky, who the creator of everything , who is neither male nor female, but has two main manifestations who are Ngai Narok and Ngai Na-nyokie: Ngai Narok is black, good, and benevolent where Ngai Na-nyokie is red and angry.  It is due
Ngai by SirRegynald
to the following story that the cattle and fig trees are sacred to the Maasai.  Small ceremonies take place whenever they pass a fig tree – handfuls of grass are placed between the roots in the belief that it will attract more cattle from the heavens.  The soil is also considered sacred as it produces the grass on which the cattle feed and, as such, the Maasai are unwilling to break the ground, even to bury their dead.

Ngai Sends the Sacred Cattle

In the beginning, Ngai was one with the earth, and owned all the cattle that lived upon it.  One day the earth separated from the sky, also separating Ngai and the cattle from man.  But the cattle needed grass from the earth to survive, so Ngai sent to cattle to earth and to the Maasai, who he asked to look after the cattle, using the roots of the sacred wild fig tree.

The Hadza of Tanzania, who number just under 1,000, have a creation myth to explain how the Hadza people came to be. 

Giraffe and Giant Baobab by deskridge*
How the Hadza Came To Be

Humans descended to the earth on the neck of a giraffe.  Other versions say that humans climbed down from a baobab tree.  A giant ancestor, known as Hohole, and his wife, Tsikaio, lived at Dungiko in a cave beneath the rocks where the sun god Haine was unable to follow them.  Hohole would hunt elephants, giving them one blow with his stick and putting them in his belt, much like the Hadza carry home the hyrax they have killed.  Sometimes Hohole walked hundreds of miles and returned home with six elephants beneath his belt.  One day when Hohole was hunting, a cobra bit him on his little toe and Hohole died.  Tsikaio found him and fed on his leg for five days until she felt strong enough to carry his body to Masako.  Here she left him to be devoured by the birds.  Then Tsikaio left to live in a giant baobab tree.  After spending six days in the baobab tree, Tsikaio gave birth to Konzere.  The Hadza are the children of Konzere and his mother Tsikaio.

The final myth I want to share with you today comes from the Wapangwa of Tanzania who tell a story of the creation of the Earth by the excrement of tree ants.  Here the catalyst of creation is ‘the Word’, who is the ultimate creator.

Leaf Cutter Ants by mszafran
The Word – Origin of the Earth

The sky was large, white, and very clear.  It was empty; there were no stars and no moon; only a tree stood in the air and there was no wind.  This tree fed on the atmosphere and ants lived on it.  Wind, tree ants, and atmosphere were controlled by the power of the Word.  But the Word was not something that could be seen.  It was a forces that enabled on thing to create another.
One day the wind was annoyed about the tree, as it stood in tis way.  It blew with all its force until it carried away a branch carrying white ants.  This branch was carried through the air for a while, then it left the air current, and fell down.  Now the ants were left with little food, because they fed on the leaves of the tree.  They decided to eat all the leaves at once and so, leaving a large leaf to excrete on, they ate all the other leaves.  Their excrement became a large heap.
When they found themselves without food, they began to eat their own excrement.  They chewed it until it was twice as big as before; and they continued to re-chew and digest their excrement until it became an enormous mountain, that grew and grew and finally approached the tree of origin.  Soon the mountain rested on the tree and the ants had leaves enough to eat.  But they had become so used to the new form of life that they could not abandon it now.  They continued to chew their excrement until they had created an enormous object – the Earth.
Still the wind blew and it was so strong that parts of the excrement began to harden into stone.  Soon the Word sent snow and, after this, a warmer wind.  This melted the snow and brought an immense flood which killed the ants and flooded the Earth.
Tree of Life by FerdinandLadera*
Time passed and the earth joined with the world tree.  Other trees and plants began to grow; rivers and oceans began to form; and the air birthed new beings which flew above the land singing.  These creatures soon descended to the Earth where they transformed into animals, birds, and humans.
These new beings found that they were hungry.  The animals wished to eat the Tree of Life, but the humans fiercely defended it.  The difference in opinion brought war between humans and animals, and it is this that led to humans eating animals and vice versa.  The war was so brutal that pieces of the earth broke away and flew off into space, gaining heat and transforming into the sun, moon, and stars.
When the war came to an end new gods came into being, along with rain, thunder, and lightning.  Another creature was also created: a long-tailed sheep with a single horn.  This creature was so happy that the war had ended that it leapt into the air and catching fire.  She became the source of thunder and lightning.
The new gods were very harsh on humans.  They told the people that the sheep of thunder and lightning had killed the Word.  As punishment, the people would be shrunk and would ultimately be consumed by fire.

That's all for today.  Next time we will continue in our exploration of the creation mythology of Africa.

Useful Resources

African Mythology by Sandra Giddens & Owen Giddens
African Mythology A to Z by Patricia Ann Lynch
The Hadza: Hunter-gatherers of Tanzania by Frank Marlowe
Creation Myths of the World by David Adams Leeming
Freethought Nation
The Maasai Tribe by Katie Panichella
Maasai – Religion and Beliefs 

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