by Levi Keidel
I Learn about "The Great Chief"2
While a small child at home, I was as content as a peanut hooked to its stem. When one first appears upon earth, he becomes familiar with his parents, his relatives, and the customs they already have established for him to follow. These things are woven around him in such a way that he entrusts himself to them, and so finds contentment. These things might be compared to a carefully woven bag, made to carry things for a long journey. It carries good and bad things equally well. I must now help you to understand the fabric of the bag which was to carry me on my earthly journey.
Before the coming of the white man, each large village or group of small villages was a kingdom by itself. Because of fighting between kingdoms, we could not travel far. We could not trade with distant villages. We lived using only the things we found near us. We were poor. We fought constantly against enemies which wanted to destroy us: hunger, sickness, sometimes warriors from neighboring tribes. All the cleverness of our minds and all the strength of our bodies were made to work for us, that we might stay alive. For this reason, our forefathers developed customs which would strengthen our tribe and tie us together as one thing. This explains why it was necessary for Tshiyamba to die.
Strength is in large numbers. We needed many in our tribe to make fields for food, and to go to war; thus we would overcome our enemies. And so the elders say, "Man loves a woman to bear children." Every adult person was expected to help replenish our tribe and multiply its numbers.
Thus a man with more than one wife was a man of honor, by this means he bore into the tribe a large number of children. Our chief had many wives, so that his blood would be more widely dispersed among us. Rarely did a young man marry a woman of another tribe; we married one another.
Marriage covenants were sealed with the paying of bride price. A proverb says that a woman married without bride price is like a hen; she'll desert her young and go elsewhere as soon as they start pecking for themselves. This custom of paying bride price kept a man and his wife bound together. With the passing of time, the blood which flowed in the veins of our chief whom we all honored, and the blood of every newborn baby, was one. The commonness of our blood became the mortar which bound us together like a wall, strong, straight and firm.
Our forefathers also agreed on rules for dealing with affairs which would weaken our tribe. A liar was one who betrayed his tribe and brought shame upon his clan. A proverb says, "The penalty for one who steals is hard; if he's your child and flees, we will punish you." If a child stole again and again, the father would burn off the ends of his fingers to mark him forever. If the clan could not correct his stealing, it would renounce his family, or the chief would sell him as a slave to another tribe.
Our forefathers believed that men and women lying together promiscuously would ruin the tribe. They had strong laws which made sexual union sacred. Many times those committing adultery were killed. A young man who ruined a girl's virginity was required to pay her parents a bride price and a fine, and to take her as wife. Children who did such things to each other in play, or who viewed their parents' nakedness, were judged by the full tribal council; a white chicken was killed, and its blood was sprinkled on their legs to cleanse them. If they refused to confess such sin, their powers to reproduce were bound. If a parent lay with his child, at night both were taken and thrown into the river to die.
To restrain the body's desire to do such evil, girls approaching womanhood could not sleep together. Parents could not bathe or sleep with their older children. Thus the gift of each man and each woman was kept strong and pure. Because such things were taboo between a child and his parents, we spent much time with our grandparents. We learned from them important things about life.
As a wall finds its strength in tightly-packed bricks, so the tribe found its strength in closely-bound families. People of a family were tied together as snugly as a bundle of straight sticks. They always felt the needs and strengths of one another. When one was disturbed, others knew it.
Thus if I needed something, my father and his brothers would combine their wisdom and strength to get it for me. Stinginess found no place in their thinking. If I became ill, these men, all of whom I call my fathers, would do whatever was needed for me to recover. When I lacked money to go on an important journey, they would provide it. When it was time for me to marry, each of them would contribute animals, cloth, or other needed wealth to make up the bride price. If I were disabled, they would feed and clothe me. My father carried an equal burden to see that the needs of his brothers' children were met.
No affair happened which could be hidden in a corner; no one was left alone with his problems; everyone worked with him to solve it. If a man's wife was barren, relatives assembled wealth to pay a medicine man to follow customs necessary to unlock her powers of birth. If such customs failed, the man's fathers helped him pay bride price for another wife with powers to bear. If a man died, his eldest brother took the widow to meet her needs and to bear children by her.
When a child was rebellious, or when a woman argued with her husband, the oldest living man member of that family carried the burden to resolve the problem. This was generally the grandfather. If the problem was too hard for him, it was discussed by a council made up of the eldest member of each family of the clan. If they could not resolve it, the tribal council, made up of clan leaders and the chief, would judge it.
Thus, as the baby draws all its strength from its mother's breast, so each child among us grew up drawing all his needs from the sticks which lay next to him in the family bundle. When he matured, he became in turn a source toward providing the needs of his children and brothers. Thus during my growing-up years, my family was my succor; my tribe was my defense. To be disloyal to them was to destroy oneself. The fortune of one of us was the fortune of us all; and none among us would ever die because he was poor or alone.
My grandfather was very important to me. He wove together for me many pieces which were to make up the journey bag of my life.
"Where did our ancestors come from?" I asked him one time.
"I pass on to you the story told me when I was a child," he said. "Long long ago when the hills were still new, our ancestors lived in the far north country. They were all one people. They all spoke the same tongue. They were planting their gardens and eating the forest animals. They believed they had subdued the earth; so they started questioning one another about reaching heaven.
"They tied long sticks together and packed them with mud so as to make a tall tower. When it finally reached high into the sky, people crowded onto it. So many people climbed up it that it broke, and fell to the ground. The hearts of all of them split with fear. They got up and fled; three ran this way, four ran that way. They discovered themselves talking languages they could not understand. Black people came this way southward. Others of them, becoming weary, stopped here and there along the way. We, being stronger than others, came to the far south and stopped in the land where we are today."
Another time I was hoeing with him in the field. Part of the story of Ngongo Lutete's evil acts made me think hard that day. When we entered the path to return home, I asked, "Evil that enters into man's heart to make him like Ngongo Lutete, where does it come from?"
"Our ancestors told us that long ago the eldest and greatest of all living spirits made a field," he began. "He wanted his creatures to be happy. So he gathered all the insects which bite us and make us ill, and locked them inside the fruit of a tree. Then he created the first man and woman. He told them to till the field and to eat of its plants; but they were not to eat the fruit of that one tree.
"One day while the man was away working in the field, the woman became very thirsty. She picked the fruit and opened it to drink the juice. All the insects rushed out of it; they stung her on the body and made her very ill.
"When the man returned to the hut that evening, he discovered what the woman had done. He was so angry he deserted her. He wandered the earth looking for a helper who would be obedient. He found no one to cook for him. He had not one to talk to. He returned. The woman lured him to taste the fruit. He ate it, and sickness caught him as well. That evening the Chief of the field came looking for them. He found them hiding behind their hut, lying with their faces to the ground in shame.
"The Great Chief followed the palaver. He wanted to find out which of his creatures was guilty of tricking the woman into eating the fruit. He found it was the snake. He was so angry with the snake he cursed it; He cut off its arms and legs, and discarded it in the high grass. From that time, the snake has been crawling on its belly, abhorred of men, as you see it today."
I listened carefully. I was as an innocent child sitting on a river bank taking mind-pictures of the passing stream.
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