by Levi Keidel
My Father's Many Wives
The troubles of my Uncle Beya progressed until they arrived at the doorstep of our house. But before I tell you how they ended, I must describe for you the heart of my father.
Our ancestors related to us stories of the past which help explain the kind of wisdom which ruled their hearts. For example, they told us that one day long ago, the sun rose as is its custom. Then, in the middle of daytime, it became dark as moonless night. Chickens didn't understand the time, and went to roost. Then all at once, the earth shook like a leaf in the wind. Men's hearts split with fear. They asked one another what had caused it.
After a long time, they learned that this was the day people killed the Child of the Great Elder Spirit. Of all peoples of earth, only this child created Himself. The name our forefathers gave Him shows that He had weapons and the power to wage war; but He refused to use them, and died. Because they killed Him, His Father, the Great Elder Spirit, was angry; He covered the face of the sun and shook the earth.3 He gave His Child life again, so that the Spirit of His Child is still wandering on the earth. And so up to today, there is a proverb which says, "Don't be stingy with the orphan; feed and clothe him; he is the child of the Eldest Spirit."
It is for reasons like this that our forefathers cared for orphans and widows, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked. The offering of Tshiyamba brought an end to our fighting and made us people of peace. After that, if a person left another tribe and came wanting to sit among us, our people welcomed him. They gave him a place to build his hut; if he was single, they helped him find a wife from among us; they gave him a place to make his fields; they called him "sir." They were generous, courteous and polite.
Father followed their footsteps. He was known among our people for the love and happiness he showed to everybody. Through all the years of my childhood he taught me incessantly, "Take good care of your body. Guard your reputation. Always be kind to the person sitting with you. When he asks for something, don't turn your back; giving is storing; someday it will return to you. Give it to him. Respect him. Love him. Obey him. Don't touch his wife. Don't steal. Welcome guests. If you think strangers may be in the village, at mealtime leave a bowl of food along the path outside the hut; better feed a full stomach than deny a hungry man something to eat. Try to do good to everybody."
Father taught us to work. When the eating of termites weakened a wall post, he replaced it. When a grass roof began to leak, he repaired it. He gave us children the work of sweeping our yard and putting things in order each morning. When the boy children of our family became older, he helped us build a living-hut for ourselves. He gave me a baby goat and told me to take good care of it and raise it as my own.
He taught us our lessons of hardest work in his fields. "If you respect your stomachs, you'll respect work in the fields; they feed us," he would say. During the years of my childhood, father took to himself four wives. Through the months of every year they did the kinds of work that all women perform for their husbands: splitting wood, fetching water, gathering greens, cooking food, making wine, preparing palm oil. But each year when the rainy season approached, he sent us all to the prairies. He saw that our hoes ate the high grass. We planted; we weeded; we harvested. There was never hunger at our house. We had manioc, corn, beans, peanuts and sweet potatoes; our cooking pots were always full. Father helped all his brothers marry; their bride prices came from things sold from our fields. Other produce was traded at the marketplace, and brought us the things we needed.
Through the years, father became recognized for his good deeds and hard work. His wives, and the wealth they helped him gather, made him highly honored. Tribal leaders promoted him. They chose him to be chief of a clan of nine families. They chose him to be responsible to arrange affairs for guests coming to the village for important events such as mournings, tribunals and consultations between tribal chiefs. Thus when persons arrived, he would distribute among them the things they needed: food and sleeping places. Father was given a long name which meant, "If you can detour hunger, all that's left to detour is death."4
Thus you can understand why the journey bag of my childhood carried me contentedly; a large piece of it was woven by my father. But even though two knife blades are sharpened on the same honing stone, they don't cut the same. If Father's life caused people joy, the life of his brother Beya continued to cause everyone sorrow.
Because the tribunal had found him guilty, he carried a great burden of shame. He no longer passed back and forth among his tribemates. He stayed in his house much of the time. Then news spread that he was ill. My fathers, working with the tribal medicine man, worked with all their strength to heal him. But for one moon following another, his body kept wasting away. Then one night his wife Ndaya dreamed that a crocodile was trying to devour her. Everyone knows that this dream means that great sorrow is about to catch you. On the following day when the sun no longer blinds the eyes, my father's brother Beya died.
As is the custom, people gathered at Ndaya's house to mourn with her. The body was buried the following day; but the mourning continued. Relatives of both Ndaya and Beya ate and slept at Ndaya's house for two weeks. This is a debt they must fulfill. If a relative fails to come, or if he fails to join with his heart in the weeping, people will say he wanted the person to die; he may have helped the person to die. They sit around the bereaved one close as beard whiskers; then they weave slowly back and forth as if blown by the wind, creating a mourning song which recalls the good deeds of the dead one, and asking why the spirits have taken him. Ndaya listened to their singing; as oil assuages a hurting wound, her heart was comforted.
Death is the domain of the spirits. Only they can explain it. Father and his remaining brothers went to the diviner to learn who caused the death of Beya. The diviner accepted his fee of a goat then consulted the ancestral spirits. They said no one living was guilty. They had taken his life to complete justice. "In his heart Beya kept accusing Ndaya of unfaithfulness," he said. "He accused her falsely. He did not respect the judgment of his superiors. In anger, he blackened the name of a tribemate and scarred his flesh. He who hardens his heart in the path of evil must pay its wages." Father and his brothers sadly agreed. It did not bother them to think that Beya was cursed by the spirits. This explained for them why he suffered calamities, one hooked onto another. They would shrug a shoulder and say. "He was as a bird who breaks every twig it lights on."
After the mourning, it was the duty of Father's younger sister. Meta, to pass the nights with Ndaya. They did not sleep in the house of Beya; they slept in the kitchen hut beside it. Father was the eldest of the brothers. Early one morning Meta came and asked to talk with Father alone.
"A spirit is troubling Ndaya. If we find no way to overpower it, I fear it will catch her, as the spirits caught Beya."
"Why do you speak thus?"
"For five nights following one another, the spirit of Beya has come to torment her in a dream. He says he will not let her go until she joins him. Last night she could not sleep for fear. This morning she is ill."
Father called my mother. With Meta they went to the kitchen hut. Ndaya with the mourning cloth still about her waist lay quietly on a woven mat on the ground. Her face was wet with weeping. Her eyes were closed. She did not want to talk. Meta and Mother brought her to our house. Father went to consult with his brothers. He returned, caught two white chickens, put them into a carrying basket, and waited.
Later that morning Father's brothers and the sorcerer arrived. Carrying the chickens, they all went to the house of Beya. The men stood outside the house entryway. The sorcerer took the chickens and went inside the house. Soon they heard him cry out loudly with a voice sharp and hard as a knife blade:
Then he left the house, carrying a living white chicken. He followed the footpath down the slope into the valley until the high grass swallowed him. After awhile he appeared again, returning empty-handed.
He entered the house. The men came and squatted on the ground outside the doorway to watch. He was sitting inside the threshold, looking out. In one hand he held a small bushy branch. In the other he held the second chicken. He looked through the doorway into the sky and said:
"Shall it be thus?" he asked the men.
"Let it be thus," they answered as one.
He took a small knife from under his waist cord; he cut off the chicken's head. He drained some of its blood onto the branch and sprinkled it onto the threshold. He drained the rest of the blood onto the ground on either side of it.
The spirit of Beya troubled Ndaya no more. She recovered. As is the duty of the eldest brother, Father took Ndaya as his wife.
Some used to say that an inherited wife is as worthless as straw baggage. Others said one should multiply wives, and thus multiply honor. When Father accepted Ndaya to be his wife, neither of these things was in his heart. He would provide her a hut, food and clothing; thus she would not need to sell her body to other men to gain the things of life. He would perform the duty given him by his forefathers; to bear children in the place of his dead brother, and thus replenish the tribe.
To take a young wife was not to shame your old one. "Never despise the wife of your youth," the elders say. "You and she have minds of the same length, because you matured together." The coming of a second wife promotes the first one to honor.
The first wife is given a name which establishes her as chief of the compound; others living in it cannot dispute her authority; they serve her.
She keeps her place in the large living-house, with her husband; the chest containing his personal things must stay in their sleeping room; the second wife lives in a hut of her own, nearby.
The first wife gets the best portion of game meat her husband brings from the forest: a thigh. Only she can prepare for him the food he needs to carry out ancestral rites. Only she can go with him to choose the place for a new house or a new field.
Thus a new hut was built near our living-house. Ndaya submitted herself to the rules of the compound, and sat in peace. Only one thing remained to make her joy sufficient.
Father tied his heart to the matter of unlocking her powers of birth. His brothers helped him gather the payment price, and the tribal medicine man made his strongest medicine. The spirits heard, and Ndaya was found to be pregnant. She rejoiced exceedingly. The burden of shame for her barrenness was being lifted. Weeks ahead of the birth, Father and his brothers began planning a day of joy which befitted such an affair.
When the time for birth was sufficient, an old woman friend stayed in Ndaya's hut to help her. Ndaya bore a baby girl. As was the custom, she stayed in the hut to fulfill eight days of purification. During those days Father could not go in to see her or his child. He prepared things for a feast on the ninth day. He hired workmen. They brought long forked sticks from the forest. In the open space next to our compound they planted the sticks in rows in the ground. Through the forks they laid bamboo poles. Upon the poles they laid freshly-cut palm fronds to make a great flat shade roof. This would be the feasting house.
The ninth day arrived. When the sun came up, it found people already working. Ndaya went to the stream to bathe, and returned, few noticing her. Women brought to our house bundles of firewood, baskets of flour, fresh greens, cooking pots, and stirring paddles. The feast would need much meat. Men butchered many of our goats and pigs. As was the custom, we all wanted to share. I gave them my goat, and strengthened my heart like a man when they killed it.
Men kept bringing large heavy yellow drinking gourds. The row of gourds on the ground beneath one edge of the shade kept growing until there were ten. They were filled with palm wine. Its fermentation slowly burbled white foam from the gourd necks and filled the air with a pungent odor which burned our nostrils. Musicians came. Drummers began a small bonfire for heat to tighten their skin drum heads. Two marimba players began arranging thin tone boards of different lengths. Each board was fastened across the top of a long slender hollow gourd which made its sound loud and rich. Then rubber hammering sticks were laid on the ground beside them.
Before the sun was hot, all was ready. People had multiplied like maggots on meat. Father stood about twenty steps from Ndaya's hut door; all gathered around to watch. In a short time Ndaya's old woman helper came out of the door carrying an empty water gourd. She dropped it to the ground and with her foot, crushed it. She picked up the pieces and threw them into a nearby waste pit. She returned into the hut. Then she brought out dirty wilted food-carrying leaves, crumpled them in her hands, and threw them in the waste pit. These are the things Ndaya used to eat and drink with during her days of confinement. Destroying them showed that the purification rites were finished.
The old woman disappeared into the hut. Then through the door came Ndaya. Her baby was in her arms. She stood and looked at the waiting people. Her joy had turned her face into that of another person. Upon seeing her, the people together, each answering his own heart, made a great roaring noise that wanted to break the sky. Then all was quiet.
Ndaya came toward Father. She placed the baby in his arms. Father looked at it for a long time, tears beginning to fall upon it. Then he had them place in Ndaya's arms two gifts: a new piece of bright-colored dress cloth, and a large red rooster. She looked at Father, tears trickling down her cheeks. Then suddenly there were many tears, no one having shame.
Three old ladies with palm fronds in their hands raised a long piercing cry, breaking it by patting their fingers to their lips. They stooped over low and swept the ground at Ndaya's feet with the fronds, as if welcoming a chief. Other older women, circling her, began singing a song, clapping their hands, twisting their hips, and stamping their right feet in rhythm. The drummers catching the sound, began a booming cadence that made every hip joint want to dance. The marimbas joined with a melody. Like one sweep of a broom, everybody was caught at once with joy, and loosed their hearts to dance.
A workman, being instructed by Father, asked us to get baskets and hoes to help him. We went to Ndaya's hut. We cleaned out the old cooking fire ashes and threw away the worn sleeping mat. We carried fresh damp earth in our baskets and dumped it onto the floor. We pushed it into the hut corners with our toes. Then we began packing it, stamping our feet and twisting our bodies in rhythm with the big people dancing outside. This was a day for all hearts to sing. We replaced Ndaya's cooking-pot stones, placed two gourds of fresh water in one corner, and laid a new sleeping mat along the wall.
When the sun was high, dancing stopped. Father had three big chairs placed at one end of the feasting shelter. He sat in the center, Mother on his right, and Ndaya, with her baby, on his left. Women carried in open-topped gourds full of steaming food. As was our custom, people squatted on the ground under the shade and ate and drank. Women came, one after another, and spoke words of comfort to Ndaya.
"The Great Elder Spirit never sleeps," they said. "In the end He justifies the innocent. He has vindicated you for your faithfulness. May He give you an abundance of children." After eating, people again danced. They continued into the night until sleep caught them standing.
Ndaya named her baby "Banseke," which means, "Let them laugh at me."
Customs like these sustained the life of my tribe. They were as familiar waters in which my people bathed daily, never querying about their source. These customs, as the strong fingers of a potter, worked to shape me into the person I was to be.=========
3. Compare Matthew 27:45-51. Interestingly, according to ancient records, earthquake and inexplicable darkness occurred simultaneously among the Mayan and Inca peoples of Mexico, and in Greece, Rome and Egypt. Historians Phlegon and Tertullian described it as a "universal darkness" engulfing Europe and Asia.
4. Tshiyamu Meupela Nzala Lufu Kaluena Kuepela.
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