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An East African Tale for World Book Day

This East African story about the innocence and power that children possess was recorded at the beginning of the twentieth century in Benaland, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) by Pastor Julius Oelke of the Berlin Mission Church. The beginning line ‘we do not really mean’ is the line used in Ashanti (Ghanaian origin) of every folk tale. 

The accompanying pictures are what are known as ‘Tinga Tinga’ style paintings, a Tanzanian 20th Century art form often depicting magical birds and and local community life. 

We do not really mean, we do not really mean, that what we are going to say is true….

One day, a strange bird arrived in a small village that nestled among low hills. From that moment on, nothing was safe. Anything the villagers planted in the fields disappeared overnight. Every morning there were fewer and fewer sheep and goats and chickens. Even during the day, while the people were working on the lands, the gigantic bird would come and break open their storehouses and granaries and steal from their winter food supplies.

Tinga Tinga Tale

The villagers were devastated. There was misery in the land – everywhere was the sound of wailing and the gnashing of teeth. No one, not even the bravest hero of the village could get his hands on the bird. It was just to quick for them. They hardly ever saw it: they just heard the rushing of its great wings as it came to perch in the crown of the old yellowwood tree, under its thick canopy of leaves.

The headman of the village tore out his hair in frustration. One day, after the bird had plundered his own livestock and winter supplies, he commanded the men to sharpen their axes and machetes and to move as one against the bird. “Cut down the tree; that is the answer”, he said.

With axes and machetes ground to gleaming razor edge, the men approached the great tree. The first blows landed heavily and bit deep into the flesh of the trunk. The tree shuddered, and from the thick tangled leaves of its crown the strange and mysterious bird emerged. A honey-sweet song came from its throat. It reached into the hearts of the men and spoke of fabulous, far-off things that never would return. So enchanting so the sound that the machetes and axes fell one by one from the hands of the men. They fell to their knees and stared upward in longing and yearning at the bird that sang for them in all its brilliantly coloured splendor.

The men’s hands became weak. Their hearts became soft. No they thought, so beautiful a bird could never have caused such damage and destruction! And when the sun sank red in the west they shuffled like sleepwalkers back to the headman and told him there was nothing, but nothing, that they could do to harm the bird.

The headman was very angry, “then the young men of the tribe will have to help me” he said. “Let the youngsters break the power of the bird”.

The next morning the young men took their gleaming axes and machetes and set off for the tree. The first blows again landed heavily, biting deep into the flesh of the trunk.  And just as before, the green canopy of the tree opened and the strange bird appeared in all its multihued finery. Once again a most wonderful melody echoed across the hills. The young men listened enchanted, to the song that spoke to them of love and courage and of the heroic deeds that awaited them. This bird could not be bad, they thought. This bird could not be wicked. The young men’s arms became weak, the axes and machetes fell from their hands, and they knelt like the older men before them, listening in a trance to the song of the bird.

When night fell they stumbled, bewildered, back to the headman.  In their ears still sounded the enchanting song of the mysterious bird. “It is impossible” said the leader of their group. “No one can withstand the magical power of this bird”.

The headman was furious. “Only the children remain,” he said. Children hear truly and their eyes are clear. I will lead the children against the bird”.

The next morning the headman and the children of the tribe went to the tree where the strange bird was resting. As soon as the children let the tree feel the bite of the ax, the leafy canopy opened and the bird appeared just as before blindingly beautiful. But the children did not look up. Their eyes stayed on the axes and machetes in their hands. And they chopped, chopped, chopped to the rhythm of their own music.

Tinga Tinga 3

The bird began to sing. The headman could hear that its song was beautiful beyond compare, and he could feel the weakness in his hands. But the children’s ears could hear only the dull, regular sounds of their axes and machetes. And no matter how enchantingly the bird sang, the children continued to chop, chop, chop.

Eventually the trunk creaked and cracked apart. The tree crashed to the ground and with it fell the strange and mysterious bird. The headman found the bird where it lay, crushed to death by the weight of the branches.

From everywhere the people came charging. The hardened older men and the strong young men could not believe what the children with their thin arms had accomplished!

That night, the headman declared a great feast to reward the children for what they had done. “ You are the only ones who hear truly and whose eyes are clear”, he said. “You are the eyes and ears of our tribe”.

“Because a story is a story; and you may tell it as your imagination and your being and your environment dictate; and if your story grows wings and becomes the property of others, you may not hold it back. One day it will return to you, enriched by new details and with a new voice”. (Nelson Mandela).

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