African Legends

African Legends

by Piet Korse mhm

Piet Korse mhm is a veteran Mill Hill missionary and self-made cultural researcher/anthropologist. Many years of field work in DR Congo and Uganda have resulted in a rich harvest of publications in French, Dutch and English. Publications in English include: Spiritual Dialogue with the Bantu and Basankusu Testimonies. Read more.

His latest publication in English is a vast and varied collection of African legends.

A selection of myths and fables from the Móngo in Congo and the Básogá in Uganda will be posted on this website over the coming weeks.

From the introduction to 'African Legends':

For many modern Africans, myths and fables are something from the past, from village life that does not exist anymore, from the times they were children. ‘These are stories for amusing children.’ This is the impression I often received, when researching on the hidden treasures of African traditional stories and fables. This is the impression I still have. For modern Africans, traditional stories do not seem important; they do not seem to contain anything of value.

This being said, it has also been my experience that, when I used a local fable in a Eucharistic celebration in Congo as well as in Uganda, a hush took hold of the congregation. It was as if even babies and children held their breath. Adults pricked their ears. It felt like a holy silence descending on all of us. I felt that the ancestors were present again. The whole congregation felt their presence. There was not a single cough to be heard. Now valuable words and insights were going to be proclaimed, words touching real life, touching our personal lives. The African story indeed conveys whispers of a distant past, but clearly audible and understandable in the present. Intuitively the African audience feels at those moments that those words of a distant past convey the ever present spirituality of the ancestors. Those ancestors are still present in one way or other and want to be heard; they want to be honoured, they want to be remembered. They are part of the audience, in their offspring and in a mystical presence conveyed by their proverbs, their myths and fables. They are present, when their offspring remembers them in the shrines, in the food they set apart for them, in the drinks they pour out as libations and in the blood of goats, sheep, cows or dogs they sacrifice on the village graves. The ancestors are not dead, they are alive, they are present among us.

I present here myths and fables from the Móngo in Congo and the Básogá in Uganda. Both are Bantu peoples, with a culture that is basically identical, though the cultural expressions like language, symbols, rituals and stories are diverse.

In its myths and fables, Africa also has its redemption stories, when saviours stand up in times of famine, when monsters threaten to devour whole villages, when wild animals devour people one after the other. In Africa too, people tell stories how to solve local problems and how one person does the other in the eye. African stories narrate about extraordinarily courageous people, people who volunteer to liberate their village or clan. African forebears too are miracle workers; they die and resurrect, walk across rivers or fly through the air. In their myths, Africans seek answers to basic questions: where do we come from? How did life start? Why do we need to die? Why so much suffering?

Formerly, according to the African stories, people were intimately and magically connected with animals, insects, trees and rocks. They were in harmony with nature in a way we can only dream about. I want to share with you their dreams, their heroes, their courage and their hopes for a better future.

Those same stories give modern Africans the courage not to give up, even when their lives are pathetic, because of diseases, civil wars, corruption, extreme poverty, bitter rows, power struggles with loss of life, brutal killings, robberies in clear daylight and rape. The traditional stories empower people to continue their daily lives, even though the present sometimes gives little hope for a better future, when they do not yet see a ray of light at the end of the tunnel. The African stories remain, therefore, important, even more so, because the media tell us that the end of Africa’s misery is not yet in sight. It remains important to continue to tell those stories and to never say die.

African stories are and remain important for the whole of humanity. Fables do not just narrate about animals. They narrate about human interactions, about our stupid mistakes, about our wrong priorities, about our anger, jealousy, deceit, robberies, and addictions or about roguish tricks. Don’t you see?

Fables, sometimes, wrap up for us a bitter pill in the form of an animal story, as if it has nothing to do with us, as if it only concerns animals.

However, the story is all about you and me, about our dirty tricks and wild behaviour. The slow tortoise, the vulnerable dwarf antelope and the crafty hare outsmart all the other animals. Those stories tell us, ‘If the lion’s skin cannot, the fox’s shall.’ Many stories target rulers, because for them the possession of power seems sometimes to be more important than exercising power in the service of the community.

Many local languages are threatened by the ever-increasing urbanisation and the local and international globalisation. It is an urgent task to safeguard these most interesting and precious stories for the future of Africa and for the whole of humanity.

Piet Korse mhm, Vrijland, March, 2017

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