A Few Remarks on the Mambwe Stories


As in all African oral literature, here too, in the area of Mambwe art, the artistic skill of the story-teller himself and the motive behind the tale plays a crucial role.

Up until recently, stories could only be told in the evenings after finishing work. Breaking this rule would bring misfortune upon the family. The elders would admonish children saying: Ndi walaika icilai akasanya, yaso yangasenuka mukolwe, yanyoko icika (if someone tells a story during the day, his father will turn into a cockerel and mother into a cold dumpling). They would sometimes warn that breaking the prohibition would cause the story-tellers hair to become red (inyele zingaenza). Now, however, it is no longer forbidden to tell stories during the day, but due to numerous tasks to be done, people entertain each other by telling and listening to stories only in the evenings.

Usually the gatherings assemble around a fire. Sometimes they commence with riddle competitions organised by two or three younger people. If it is an official gathering assembling to welcome some guests, the youth prepare some theatrical performance. After ending the play, the story-tellers known for their talent take turns in narrating. Often the stories are presented in cycles – concentrating on the same hero figure, e.g. a cunning hare, evil spirits or monsters; sometimes they are grouped by a theme, e.g. on jealousy, on ingratitude etc. Stories which comprise numerous proverbs and songs with choruses repeated by the listeners are highly esteemed.

The Mambwe Story-teller

There is no profession of story-teller in Mambwe society. Everyone can tell stories, women as well as men, though men tend to be regarded more highly and they most often lead the gatherings. Women tell their children stories during the day and it seems that they are keener than men on  aetiological stories or ones on love and jealousy. Children, however, often tell stories about disobedience and evil spirits.

Regardless of whether the story-teller be old or young, he behaves like an actor during his performance. A good story-teller illustrates the narrative with gestures and facial expression, constantly adapting the speed of narration, mimicking animal movements, making noises corresponding to an animal on the run or an approaching thunderstorm. The teller gets emotionally involved with his tale and involves his audience in the performance. The listeners, on the other hand, react with shouts of surprise or fear to events recounted.

Stories are often also illustrated by songs. These enrich the narrative, and, above all, get the audience involved in repetitive singing of some sentence summarising a dramatic or comical turn in the tale. And describing the deeds of the tale’s hero, the story-teller analyses them, enlisting numerous proverbs.

To conclude the narration, the story-teller speaks a closing sentence to announce its end, or to remind the audience that the tale was fiction and he hadn’t intended to terrify his listeners. Usually the closing sentence is short: Pali akali kapela or Pali kalai kasila, and here the story ends. Sometimes, however, if the story teller is older, you can come across a longer sentence reminding the audience that everything which had been said had been made up by the story-teller and thus should not cause nightmares. The sentence goes as follows: Kalai, pitu ku ntambalilo, ku mitwe nasaka kweneko imyunga (little story, go down to the foot of the bed, for I have laid down thorns where the head rests – which means that the story should not give us nightmares).

Characters and Heroes Appearing in Stories

The master of masters – kalulu (hare) – occupies the most important position in Mambwe stories. He appears in many stories among tribes belonging to the Bantu group, e.g. Ila, Bemba and Shona. The figure is portrayed as a comical, unusually cunning, crafty and shrewd animal capable of any malice. He is admired by the listeners for his uncommon ability to rescue himself and others. The hare’s ‘morality’ is straightforward – I can do everything as long as I’m not caught.

Apart from ‘professor Kalulu’ (the hare) stories often incorporate an awkward, helpless and ungrateful tortoise accompanying the hare’s expeditions, an antelope which is in constant scrapes, a snake which never fulfils its promises, a magic bird giving a poor man a meal (as in the European tale – Table Lay Yourself). There is also no shortage of one-eyed and one-handed evil spirits which place man at the top of their food-list and can only be killed by pouring hot beer into the monster’s throat.

Themes of horror often appear in tales. We hear of extraordinary creatures which oscillate between the animal world and the world of man. There is the figure of a man – cisanguka, who becomes a dangerous lion when he hunts at night, or rather a dangerous lion, which enchants people with his unusual abilities in the daytime in order to lure them into traps and then offer them as food for other blood-thirsty spirits.

In addition, the hero of the tribe occupies a prominent position in Mambwe stories, as in tales told in all the other world’s cultures. This figure has the same name as the tribe’s forefather. He is unequalled in wisdom, cunning, courage and dedication to others.

Apart from the hero we also come across people with unusual deficiencies who are harshly punished by fate or by the king, e.g. a stupid and lazy girl who wanted to discover what poverty was, another who laughed at a magic tree, whose great knags resembled a belly-button, or lazy people who never get paid for their work. Stories often depict the problems of young people seeking marriage partners. They also present stupid people who turn out to be wiser than a whole crowd of young people seeking the hand of the king’s charming daughter.

An unusual character which appears in a magic tale comes in the form of an ant with one rump. It is to it that people turn when they are trying to kill some evil spirit or to free the victims swallowed by some monster.

Animals which appear in tales are usually shown as thinking beings which behave like humans in their environment. An interesting grammatical point which underlines the personification of characters in Mambwe tales is the conversion of the subject’s prefix so that it belongs to the same group as human beings or – without changing the prefix in the singular – making the verb agree according to rules which bind the group, to which man belongs.

Animals appearing in the tales behave like human beings and are subject to the same emotions as human beings. Their characteristic traits, however, are not forgotten: their modes of movement, the noises they give and often their appearance is alluded to. Thus, for example in a Mambwe tale about a miserly and malicious monkey and a tortoise, the animals behave like humans, build houses, marry, invite friend for meals. The comedy of the tale about the monkey punished for its miserliness is based on the observation that the hands and legs of the honest tortoise are very short. The tortoise is forced by the shrewd monkey to sit down on a high stool and is unable to reach its bowl of food. The description of the tortoise waving its arms and legs about makes the whole tale very entertaining.

Recurring Themes and Motifs

At the beginning it must be emphasised that Mambwe tales have a ‘clasp’ construction, including special opening and closing formulas. The story teller usually announces his tale with the phrase Pali akalai (Here is a tale: once upon a time…), to which the listeners may respond Eya, tuvwe (yes, let’s listen). Next the narrator introduces the setting of the action and the main heroes. He uses the phrase ‘once upon a time, there was a village in which many young men and girls lived’ or ‘…there was a lion…’.

Mambwe tales often follow the following construction: a small shrewd animal, usually a hare, cunningly exploits the awkwardness and stupidity of his enemies, which are much bigger, ridicules them and arrives at his intended objective (marrying the dreamt-after person, taking over the whole wealth of the animals bigger than itself, becoming the owner of a large estate).

A tale based around the above skeleton happens to be the best known of all Mambwe stories. Among the Bantu people, however, the most popular story of the kind is one about rope-pulling. The main hero is a hare which hopes to marry a cruel lion’s daughter. His rival (often an elephant) surpasses him in strength and authority among animals, but the hare, not called the ‘professor of the bush’ in vain, deals with everything very well, ridiculing his rival and demonstrating that he has no equal. This story was marvellously told to me by one of the best Mambwe story-tellers, the late Bernard Kungula. With his characteristic fluency he expanded on the tale’s skeleton to add new detail in the form of tasks which the hare had to perform. The animal, in order to gain the lion’s daughter’s hand had to extract the teeth of a dangerous leopard and then demonstrate that he was the strongest animal in the forest. Thus by trickery, he lured the elephant and hippopotamus into rope-pulling competitions in order to decide who was the strongest. When his rivals lost all their strength, the cunning hare cut off both their heads, thus proving that he was the shrewdest animal in the whole kingdom.

Another construction is also very popular: an animal delivered from peril of death tries to kill its rescuer. Another animal, which is to decide whether ingratitude is something natural in the world, lures the ungrateful one back into the trap. Ingratitude is thus severely punished.

Elements of magic are also welcome in tales, such as a magic ring used by a man of hidden beauty. The ring’s owner is usually the youngest son in his family. His elder siblings disregard him and his ugliness or insupportable odour frightens potential fiancées away. This person, undervalued by everyone, attains everything thanks to his magic ring: he gains the hand of a beautiful and rich heart-throb, and in return for the wealth he offers his parents-in-law he receives kingly power and becomes the greatest authority in his society.

Story-tellers from the Mambwe country sometimes also use a construction where magic dominates, reminiscent of the Arabian tales ‘A Hundred and One Nights’, about three men engaged to the same girl. Each possesses extraordinary magic powers: one is a soothsayer and foretells the future, the second possesses a magic remedy curing all illnesses and the third is capable of transposing himself anywhere thanks to magic – or aeroplanes, as in a tale told by the late Bernard Kungula.

The construction of tales in which evil spirits appear is very straightforward: the woman is unaware that she has married a cannibal and her youngest brother discovers his brother-in-law’s secret and rescues the family from sure doom. In other tales of this type people steal food from the evil spirit and caught red-handed, kill the monster by trickery and take over his wealth.

Aetiological tales, which explain the behaviour of certain animals or people, entertain the audience with spot-on remarks. Amongst all the tales, these are definitely the funniest. They usually speak of the problems of friendship and hatred. A classic example is the widely known story about the hatred between the hen and the kite or the hawk. The construction of tales of this type is transparent: initial friendliness is transformed into hatred because of a carefree attitude on the part of one side, which fails to keep its word. The hatred between two figures is so deep that for centuries the whole species do not change their behaviour. The kite will never forgive her old friend, the hen, who lost her precious sowing-needle and in revenge snatches her chicks. The awe-struck hen which lost the kite’s needle keeps rummaging everywhere looking for the lost object, hoping to find it eventually and return it to its owner. Thus, the age of hatred and fear ends and the hen befriends the kite anew.

There is also no shortage, among Mambwe tales, of aetiological stories providing answers to important questions pervading all cultures: when did death come into the world, why the bizarre ‘friendships’, as between the warthog which enthusiastically digs out the great roots of its friend, the cassava, or between the fish which is so in love with water that it cannot leave it even after death. Or  how did it come about that the man-hunter who relished in wildfowl began to eat dumplings made from millet flour. We can also learn via another tale how the first family was formed, and the Polish saying ‘the way to the man’s heart is through his stomach’ also has its counterpart in African culture.

The Themes of Mambwe Tales

Mambwe tales touch on a whole plethora of subject matter. The favourite is cunning, sometimes deviousness, thanks to which one can escape from the worst calamities. The hero of the majority of tales on this theme is the hare (in 10 out of 15 the shrewd hare is the main character).

Another subject the Mambwe tales touch upon is obedience and disobedience (11 tales). These tales show how important it is to be obedient to parents, even though they may set their children incomprehensible targets, as their advice shows how to overcome difficulties and danger. Obedience is also due to elders, who can give salutary advice, e.g. how to gain a fiancée, or how to overcome an evil spirit. A young man is subjected to various tests to probe whether he is humble and obedient. If he passes the test, he receives a generous reward.

Tales often also speak of human gratitude or its lack (9 such tales). The ungrateful one is not necessarily harshly punished. He sometimes uses the naiveté of someone else to save his own skin. These tales warn against credulity. This is best conveyed in the Bantu saying: ‘pity kills the partridge’, which refers to a story about a partridge which delivered a python from a fire trap, which in turn – once in safety – killed its rescuer.

Mambwe story-tellers also readily speak of friendship (9 such tales). One such story tells us about the ideal union – for life and for death – between the fish and water, another shows how much is needed for friendship to be transformed into hatred. Often the causes of hatred between old friends are jealous people.

As many as 8 tales contain warnings against undervaluing people or things commonly regarded unimportant. The appearance of a person or an animal does not decide its worth. The stories include imbeciles, the underdeveloped, the unpleasantly smelling, the mangy, animals of the wrong size (such as the hare competing with the elephant), which, thanks to cunning or a magic ring reap some outstanding success. These tales underline that respect is due to everyone.

Other tales concern co-operation (8 stories). One of the Mambwe proverbs goes; one finger will not catch a flee. Similarly, these tales underline how people co-operating with each other can achieve much more. The devious hare leads the blood-thirsty lion into the field under the condition that the fearful antelope keeps cool and does everything the hare demands. Even if someone possesses magic powers, he should nonetheless co-operate with others, because different people have different gifts. In other words, to achieve success strengths need to be pooled.

Mambwe tales also include descriptions of selfishness, miserliness and cruelty (5 stories). In these tales selfishness is linked to cruelty, and its upshot is the desire to get rid of another person.

More rarely, tales speak of jealousy (4 stories), of respect for bizarre specimens of nature harbouring territorial spirits, or of respect for parents. Sometimes tales speak of unhealthy curiosity which brings about misfortune, extol the hero’s courage, advise caution since life is full of danger, or condemn fraud and gluttony. In summary it can be said that 45% of all tales discuss 6 themes: cunning, obedience, friendship, gratitude, and disregard for people in view of their appearance, illnesses or nasty odours, and co-operation. These are subjects intimately linked with human survival. Both cunning, individual courage, and the community, strengthened by bonds of friendship and obedience, allow various difficulties to be overcome and dangers in life to be averted.