The History of Mambwe Folktales

When I reached the Mambwe mission in Zambia in May 1983, I began learning the local language the following day and immediately realised that I had entered a magical and enchanting world of African tradition yet unknown to me.

As I had been used to learning European languages, I found it difficult to cope with the richness of grammatical forms and the profusion of African vocabulary. However, discovering a new culture and language quickly became provocative and, I must admit, a creative challenge.

My friends, whose clan names would take a long time to list, helped me to slowly enter a completely new reality. The guide on my linguistic journey, a man whom I owe much gratitude, is Daniel Simungala. He accompanied me on all expeditions to semantic areas distant from the European. Thanks to him, and others, a land yet unknown opened up before me. Of course, I could always count on the help of catechists and storytellers – orators from equatorial regions (such as the late Bernard Kungula), as well as actors and dancers, especially Silvester Siwiti Silwamba who was always ready to fasten jangling bracelets to his legs and, despite his age, to dance one of the traditional dances perfectly resembling pantomime or the grotesque.

Most of my time was, of course, taken up by pastoral work, but I spent every spare moment collecting linguistic material for a Mambwe – English dictionary. I started work on it in January 1984. The amount of collected material terrified me at first. Thousands of notes in alphabetical order were there waiting to be elaborated upon. I planned to publish a dictionary, which would not only be used for translations but also for learning the Mambwe language and learning about the culture and traditions of the people. That is why each entry was expanded – as well as grammatical forms and synonyms, I gave examples of how to use a given word. Key words for the tradition, such as ‘initiation’ or ‘cult’, were explained in greater detail. Because of the unusual knowledge of my friends and guides, especially Daniel Daudi Simungala, whom I have already  mentioned, I could also include the tribe’s numerous proverbs in the dictionary. Work on the Mambwe language culminated in the publication of the whole collection. The dictionary published in 1994 included not only everyday words used in colloquial speech, but also words that were not used any more, which nobody in Mambwe remembers, apart from a handful of old people (‘walking encyclopaedias’).

I took only one break from this systematic and time-consuming work – this to translate the New Testament. I worked intensively on the translation from 1989 to 1991, at the same time continuing my pastoral work to a rather more limited extent. Every day, together with a group of trusted friends, I would sit down to the first translation of the Good News into the Mambwe language. Only then did I really become fully aware of how beautiful and rich this language is. I had then the opportunity to discover the secrets of narrative forms, the richness of metaphor, the semantic variety of words, allusions and paradoxes, as well as many other interesting phenomena in the language my friends used every day. As I was translating I wrote down new proverbs and puzzles which were as yet unknown to me. At the same time I started to catalogue the story-tales which I got the chance to hear once again.

I tried to use this collection of ‘linguistic oddments’ as I then called it to become familiar with the tales. I hoped that after a time I would be able to use the stories skilfully to illustrate my rather long and sometimes boring sermons.

In 1985 during a retreat camp for altar servers and a group of girls called Xaverians I became convinced about the effectiveness of using such unusual examples in preaching. When we were there I asked a friend to write a tale illustrating the theme of the sermon. We used a tale of the Bemba tribe about a hare and a ‘ngoshe’ (black mamba), an unusually dangerous adder. At the beginning of the sermon I saw my young friends looking round, discreetly admiring the landscape. I am sure they were thinking about playtime, some football game or dinner, the nice smell of which was already in the air, tempting these ever-hungry youngsters. However, when I pronounced the ‘sacramental words’ Pali akalai (once upon a time…), thus announcing a real story, all eyes came to be fixed on me. I had learnt the story by heart beforehand because I knew that story-telling skills are the most important. In spite of the fact that I put the wrong accent on several words, thus changing their meaning, (instead of talking about an adder I talked about a hammer), the crowd reacted in a lively way to the most interesting parts of the tale and rewarded me by clapping at the end. From that moment onwards I knew that interesting narrative forms, such as tales, must be included in a sermon to make it more lively. It took me a long time to begin to master the unusual oratorical art of my friends, but it gave me a great deal of pleasure. At bonfires I observed their wonderful oratorical skills with genuine admiration. Our evening meals together ended when the equatorial sun set. Later, as there were still a few hours till bedtime, the family and close friends went to an ‘insaka’ (meeting place; public hut) and sat round a bonfire to listen intensively to what the elders had to say. Often, to the delight of the old and young, wise, jocular stories known as tulai in the Mambwe language were told as a treat. The person telling the story presented a story-tale using all his oratorical and acting skills. From time to time he weaved a song with a short refrain into the story, in which the audience willingly joined in, ever keen to get involved in the one-man act.

Collecting the tales, however, proved very difficult. Although my knowledge of the language was satisfactory, some of the tales, which were enthusiastically accepted by the spell-bound audience and rewarded by cheers and lip-smacking (a sign of acceptance), were incomprehensible to me. The difficulty provoked in me a desire first to write down the tales and then to tape them and to listen to the recordings in the quiet of my own home.

When I had collected over a hundred different stories, I started wondering if it was worth publishing them. I was aware of the fact that by writing down the tales I was depriving them of the vitality of the original versions, and that the emotions and sense of humour were lost. Putting them down on paper and then translating them into a different language inevitably meant that they would lose much of the value of the African stories. It was not possible to write down all the extra-linguistic elements, all the grimaces, dance movements and skilful gestures, which often meant more than the story-teller’s words themselves. It was wonderful to listen to the tales attentively, but it seemed almost impossible to write them down. In order to depict the full richness of the situation we would have to film the person telling the story without him knowing it.

Hence, what has been written down is merely a summary of the thread of the given story, only the tale’s verbal component. It is not possible to portray the whole theatrical art of African story-tellers, who use extra-verbal language to such a great extent. That is why I decided to write them down for myself and just give copies to my friends.

I changed my mind, however, in 1994, when I went to the country’s capital with the newly-published Mambwe-English dictionary to meet Minister Mpande who came from the Mambwe tribe. I was very warmly received. The Minister was extremely grateful for the dictionary I gave him. He looked through it with interest, read specific entries and showed it to his children. We were both very pleased that the Mambwe tribe, though not the most numerous in Zambia, had its own dictionary. In the middle of our conversation the minister asked me: ‘What about the unwritten folk tales, Father? They’re so interesting!” My heart then sank. I was so pleased with my dictionary, the fruit of years of work, and here a government minister was asking me about story-tales! That being the case I promised that I would think about preparing the tales I had written down, and those that were still only on tape, for publication. Preparing the collection in a one language version took me a lot of time. However, in presenting the reader with tales from the land of Mambwe, I feel happy that these beautiful examples of oratory tradition will have been written down and passed on to future generations.