Dear Friends and Story Lovers,
Kapilolo Mahongo and I recently returned from Spain where we performed at the 22nd annual Guadalajara storytelling festival. Every year, the mayor of this town opens the event with a story, followed by a non-stop, 36-hour-long marathon where more than one thousand locals come to the 15th century Palacio del Infantalo to tell stories through-out the weekend!
We joined the traveling storytellers who gathered from 30 different countries in neighbouring palaces – exquisitely painted in murals that depict historic narratives. (The picture above is of a panel from a 14th century Spanish fresco.) I told one episode of the wide-spread folk tale type, The Clever Little Girl, or Little Wise Heart, as she is called in 19th century texts. I combined a version told to me by Ju|’hoan teller in Botswana in 2004 with one recorded by Sigrid Schmidt in northern Namibia some twenty five years ago. Here she is …
Katitu Momambo, the Clever Little Girl
This story begins with four girls who lived in the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa. They were the clever little Katitu Momambo and her three older sisters. The three big girls went into the veld one day to gather food, as they use to do in those days.
Little Katitu walked after them, but the big girls sent her back, saying: ”Hey, go back! You are too small to go with us! Stay at home! Go back!” Katitu secretly followed them at a distance so that they would not notice her. Later, when they were too far away from home to send her back, she joined them.
While she walked, Katitu cut herself some wood and made herself a bow and many arrows. The girls walked and walked and walked until at last, the sun dropped into the Kalahari horizon. The girls were lost, yes, they were lost.
They happen to wander into a deserted village where they found a hut in which to spend the night. Little Katitu went up to the old woman who sat next to the hut and greeted her. “Oh!” answered the old Grandmother, “This is the village of the Big Snake! What are you doing here? He stays in a big hole in the cattle kraal. When people like you come to milk the cows, he eats them! And if he cannot kill them in this way, he will go to your hut at night when you are asleep and kill you there!”
Wise little Katitu did not panic. She simply asked old Grandmother for a hard cow skin to cover the door of their hut. Then she told the girls to make a fire and cook some food. Katitu wanted to sleep a little, so that she could stay awake throughout the night to watch out for the Big Snake. “When a wind begins to blow, she said to her sisters, you must wake me up. This would mean that the Big Snake is near.” Later that night, the wind came up and the sisters awoke Katitu while they themselves went to sleep. Then Katitu fixed the hard cow skin against the door of the hut and made a little hole in the middle for her bow and arrows.
It was not long before the wind became stronger and Katitu heard the Big Snake approach.
“Hai, Gom-gom, hai gom-gom, where are they?” chanted the Big Snake.
The clever Katitu answered him with her own defiant chant, “ Here they are, here they are!
Then the Big Snake rushed – khab! – against the hard skin at the door of the hut. Little clever girl shot an arrow through the hole in the skin. And when he rushed again – khab! – she shot- khab! – shot an arrow at him. When he rushed again – khab! – she shot – khab! – and finally, killed him. Yes, the little clever girl killed the Big Snake.
Then Katitu rushed over to the older girls. “Sister, sister, sister!” she whispered, “get up, get up, get up!” And when they awoke they saw the terrible thing lying there. “Come, we have to take him back to his hole!” They rolled him up, rolled him up, rolled him up and they set him right back into his hole, so that he lay there as he usually did. “Hurry! We have to run!” And the girls ran and they ran and they ran.
Next morning, the Big Snake’s wife told his children to go and look for him. When his children found him lying in his hole with his eyes staring wide open, they exclaimed:
“Grandfather is dead! It is that little girl who killed him. Quick, let us go after her! Get all those girls!”
Now all the snake’s children went after the girls – the boys called Porcupine, Jackal, Spider and Wild Cat. They pursued them, pursued them, pursued them.
The girls ran and ran and ran. When the boys had nearly caught up with them, Katitu commanded all the girls to turn into trees. She said: “Turn into trees!” Yes, the girls turned into trees. When the men arrived at the spot where they had seen the girls, only trees were standing there. By now, the Big Snake’s children were very tired indeed. So, they lay down underneath the trees and slept. When they were fast asleep, the girls turned back into human beings again and ran on. When the boys woke up, the girls were no-where to be seen and they finally gave up, yes, Porcupine, Spider, Jackal and Cat went home.
The girls continued to flee and came to a waterhole, the well of the elephants. The girls were thirsty, but the well was deep. They asked each other, who will climb into the well to scoop water? None of the older girls wanted to risk that and told Katitutu to climb in. “Will you help me out of the well if I climb into it?” she asked. “Yes,” they replied, “we will help you.”
Katitu climbed in and scooped water for her sisters. Each girl drank and then walked away. They all left. Katitu sat down deep in the well, squashed into the mud, wet and alone.
Later that evening, the elephants came to drink. One of them drank and left, another drank and left. The last elephant drank and slurped Katitu up while she was drinking, yes, the elephant swallowed Katitu with the water. While she was swallowing Katitu, a few drops of her blood sprayed onto the reeds that were growing in the water hole.
Meanwhile, the older girls had arrived home and said nothing about Katitu. Everyone searched for her, but could not find her. Katitu’s little brother and his friend were searching too and came upon the waterhole. They cut some reeds to make themselves flutes. Now, when the little brother played on his flute, the flute sang by itself:
“Is this my brother who plays me, who plays me,
The other girls left me, left me and the elephant swallowed me, swallowed me!”
The boy rushed home and handed the reed to his father, who played it. And again, the reed sang:
“Is this my father who plays me, plays me?
The other girls left me, left me, and the elephant swallowed me, swallowed me!”
Now the father handed the reed to Katitu’s mother, who played it. And again, the reed sang:
“Is this my mother who plays me, plays me?
The other girls left me, left me, and the elephant swallowed me, swallowed me!”
Now the father called the young men of the homestead and ordered them to go and find the tracks of the girl and look for the elephants. The young men hurried off. They met the first group of elephant and asked them:
“Elephants, elephants, have you seen the one who swallowed our girl?”
And the elephants sang:
“!a plaf! !a plaf! We trot lightly. We are so light, we carry nothing!”
And they passed on.The boys met up with another elephant in the bush and asked:
“Old elephant, elephant, have you seen the one who swallowed our girl?”
This old elephant too, answered,
“!a plaf! !a plaf! I trot lightly! I am so light, I carry nothing!”
But now the young men heard a little voice in the belly of the elephant:
“Cut her open! Go on, cut her on her left side, for I am sitting on her left side!”
Then they cut open the old elephant’s belly, and took Katitutu out of the old elephant. They took her home.
Of course, the other girls were severely punished.
And that was the tale of Katitu Mamombo, the wise and clever little girl who saved her sisters from the Big Snake, saved them from being killed by the snake’s children and with the help of her brothers, saved herself from the belly of the beast.
My story walks till here.