A Traditional African story, given by Ashley Ramsden,
Reproduced in writing by Maria AndreoulakiOnce in an African village lived a hunter with his family - his wife and his four children. His wife was pregnant with their fifth child.
One day the hunter set off for hunting. As it was common for hunters to stay away for a few days, he told his family not to be worried about him if he did not come home that evening. When he would come back, he usually had food for everyone, and they had a big feast to welcome him, honor him and thank him.
His wife and children went about their everyday lives; the younger children picked roots for their dinner, the older caught fish in a small nearby pond, the mother made pies and when everybody was ready, they looked out for their father. They saw no signs of his return and mother said, that’s alright, your father won’t be coming back tonight, he will eat and sleep outdoors, so they sat down and had their dinner.
The next day life in the village went on as usual, with men doing their usual chores, women theirs and children their play, and so did the next few days go on, without anyone worrying about the hunter, until something happened that made everyone forget all about the hunter having left and not having come back. His wife gave birth!
She had a girl with shiny eyes, strong legs, a little black hair and hands that explored close and far. The night after her birth the whole village gathered around a big fire and they each took the girl in their arms, and each of them whispered a wish for her, and smelled her smell, so that if she was ever missing, they would find her, and each of them gave her a gift, because the birth of a girl, a birthgiver, is more important that anything else in the everyday life of the small village; they looked at her deeply into her eyes so that she could learn to trust and be fearless, the grandmothers held her a bit longer, promising to care for her when her family needed it, young girls tried her weight on their arms laughing and longing to hold their own baby one day, the boys and men looked at her with all the respect suited to the women who gave birth to them and raised them as good sons, and to the women that were and will be their life partners. And they called the girl Yaya.
Yaya looked at the world with eyes full of wonder and longing, a feeling so contagious that everyone, when they gave her back to her mother, stayed on for much longer, softly singing, some fell asleep, some kept the fire going until the morning, and the mother stayed and loved her new baby, fed her from her body, smelled her until this delight was more than any other memory of delight that night, and the whole village gathered around her, took care of her, caressed her and her children did the same and the circle closed and no one remembered the missing hunter, and the hunter stayed out of the circle that night on the birth of Yaya.
Life went on as usual. Yaya kept growing, exploring, knew the secret gifts of everyone and how to ask for what she wanted, how to thank everyone with what they best liked, and how to go from arms to arms and relax and laugh and have fun, some even thought she could bring on the rain and other such magic, because after hugging Yaya, always something good happened at the village. Yaya crawled and then walked, sang until she started to speak her first words. Then one day, something happened and the whole village froze. Because as the story-tellers had gathered around the fire, telling stories of the old days, Yaya looked at her mother and said: “Mama, where is papa?”
The whole village held its breath. Out of surprise, out of shame, of agony, of confusion. They had all forgotten all about the hunter and it was already a year that no one had looked for him! That very same day the four older children asked for their mother’s protection and set off to find their father. She helped them prepare for the journey, looked at them with trusting and grateful eyes and early next morning, before the sun had come out, the four children started their journey.
They walked a long way, having the oldest as their guide, for he had once gone hunting with their father and could remember the paths. It was very hot, and the younger ones had difficulty following. But they did not give up. They went on until they found a small opening, where their brother led them, and he should know…
It was getting dark and there was no sign of their father anywhere around. The younger ones started to be afraid, and wanted to sit and rest, so they made a fire and sat for a while, having some food and drink. Afterwards they got up again and continued on their way until, to their great disappointment, they got to a thick wall of bushes and thorny branches that blocked their way through and through. The younger ones sat down and started to cry, while the oldest one stopped and thought for a while; he then lowered down and started to look carefully and feel with his hands the thick wall of bushes and thorns. His siblings were looking at him desperately, crying, scared, until they saw his face lighten and immediately ran to him. “Here it is, I found it! These bushes cut off the way to hunters who are not prepared for everything. Father had brought me here once and had told me of an opening, and he’d said that, if you are determined, you will find it and get to the other side. Noone can tell what you will find on the other side, so he never told me. But he did say that when it’s the right time, I will know what to do.”
The children gathered around each other, went down on their knees and felt carefully around the thorny bushes with their hands. There! Ifoundit! Cried the youngest. And everyone laughed softly, so as not to disturb their sister leopard who was hunting nearby. One by one they crawled under the opening to the other side. The clearing!!! Their father had talked to them about this clearing, one that only experienced hunters could get to. Now they knew why.
Vast land all around them and a huge tree with an ancient trunk in the middle of all vastness. The children started to run towards the tree, to hug it, to ask it. And while they ran, each of them would find something on the ground. They would pick it up and brought it to the tree. Look, one of father’s arrows! I found one too! Me too, me too! And there is his bow! And his spear! He must be somewhere here too, the little one said and the others laughed in sadness. If only it were so easy to find him little one…
And there, at the roots of the ancient tree, lied scattered pieces of their father; one child found a bone long and thick, another a skull, another small bones, and they all gathered around and admired, and they dispersed again and collected all the bones and there they all lied before their eyes.
Then the oldest child said – Wait! I was born - remember? – with the gift of bringing bones together, and he picked them all up one by one, sat at the roots of the big tree and lined them all up, from head to toes, so that the children slowly saw their father’s bony figure appear before their eyes, resting, just bones, no flesh but still so much closer to them.
The children looked at him and wished they could touch him, talk to him, run with him. Then the second child said - Wait! I was born – remember? – with the gift of putting flesh to bones, and she sat next to their lying father and held his legs and these filled up with flesh, and he held his trunk and this filled up with flesh, and then his arms, his face and head and little by little, there was their father before their eyes, in flesh and bones, and it was as if he had lied down to take a nap after a tiring day of hunting or a nice meal or a walk. The children look at him and so much longed to see his chest rise and fall, his loving body to move as we do in sleep and his breath to come out with their familiar smell when they kissed him on the cheeks or nose… And then the third child said – Wait! I was born – remember? – with the gift of giving breath to the still body, and he sat next to the father and breathed with him until they breathed together and the rest of the children were hopping around them all excited.
And they wished that their father could open his eyes and talk to them, just so, as he was lying there before them, calm and asleep, because he would really have so much to tell them and how they had missed him… Right then the little one cried – Wait! I was born – remember? – with the gift of giving speech to ones who stayed silent for too long, and going to him, he caressed his face, his eyes, his mouth and whispered to his ear and his skin awaking words and after a while, father opened his eyes, took in the sky, the clearing, the ancient tree, the faces of his four children that looked at him in awe, and gave a wide smile, like every morning when he saw them awake. He spoke to them, trying his forgotten voice, caressed them feeling his forgotten hands, rose feeling the forgotten earth under his feet, and the children, all excited were swirling around him and touching him and led him back to the village. He gathered his bow and arrows, and they got there as soon as their fast feet could get them.
The hunter and his children entered the village amongst cries of enthusiasm, mother came close, crying and laughing and dancing and singing, and they all started to dance in a circle and the hunter with his family were all in the middle, no time to tell the wondrous things that had happened. They decided to hold a big feast that very night and everyone started preparing treats, each of them doing their best, while storytellers were preparing their tongues for the most beautiful stories, musicians oiled their instruments and dancers their bodies, children made space for the feast, applying soft branches to sit and lie on, while others prepared a magnificent fire to give light and warmth and colors to the special occasion.
The hunter, after spending some time with his family, and met Yaya, went off on his own to the top of the cliff to give thanks, to enjoy his return, to understand what had happened, and to prepare to receive the great honor from his village mates. He took along with him the sacred tail of a cow, which the eldest always held to shoo flies away, decorated with beads and colorful ropes, beautiful on its own – the cow tail that passed from hand to hand, from these village men and women that had something very important to tell the younger ones. He sat there for long hours, from the sun until the moon journeyed past the sky, and when the moon came out and he could hear the feast start, he came down to find the rest of them, and he knew what the sacred cow tail had told him when it was time for him to speak.
The whole village gathered and celebrated, with food they only ate on very special occasions, when they celebrated life, with dance and song, with stories and games, and everyone had something to tell from their now and their past, and the hunter’s family, the mother, father and their five children, were the center of all celebrations. At some point they asked the hunter to tell them of his journey. He held on to the sacred cow tail and looked into his wife’s eyes with the deepest love, and then into each of his children’s eyes. With his woman by his side, he started to speak these words:
I feel very grateful for being here with you again. My four children began a journey into the unknown in order to bring me back. Their mother and my wife trusted them that they will make it and stayed back caring for Yaya. My oldest child with his gifted hands gathered my scattered bones and put them to place – without him I would not be now in this circle – and he brought the child into his arms. My second child, with his gift, gave flesh to my bones and without her I would not be now in this circle – and he brought the other child into his arms. My third child gave me, with his gift, breath so I could feel and rejoice with you tonight – and brought him into his arms. My fourth child gave me back my voice, so I can think and speak these words - and he brought the child into his arms. And my youngest child, Yaya, she gave me the gift of return. She asked the question for me.
And so it was, children, the beautiful grandmother used to say, that I came to have the sacred cow tail from my father, and they say that I was born with the gift of return. The children were all gathered around Yaya, now a grandmother, amazed at the beauty of the sacred decorated cow tail, and others were trying to get into her sweet-smelling arms to hear more of her wondrous stories… Because – remember? – Yaya would go on – no one is dead, unless they are forgotten.