Nyangan oral mythology
Son of Shemwindo and Nyamwindo
In the mythology of the Nyanga people of central Africa, Mwindo was a hero with supernatural powers who had many adventures. His story is told in the epic of Mwindo. Mwindo was the son of Shemwindo (pronounced shay-MWEE-n-doh), a powerful chief who had seven wives. Shemwindo heard a prophecy, or prediction, that he would be removed from his throne by his son. To prevent this, Shemwindo decreed that his wives should bear only female children, and that he would kill any male child they produced. Six of his wives gave birth to females. Then his favorite wife, Nyamwindo (pronounced nee-ah-MWEE-n-doh), had a boy. The child emerged from her middle finger and could walk and talk immediately. His appearance was like that of a Pygmy, one of several culture groups within Africa whose average height is less than five feet tall. Nyamwindo named her child Mwindo. When Shemwindo found out about Mwindo, he tried to kill the boy with his spear. But Mwindo used magic to protect himself and to throw off his father's aim. Shemwindo then buried the child alive, but Mwindo escaped. Next the father sealed his son in a drum and threw him into a river to drown. Again, Mwindo used his magic powers to travel beneath the water.
Mwindo decided to visit his aunt Iyangura (pronounced ee-yong-GOO-rah). Iyangura's husband tried to stop him by setting traps. But with the help of animal spirits, Mwindo escaped the traps and met his aunt. A guard called upon Master Lightning to strike Mwindo down, but Mwindo's magic made the lightning bolts miss.
Later Mwindo led his uncles to his father's village, intending to punish Shemwindo. They killed all of the villagers and destroyed the village. Shemwindo fled to the underworld , or land of the dead, followed by Mwindo. There Mwindo met with the ruler of the underworld, Muisa, who promised to reveal Shemwindo's hiding place if Mwindo performed some tasks for him. Mwindo did so, but twice Muisa tried to kill Mwindo, and twice Mwindo used a magic scepter (a clublike staff) to save himself. Finally, Mwindo tracked down his father. Shemwindo apologized for trying to kill Mwindo and agreed to share his kingdom with his son. Mwindo then rebuilt the village and restored all the villagers to life.
Later Mwindo killed a dragon that was a friend of Master Lightning. As punishment, Mwindo was taken up to the sky, where he had to endure blazing heat from the sun and terrible cold and rain. Mwindo endured this for a year, and, after he promised never to kill another living thing, the spirits of the sky let him return to earth. From then on, Mwindo ruled his kingdom in peace, instructing his people to live in harmony, to avoid jealousy and hatred, to accept every child, and to be kind to the sick.
Mwindo in Context
The story of Mwindo reflects the attitudes of the Nyanga people toward the Pygmy people, who live in the same region. The Pygmy people are closely associated with Nyangan tribal chiefs, hunting for them and even providing them with wives. The Pygmies, however, remain an independent group outside the Nyanga tribe. It is believed that Pygmies gready influenced the way the Nyanga people hunt, gather food, and perform religious ceremonies. The story of Mwindo can be seen as a celebration of the Pygmy people through a hero who is still considered a member of the Nyanga. This positive attitude toward a Pygmy group is rather unusual, since many Pygmy groups face prejudice and persecution in other parts of Africa.
Key Themes and Symbols
One of the main themes in the epic of Mwindo is the attempt to change fate. Shemwindo thinks he can avoid losing his throne to a son by preventing his wives from having sons. He even tries to kill his son Mwindo several times in an effort to prevent the prophecy from coming true. Ultimately, Shemwindo fails and agrees to share his throne with his son. In the tale of Mwindo, Nyamwindo gives birth to Mwindo through her finger. This represents Mwindo's magical nature, as well as his small size. The scepter that saves Mwindo's life in the underworld represents tribal authority; scepters are usually associated with leaders, and this suggests Mwindo's rightful place as leader of the Nyanga people.
Mwindo in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
The story of Mwindo was passed orally within the Nyanga tribe, and performances of the tale by a skilled storyteller are events that sometimes last days. The myth was first recorded by anthropologist Daniel Biebuyck, and an English translation was published in 1969. The tale has also been retold in the children's book The Magic Flyswatter: A Superhero Tale of Africa (2008) by Aaron Shepard.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
There are many Pygmy groups throughout Africa, and anthropologists have written extensively about them. These groups represent a lifestyle based on hunting and gathering, which is how all of our first ancestors lived. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the hunting and gathering groups that remain. In what regions of the world do they now live? How would you describe those regions? Choose one group and trace its history to a pre-contact period (a period before it came into contact with Europeans). Contrast what the group's day-to-day life is like today with what it was like in the pre-contact period. What were some of the important changes that occurred in the group? Do you think the group is better or worse off today?