When Daybreak Comes

By Tembo, Mwizenge S. | The World and I, March 1997 | Go to article overview

When Daybreak Comes


Tembo, Mwizenge S., The World and I


Folktales from the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia

During the African winter months (May to early August), it gets very on the Lundazi plateau. This is part of the homeland of Zambia's Tumbuka people, who also live in northern Malawi. There is a bird that has a reputation among the Tumbuka of always being cold. This is especially true at night during the cold season. As the sun sets and casts its long shadows, this little bird gets desperately busy. As it tries to build a mud nest to trap some heat from the last of the sun's rays, the bird repeatedly sings:

   Kajimatilile kajimatilile kajimatilile
   Kajimangilile kajimangilile karl
   mangilile
   Kajibasulile kajibasulile kajibasulile
   Build build and build
   Build build and build
   Tear up, tear up, tear up.

Once the bird has built its mud nest, it sits inside for a while. But, to its frustration, the sun's rays haven't really been trapped. The bird still feels cold. So it tears up the mud nest and builds it over again, all the while singing the same song.

As darkness draws on, the bird realizes the futility of its actions: It is in for another long, cold night. It suffers terribly and hardly gets any sleep. During the middle of the night, it begins to sing again:

   Kungaca msanga ningati, Ngo!
   Kungaca msanga ningati, Ngo!
   Kungaca msanga ningati, Ngo!
   When daybreak comes, I will chop!
   When daybreak comes, I will chop!
   When daybreak comes, I will chop!

The bird sings that as soon as dawn arrives, it will get an ax and chop wood to make a fire in its nest during the night. When daybreak comes, however, the bird basks in the sun's rays. Enjoying the warmth, the bird sings:

   Namunyako moto ngwene uwu!
   Namunyako moto ngwene uwu!
   Namunyako moto ngwene uwu!
   This is just as good as the fire!
   This is just as good as the fire!
   This is just as good as the fire!

The bird forgets about all it endured during the night and does nothing. It feels that its life cannot get any better than this. But as the sun sets, the bird goes through the same routine. It never seems to solve its problems.

FOLKLORE AND SOCIAL CHANGE

This myth serves many purposes has numerous interpretations among the Tumbuka. It characterizes human follies and character defects. The myth says that procrastination is bad. It also points out that many of us, in the middle of a perennial problem, danger, difficulty, or painful experience, win vow that once we get out of it, we will pray to God every day. While in the middle of a rocky marriage, for example, spouses might promise never to cheat again, or engage in other immoral acts. While being punished for turning in another late assignment, a student might vow to turn in the next assignment one week early. And each time the world has witnessed atrocities and genocide, as in Nazi Germany, the killing fields of Cambodia, and in Rwanda and Burundi, nations have said "Never again!" But genocide keeps happening. How many of us find ourselves in the little bird's position?

Myths and folklore like this play an important role among tribal peoples--like the Tumbuka--who still depend on oral tradition to instruct their young and preserve their traditions. But many of the traditional myths, legends, and folktales are disappearing. Some old ones are being assimilated into the contexts of modern life, and in many cases new ones are being created. All of this is testimony to the resilience of human culture when confronted with change. If we consider the rapid process of social change among the Tumbuka, we can see how these changes have influenced the people's mythology and folklore.

The cultural and social forces wracking Africa today are essentially the result of European colonialism since 1885, when European powers divided the African continent among themselves in the Berlin Conference. In Zambia, British colonialists mined copper, established manufacturing industries in the cities, opened commercial farms, and administered the colony through indirect rule.

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