The Banana Ballad
to Roger D. Abrahams
Giving thanks to the Nyanga,
For giving us the epic,
That concluded in harmony.
And lessons in humility.
The Songs of Mwindo,
Verse of banana and taro.
As the one that carries genus Tamarindus, abode of ancestral spirits, is mentioned here and there, throughout the Tales of Amadou Koumba; so the one of genus Musa, of courtesy and rituals, appears throughout The Mwindo Epic. Due to the prominence of this plant in the story, I think of it as the Banana Ballad.
From the Nyanga people of the Congo, this epic was first translated into English in 1969, by Kahambo C. Mateeney and Daniel Biebuyck. I read it in the 1983 African Folktales anthology, compiled by Roger Abrahams. As well as the hero and his auntie, I'll be introducing you to banana and her cousin plantain.
So the first mention of this item of fufu, cake and smoothie, is during the wedding ceremony of Iyangura, the beloved auntie and her betrothed, Mukiti, guardian snake of the river where he resides. Enjoying a meal of banana paste and taro leaves, they ceremoniously feed each other a piece of the former, sealing their vows of forever. After the meal, he returns to his favourite pool and she remains in Tubondo, where her brother Shemwindo, is the chief.
Hearing a prophecy that a son will displace him, he issues a decree to his seven wives, that only female babies will live; those of the other gender will be killed. Subsequently, six produce a child of the decree. After a prolonged pregnancy, the seventh produces a child of forbidden gender, who emerges from his mother's hand, walking and talking. He steps forth from a finger, carrying amongst other things, the conga scepter, a fly whisk of magical potential; and the mission of his death begins.
He survives the spears thrown at him by his father Shemwindo, who after consultation with his counsellors, decides he should be buried alive, bringing us to our next encounter with Brother B and Cousin P. We are told that traditionally, in Nyanga burials, banana and plantain trees are placed over the individual and then soil over the flora, which transpires here. In the evening, light and heat begin to emanate from his grave. Heat too much for human skin and light that could create blindness if looked at: signalling the return of Mwindo.
Next, they make and place him in a drum, sealed with animal skin, which is dumped in the river. With patience and chanting, he survives the attempted drowning, though still caged within the drum. It is after this attempt on his life – and cancelling possibilities of aquatic onslaught - that we first hear the sentence ''Mwindo, the little one just born he walked,'' which becomes his constant refrain, his chorus of victories. He continues on his journey to Iyangura, who releases her cherished nephew, from his cell of wood and hide.
With the help of Mukei the Hedgehog and Master Spider, our diminutive hero survives the pit traps set by Kasiyembe, employee of Mukiti, ally of Shemwindo. Taking the advice of Iyangura, he dances with her, thus avoiding the aforementioned snares, where razors are embedded, ready for execution.
Then we come to the episode involving Plantain Hydration. Kasiyembe, enraged and humiliated, conjures Plan B; petitioning the powers of Nkube, the deity of lightning. Asking him to generate fire, to burn the part of the house where Mwindo and his female companions are conversing. Due to his mystical protection, it is the other side of the house that burns, as well as the hair on Kasiyembe's head. His howls are heard throughout the village, begging for a dowsing of water: but no water is to be found, anywhere; neither in the jars, the river or the plantain stalks. Getting desperate, they attempt to put out his head fire with spittle, but their mouths have become Kalahari dry. Then Iyangura speaks, talking of forgiveness and appropriate punishment. Imbibing her wisdom, Mwindo relents, waves his conga scepter, resulting in the return of water to the jars, the river and the stalks of plantain.
Feeling invincibility permeating his being, Mwindo then informs his auntie that's he's going after his father, her brother Shemwindo. This time, the words of the sage are dismissed, so rather than see him journey and fight alone, she decides to go with him to Tubondo. During the evening of the first day's trek, they come to Yana, a village where some of his uncle's reside; relatives who are master blacksmiths. With a suggestion from him, they immediately accept the commission and make him a suit of iron: hat, shirt and trousers. I've heard of the quilted armour of the Hausa and a pangolin version amongst the Edo, but never one of iron! Time at the forge over, and ''blood being thicker than water,'' the uncles also decide to accompany him, as he chants his way to Tubondo.
Re-entering their village, Iyangura bemoans the fact that there is no accommodation for the entourage; Mwindo makes houses appear. She also cites the other outstanding fact, that there is a lack of food. The hero rectifies the problem, singing food from the possession of Shemwindo, to those who are following him. And as you can imagine, Musa is on the list of culinary wishes, as he chants...
''The banana groves that are in Tubondo,
May the banana groves come to Mwindo.''
A fight ensues between the foces of Shemwindo - residents of Tubondo - and the uncles of Mwindo, in which the latter encounter death. The villagers and their chief begin to taunt Mwindo, focusing on his small size, calling him ''little man'' and ''little fool.'' Calling on Nkuba, his ally in the sky, the deity of lightning sends down seven flashes, turning Tubondo to dust. Shemwindo escapes to the underworld, via a kikoka plant. After resurrecting his uncles, Mwindo takes the floral portal to the world below.
In return for telling him where Shemwindo is, Mwindo agrees to fulfill a request from Muisa, deity of the underworld; to plant and reap a grove of banana trees in one day! Next day, he goes to the fields to begin the challenge; well not him actually, his tools. While he stands observing, his tools – axe and bilhook – perform the tasks of cultivation and the feat is soon completed. Carrying a bunch of bananas to show to Muisa, he becomes a victim of Muisa Plan B. He sends his magical belt of cowrie shells, beating Mwindo relentlessly, making him foul himself. Realising Mwindo is in danger, the conga scepter revives him. It is then sent on a revenge mission, doing to Muisa what the cowrie belt did to his master, causing the adversary to shit and piss himself. While the legendary fly whisk does its thing, Mwindo continues to reap from the new banana grove. Returning to the village, he relents when Kahindo, deity of good fortune and daughter of Muisa – who he previously healed of yaws - asks him to return her father to life, as he'd passed away during revenge.
Following this, promising to show him once again where Shemwindo is, Mwindo undertakes a task of honey collection for Muisa, who lies again, allowing Shemwindo to escape. The conga scepter resumes the beating of Muisa, resuming the release of his bowels. Shemwindo has escaped to Sheburungu, deity of Creation. In this part of the story, we meet Ntumba the sacred aardvark and re-encounter Nkuba, deity of lightning. And it is in this segment of the saga that there is the last significant mention of the ones of Musa; as the venue of reunion, where he finally speaks with his father, in the banana grove of Sheburungu.
The story continues with more episodes, such as Mwindo meeting and experiencing the power of celestial forces – Moon, Star, Sun and Rain – and doing battle with Dragon. The epic ends with reconciliation between father and son. After all the episodes, the accumulation of wisdom, he takes a vow of non-violence, becoming a beloved ruler; a paragon of peace and facilitator of harmony.
In the penultimate paragraph, where Mwindo speaks to the people of Tubondo, he begins the speech saying, ''May you grow foods and many crops...'' You can't help thinking that amongst the ''foods'' and ''crops,'' he was thinking of banana.
@Natty Mark Samuels, 2023 African School