Kamba - Fables and Legends

The Obedient Girl

A traditional Kamba story, told in Mwikali Kieti and Peter Coughlin's excellent book "Barking, You'll be Eaten! The Wisdom of Kamba Oral Literature"
(1990: Phoenix Publishers Ltd., PO Box 18650 Nairobi). See the copyright notice for textual extracts.

The Obedient Girl, collected by Mwikali Kieti and Peter Coughlin

A man married and, for a long time, his wife did not get pregnant. After living together for years, they finally bought another wife. She too did not get pregnant. "What's happening?" they asked each other. "Let's go find out from a medicine man (mundu mue)." They all went. The doctor announced, "Your wives will give birth; they will both get pregnant soon."
   "Great! I cannot count the years since I married the first wife, and she never had children. I married the second one years ago; and she too is childless. Why don't they give birth?"
   "Oh! I will tell you soon. So saying, the mundu mue picked up his gourd and shook it vigorously. "They will both give birth, the younger wife first. Now I'll give you a talisman." He made leather shoes for both women and told them never to remove them until they had given birth. They should wear them always: whether sleeping, going to the toilet - everywhere - the shoes must always remain on their feet. They all left.

Soon, both wives got pregnant. The younger wife had a baby and yet a second while the first wife still carried her first pregnancy. Her husband started worrying about her: what could have happened?
   The first wife bad told no one that she had removed her shoes once in the toilet. As she grew bigger and more weary, she would beg her husband for cowhides, shave off the hair, and place it where she slept just by the fire since she could not even climb into bed. Pitying her and fearing she might die, her husband gave her whatever she requested.

She became haggard, seemingly possessed by spirits. She seemed obsessed with putting whatever she got onto her sleeping place. She even spread ghee on it. Hardly leaving the house now, she usually stayed and slept by the fireside. By this time, her co-wife had five children!

When labour pains finally started, she said she would die. Her husband got terribly agitated.
   "What could have happened? She has become very ill; and I don't know what to do. Should we send for a midwife?"
   "Ngany'a [so and so] is a midwife, and so is ngany'a and also ngany'a."
   "Then, go for the first one!"

When the midwife came, she asked for warm water, dabbed the pregnant woman's body, and sat awaiting the baby. When a humongous head confronted her, she screamed.
   "Why did you scream like that?"
   "Nothing. let the child come." And she put out her hands to receive the baby. It came and came and came, filling the entire hut. Then the child - a huge python - went and slept.

Seeing all this, the man was shocked, but said nothing, He went and built a shed like those used for pottery, and called his son.
   "Your mother's hut is too small for both of you; and your mother needs to rest. I've built you your own place."

When people heard that, they all assembled to witness the phenomenon. "Imagine! A python moving Out to its hut!"
   "All these years you carried a snake while your co-wife gave birth to five children!"
   "Is it true?"
   "Oh, yes!"
   "let's go see!"
   They all came, not to sympathize with the woman, but to laugh and snigger.

Again the father suggested, "My son, since this hut is so small, would you move to your quarters?" Without a word, the snake slithered to its shed and slept. The mother didn't even go to see her son; but a few days later he came to see his father.
   "I want a wife."
   "You, men in this thome, have you all heard?"
   "My son wants a wife; and I have plenty of cattle to get him one. ... I've heard, my son. Just go relax."
   The men decided all the girls should come and parade there so a wife could be chosen for the son [snake]. They all came and lined up alongside their fathers. The conversations between the fathers and daughters went like this:
   "I want to sell you to this man's son who lives in that shed."
   "Me! Never! I don't agree!"
   One girl standing near the end of the queue told the girl next to her, "My dad loves wealth so much, I'm sure he will force me to marry that snake!"
   "Can't you refuse? ... Me? let my father give me to a python to eat me alive? Never!"
   "Ooh, you don't understand. My dad is bad; and I'm sure I will be given to that damn snake."

One after the other, the girls kept refusing to get married to the snake until they got to the girl with the wicked father. Of course, she didn't want the snake either. "Father, .. . would you give me away to a snake that would kill me?"
   "That is the only man I want. I want w-e-a-l-t-h! Nothing else! Are you going to his place or not? If you don't go, you're not my daughter! If you're my daughter, you'll go."
   "Ye-e-e-s, father."
   Then her father-in-law took her to the snake. "Here's a wife." That night, the villagers hardly slept, listening for the girl to scream as the snake would eat her.
   But the girl's shed turned into a beautiful house at night, and reverted to being just a shed during daytime. Splendid food also came at night. She feasted and slept on a fine bed at night, but stayed in the shed during the day. For three nights, she slept alone quite scared despite the comfort. late at night, a perfumed person would come in the dark and touch her softly as she slept, but vanish if she moved even slightly. All along, people expected her to be eaten.

The fourth night, she timed the person's arrival, and when touched, she seized his hands. "Today you will not flee! You have pestered me for several days. Today, I've got you!" She glanced where the snake usually lay and, seeing it there, wondered where the man came from. She rose to burn the snake up; but the man cautioned her never to do that since all her well-being derived from it. Whereupon, out of the snake, he pulled a bicycle, a motorcar... everything she wanted, and they lived happily as man and wife.

One day, he declared he would ask his father for a second wife. He donned his coat - the python - and went to his father again. "Father, I want you and your friends to visit me. And I would also like another wife."
   The girls were again informed about the snake needing a second wife. "But that girl got married to the snake, and we've not seen her since. Does he want another wife to eat too?"
   Meanwhile, the man in the snake's guise told his wife to order servants to prepare many dishes for a big party. His parents and their friends would be coming. "I know all the girls will want me; but I don't want them." From the python, he pulled out fine houses for his parents, step-mother and step-brother.

On the party day, everybody came. The girls could not believe their eyes; some wanted to be accepted even as cleaners or house servants. The girl standing next to last in the queue was heard to say, "I wish I knew the bride would get such a nice husband. If only I had been patient and obeyed my father!"
   The snake-man and his wife emerged from the house, expensively dressed in fine clothes and shoes - high heels for the lady - and addressed the crowd:
   "I know all you girls now want me for a husband, but I don't want a second wife. Father, I really didn't want another wife. I just wanted all of you to know where my wife is. Contrary to popular suspicion, she is alive and well.."

The woman who broke the kithangona gave birth to a white man. The python is his coat. And how do white people go? Isn't it with high heels?

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