Kamba - Fables and legends
|In this page:
The art of story-telling
Adapted from Mwikali Kieti and Peter Coughlin's "Barking, You'll be Eaten! The Wisdom of Kamba Oral Literature" (1990: Phoenix Publishers Ltd., PO Box 18650 Nairobi).
In traditional Kamba society, adults told stories to amuse children while teaching beliefs, social values, and practical behaviour. Narratives were told at any time, though evenings were best since more people were home, usually resting after a day's work.
Telling and listening to stories was and still is thrilling fun in the evenings. People of all ages tell narratives. Of course, some - born dramatists - excel with vivid descriptions, tonal changes, songs, gestures ... suspense.
Children were discouraged, nay, forbidden from telling each other stories during the day because it disrupted their chores - herding, chasing birds and monkeys from the shambas [farms], fetching water. But they were not always told exactly why. They were told their work would go awry (e.g., the cattle would get lost), and, perhaps, they would see strange things, or some magical misfortune would befall them. During the day, most adults were working, hunting, or visiting far off. Grandparents - who usually stayed home - refrained from telling stories if the children still had tasks to do.
Kamba narratives are either mbano (singular, wano) or ngewa (singular, ukewa or, in some locations, ngewa). Mbano are ancient tales with, sometimes, new elements. Mbano - including myths, parables, and fables - are always fictitious and usually passed on for generations. The characters and themes in these stories are woven into intriguing plots.
Ngewa are short legends about experiences of recent or older generations. Though unprovable, ngewa are commonly accepted as true. They usually centre around an incident used as a warning about something. The categorization into mbano and ngewa may entail some overlap since some ngewa may well be fictitious.
Though longer, ngewa resemble proverbs and impart lessons, sometimes explicit, sometimes not. That depends on the narrator and the audience. Children, but not adults, might be told the reason for a story. Adults presumably already know or can figure out the meaning, though traditional education has largely broken down now with the introduction of formal schools, modern technology, and wage employment.
Narratives reflect society's values, norms, beliefs, and the people's daily struggles. Stories - true or not - have important social functions. Besides teaching, they also reaffirm the joy of living in a complex universe where man is a speck overwhelmed by the cosmos and all the other creatures. And, as economics, politics and society change, stories evolve and new ones are born reflecting the new technologies, relations and aspirations of the people. For example, alongside family life, famine, cattle raids, and wild animals, gradually trains, cars and airplanes appear - often as amendments - in the stories.