Friday, April 4, 2008
A story about the Mamlambo
Every now and then, when she’s in town, I get to have tea with my old chum from junior school days, Felicity Wood. Felicity is fascinating and I put much of it down to her disappearing through Bilbo Baggins’ round front door when we read The Hobbit in Grade Six (when we were 11). I’m not sure that Felicity ever came out again and since then her fascination with myth, fairy tales and legend has simply grown. She now has her doctorate and teaches English and Creative Writing at one of South Africa’s universities and has just had her first book published – on the life of Khotso Sethunsa, the millionaire Xhosa medicine man (inyanga) who was known to work magic.
One of the best things about tea with Felicity is the stories – for Felicity has spent many years gathering stories, as she has researched the oral narratives that form a fundamental part of life in South Africa. I thought I’d share one of the stories with you so as to give you another - and different - insight into the many elements that make up South Africa. So here is a story about the Mamlambo – the serpent mermaid who promises great material wealth but at a terrible price. The story was told to Felicity by an acquaintance, who we'll call Alice.
When the Alice married her husband he told her there was something he needed to tell her about his family – because he didn’t want to have any secrets from her.
It was several years ago, he said, that the events took place.
He had noticed his father was gaining wealth – the cattle were increasing, the fields were producing good harvests. But the son also had the sense that something was amiss. He discussed the matter with his brother and together they decided to approach their father.
They asked their father how it was that the family’s fortunes were improving so dramatically. The old man hedged for a few moments before saying he had something to confess. He had, he told them, some months before, gone to see the sangoma (a traditional African healer) – to ask for the family fortunes to improve. The sangoma had said the best way to achieve this would be to call on the Mamlambo, an ancient creature of the rivers who variously takes the form of a serpent, a mermaid, or a water monster and who is able to provide great wealth. Yes, there was a risk involved because the Mamlambo always extracts her price – but the old man was willing to take the risk in order to grow rich.
The deal was struck and the magic done and immediately the old man started to notice a change in his fortunes. However, after a while he also made another discovery. Each morning when he put on his jacket, he would find a snake in the pocket. It made no difference which jacket he took from his wardrobe, there was always a snake in the pocket. And as time passed, so the snake grew. By the time the sons came to their father, the old man was getting desperate for not only could he not get rid of the snake but he also knew the Mamlambo would soon want her “payment for services rendered” –the snake’s presence was a sure sign of that. He also knew that what the Mamlambo probably wanted was a blood sacrifice - or she would place a dreadful curse on the family.
Together the sons and father decided they had to get rid of the Mamlambo’s cursed blessing. But every sangoma they approached refused to help being too afraid of the Mamlambo. Finally they heard of a Malawian sangoma in Johannesburg and off they went, trekking half way across the country to see him.
The sangoma told the men that in order to rid themselves of the Mamlambo they’d have to fool her with a “gift” – an offering. He told them to buy a pint of amasi (sour milk) and to go to a high place, where they were to dig a hole, pour in the milk and then run like hell while the Mamlambo drank the milk.
Since they were in Johannesburg the highest place they could find was a mine dump and so the sons, supporting their elderly father, duly made their way up the vast mound of earth. At the top they dug a hole and poured the amasi into it. They waited a moment and then heard the sounds of slurping. The Mamlambo had arrived and was drinking the milk! They took to their heels and ran, the two brothers supporting the old man between them so his feet didn’t even touch the ground.
They returned to their home in the Eastern Cape and within days the family’s fortunes started to dwindle. The harvest failed, cattle died but no one in the family was harmed and the Mamlambo did not come to take her blood sacrifice. Family life returned to just what it had been before the old father had requested the intervention of the Mamlambo to aid his fortunes.
Now, you’re probably thinking that this is a nice fairy tale but I will tell you that the people who participated in this event will assure you that it was no fairy tale and that it is absolutely true. Mythology plays a powerful part in the every day life of African people – as you believe and know your God to be there, so they know their gods and other beings to be there too.
You might like to take a look at this if you want to read more reports of the Mamlambo in action!