In Africa, there are thousands of myths to explain what reason cannot explain. In a lot of them, God made man from clay, as in the Bible. In some, life and death are brought to men by animals. Myth always has something mysterious, hidden like the seed within a fruit, and somehow offers the explanation, the interpretation.
The scholars of anthropology, history of religions and psychology naturally propose a wider definition – myth is an attempt to answer the great questions that, sooner or later, we put to ourselves about the world, the past, life, death, happiness, evil. Questions and answers that every generation puts and gives to itself and then passes over to the next.
We find myths in every culture and they have the same dynamics – stories that greatly use the imagination and have the task of representing whatever reason and experience cannot fully explain. Myth has always something mysterious, hidden like the seed within a fruit, and somehow offers the explanation, the interpretation.
Myths are many – they deal with the universe, the heavens, weather phenomena, the beginning of life, social organisation, etc. It has been calculated that in Africa alone, myths, popular stories and legends that contain them, could be as many as 250,000.
They do not pass from one generation to another only under the form of simple stories, repeated at night around the fire in order to entertain children and make them sleep. They are almost always transmitted by means of rites, ceremonies, dances, invocations and celebrations that allow the individual to integrate with nature, with the invisible and not to remain at the mercy of the events that are transient, above all those of suffering and death.
Many myths refer to creation, to how the universe was put in order. In almost all, the notion of “high” and “low” repeats itself – the Divinity is “up there” in heaven; human beings, animals and plants are “down here” on earth. Almost always, human beings appear last.
The Kiga people, or Abakiga – “people of the mountains” – an ethnic group located in northern Rwanda and southern Uganda, have a myth that narrates that Imana – The-One-who-dwells-with-us – in the beginning created two countries – one above the clouds made up of the sun, the moon and the stars and the other, below the clouds. It is this second one that we inhabit, together with the trees and the animals created by Imana.
In the stories, we see a golden age, when the Divinity was living close to the human beings and was sending messages entrusting them to the so-called “mythical ancestors”, whom anthropology calls “cultural heroes”. The Gbaya people of the Central African Republic speak of the mythical ancestor, the first human being, the cultural hero who brought people the seeds of plants and taught them how to cultivate the land. He was cunning, if necessary, a liar, a provoker and anti-conformist.
The Chagga people of Tanzania tell that God had a servant to whom he used to entrust the tasks to be executed. It was this servant who discovered that humans, disobeying God’s order, had eaten a certain type of tuber. God then decided to punish them with sickness, famine, war and death.
In order to mould the human being, God acted like a potter. Shilluk people in Sudan think that God used clay of different colours and this would explain the different pigmentation of human groups. The Bambuti pigmies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo say that the Divinity (Arebati) shaped the first human being with clay; he then covered him with skin and poured blood on the lifeless body. Only then did the first human being start breathing and become alive. The Batwa pigmies state that they are ‘children of God’. The Tivs in Nigeria narrate that the first human beings didn’t know how to cultivate the land until the day when Aondo taught them; from that day, great was the joy of all. To the Bambuti, God taught blacksmithing so that they might build for themselves the weapons and the necessary implements for a life of hunting in the forest – “You will never lack game”, is what Kmvum swore to them.
Then came the separation of the two worlds, with ill-omened results for humanity. The communication between God and people was interrupted; the messages destined to human beings are no longer there or are no longer understood.
Many myths explain how the happy relationship between the Creator and humanity ended in a definite way. Most accounts attribute this to an open disobedience on the part of the human beings – God imposed laws on them but they didn’t respect them; neither did they take them seriously. An Ewe’s (Togo) myth tells us that God had decided to live with the people He had created. He was coming down regularly on earth, sliding down a rope. He was thus able to encounter His creatures and, being near, solve their problems. He, however, had ordered “Let nobody touch this rope for any reason whatsoever”. But, one day, a woman, driven by curiosity, decided to touch the rope. God then got angry; He went back to heaven, cut the rope and swore that He would never come back among the people any more.
Ethnic groups such as Bari, Fajulu, Toposa and Madi (Sudan and Uganda) share the story that, in the beginning, heaven and earth were united by a rope or a bridge and that God, from time to time, came down on earth to spend time with people. The rope, however, broke accidentally or was eaten by the hyena, so the link between God and humanity came to an end. Without paying attention to the reason that brought about God’s estrangement from the earth – whether because a disobedience or an unwelcome accident provoked by humans – in all the stories, it is evident that those who drove humanity into perdition were the human beings themselves.
John Mbiti, Kenyan theologian and philosopher, comments in ‘African Religion and Philosophy’. “It appears that the African image of happiness was tied to God’s presence among the people, to whom He was warranting food, shelter, peace, immortality and a moral code. As far as I know, no solution that could remedy this great loss of human beings appears in any myth. Humans have accepted their separation from God and, in different ways, they try to recover the contact with Him by means of acts of worship”.
– Neno Contran