The Great Myths #34: A Hausa and Swahili Story of Childhood (African)

gh1c_2As usual with such stories, childhood is synonymous with the dangers of being children:

The Swahili version of a very popular story runs as follows: Some girls had gone down to the beach to gather shells. One of them picked up a specially fine cowry, which she was afraid of losing, and so laid it down on a rock till they returned. On the way back, she forgot her shell till they had already passed the rock, when she asked her companions to go back with her. They refused, but said they would wait for her, and she went back alone, singing.

There was a Zimwi [a demon or ogre] sitting on the rock, and he said to her: “Come closer, I cannot hear what you say! “She came nearer, singing her petition: “It is getting late! let me come and get my shell which I have forgotten!” Again he said: “I can’t hear you!” and she came still nearer, till, when she was within reach, he seized her and put her into the drum which he was carrying.

With this he went about from village to village, and, when he beat the drum, the child inside it sang with so sweet a voice that every one marvelled. At last he came to the girl’s own home and found that his fame had preceded him there, so that the villagers entreated him to beat his drum and sing. He demanded some beer and, having received it, began to perform, when the parents of the girl immediately recognised their child’s voice.

So they offered him more beer, and, when he had gone to sleep after it, they opened the drum and freed the girl. Then they put in “a snake and bees and biting ants,” and fastened up the drum as it had been before. Then they went and awakened him, saying that some people had arrived from another village, who wanted to hear his drum. But the drum did not give forth the usual sound, and the Zimwi went on his way disconcerted.

A little later, he stopped on the road to examine his drum; but, as soon as he opened it, he was bitten by the snake and died. On the spot where he died, pumpkins and gourds sprang up, and in due time bore fruit. Some children passing by stopped to look at them and said: “How fine these big pumpkins are! Let us get father’s sword and split them open!” One of the pumpkins, we are told, “became angry” and pursued the children, who fled till they came to a river, where they got an old ferryman to take them across, and, passing on, reached a village where they found the men seated in the council-house and asked for help. “Hide us from that pumpkin! The Zimwi has turned into a pumpkin and is pursuing us! When it comes, take it and burn it with fire!” The pumpkin came rolling up and said: “Have you seen my runaway slaves passing this way?” The men replied: “What sort of people are your slaves? We do not know them!” “That s a lie, for you have shut them up inside!” But they seized the pumpkin and, having made a great fire, burnt it to ashes, which they threw away. Then they let the children out, and they returned home safely to their mothers.


A [Hausa] mother, whose daughter has been killed and eaten by a were-hyena, gathers up her bones and sets out with them for the town” where they mend men.” On the way, she meets with various adventures through all of which she passes satisfactorily; when she arrives she behaves with courtesy and obeys the instructions given her, and her daughter is restored alive and well. Her co-wife, thinking that her own ugly daughter will be improved by the same process, purposely kills her and starts, carrying the bones; but she behaves exactly like the favoured but ill-conditioned child in “Frau Holle,” and is fitly rewarded by receiving her daughter back “badly mended” in fact, only half a girl, with one eye, one arm, and one leg.

This same idea, strangely enough, recurs on the opposite side of Africa, where, in a Chaga tale already referred to, the woman who has tricked her rival into drowning her baby and finds that she has got it back more beautiful than before, drowns her own child on purpose and gets it back with one arm and one leg. The notion of these one-sided beings seems to prevail throughout Africa – we shall have to come back to it later on, but these are the only instances known to me where it occurs in this particular connection.

The Mythology of All Races, Volume 7: Armenian and African; the African section by Alice Werner, 250-251, 204

Read the other Great Myths here