In the last couple of weeks my seven-year-old son has been learning about myths in school. They read myths from all over the world as a precursor to learning history.
One of the myths that they read was the story about Isaza and Nyamionga from Bunyoro-Kitara. I did not know that he had read this story until he woke up in the middle of the night and run into our room with tears of terror streaming down his face. He said that he had had a nightmare about Isaza and Nyamionga.
I recalled the names but couldn’t remember the story. So I turned to Google to refresh my memory and, briefly, the story goes like this. Isaza was a strong king of Earth and Nyamionga was king of the underworld. Nyamionga sent an emissary to Isaza proposing that they enter into a blood brotherhood pact (omukago) but Isaza disdainfully refused to enter into a pact with a ghost.
He tricked Nyamionga and ordered one of his servants to perform the pact ritual instead. Nyamionga found out about this and was greatly displeased. So he decided to revenge. Nyamionga sent his most beautiful daughter to spy on Isaza. Isaza made the daughter his wife and she soon discovered that Isaza loved cows, perhaps even more than women. Upon hearing this, Nyamionga laid a trap using cattle as bait.
He sent Isaza the most beautiful bull and heifer which Isaza put in his kraal and came to love more than anything else in the world. One night the bull and heifer escaped. Isaza ran after them and waded into a crater lake as he tried to recapture them. He found himself in Nyamionga’s underworld kingdom where he became trapped and to this day causes tremors and earthquakes as he tries to free himself.
I found the episode funny and touching on a parenting level but thought it provoking on the other.
I had forgotten the story myself and had to use Google to find it. The first document that the Google search brought up was an extract from Rev John Roscoe’s book, The Banyoro.
Put another way, in order to find out about a myth from Bunyoro, I had to turn to my phone, made in South Korea, which runs Internet search software created and owned by Americans, to find an extract from a book by a deceased Victorian English missionary-cum-anthropologist.
Looked at optimistically these are the beautiful fruits of modernisation and globalisation. But from a pessimistic point of view, it beautifully illustrates quite how deep we are trapped within Western civilisation – we have to use their technology to read their books to find out about ourselves.
I tweeted about the incident, shortly after it happened because I had found it funny. Most tweeps thought it was funny too but some questioned the wisdom of teaching a young child about “those things”. Parents of young children will know that children have nightmares about many things and that they soon go back to sleep after getting a little parental reassurance.
But I wondered if, again, this was not a symptom of the conceptual incarceration that we find ourselves in; making us believe that everything European is good while everything native African is bad. Would anybody have thought it wrong for a seven-year-old to learn about “those things” if my son’s nightmare had been about Little Red Riding Hood or Jason and the Argonauts?
I found it interesting that my son had identified with Isaza in the story and perhaps this is why he had found the story scary. One can easily imagine this strong cattle-loving king forever trapped in the underworld and causing earthquakes as he desperately tries to get back to the world of the living.
Here is the seemingly good guy, ending up trapped in the land of death. To a seven-year-old, this must be a very scary prospect because Isaza should have been the hero and the heroes in children’s stories always win and live happily ever after.
But to me Isaza’s story resonates more with reality. There is no such thing as a simple black and white story, with pure good guys and pure bad guys and a happy ending with the good guys coming out on top. Rather, there are lots of struggles between flawed characters each looking for a way to get a way to subdue the other and often the story does not end happily for the “good” or “better” characters.
On other occasions, the seemingly good guys are revealed as having hidden “evil” streaks. Isaza was a good king but he was also deceptive, was a womaniser and he was greedy. Nyamionga sounded like a reasonable and pragmatic kind of king until he was spited by Isaza.
That is when we saw him deploying spies and engaging in trickery to destroy a man whom he now considered his enemy, just because he had refused to work with him.
We can learn many things from simple stories.