I racconti del Premio Energheia Africa Teller

The story of Katiwa the Meek_Cosmos M. Nzilili

panorama_Africa Teller 2007.


Katiwa was a young girl whose father had two wives. She was born to

the first wife and had a step sister Kalaa born to the second wife. Her

mother died when she was very young. It was her father and Kalaa’s

mother who were to bring the two girls up. No sooner had her mother

passed away than she started facing hostility from her step mother. Katiwa

was never bought any clothes nor did she receive any ornaments

like the other girls of her time. Kalaa was always bought the best in the

whole village. Their father did not know that her motherless daughter

was receiving such terrible rejections.

Everyday, it was Katiwa who had to go to the river and to the bushes to

fetch firewood. Back home, she was the one to do the cooking in the

morning, lunch and dinner. She was to wash her parents clothes and do

all the other household cleaning including brushing her step sister’s jewels.

Her step mother beat her so much for any small omission in her

daily cores that she could not tell when she did right and when she did


One morning she went to the river to fetch water. After filling up the

gourd with water, she realized the gourd’s wooden lid had dropped into

the flowing water. “Can I go home without the lid?”, she thought to

herself. “My mother would kill me”. She got disturbed. The only alternative

remaining was to go searching for the lid. She set off down the

river. She unturned all the water plants on her way as she searched for

the old wooden lid. The darkness of the night came and the lid was no

where to be found. She slept in the riverbank caves and woke very early

the following morning to continue the search.

As she walked and searched, she noticed in the flowing water at some point,

very many beautiful beads and cowries shells. They were not comparable

to any she had ever seen. Not even the ones her step mother bought

for Kalaa. No sooner had she developed interest than a voice called out.

“Passer-by, fetch for yourself”. “I belong to my owner and I do not fetch

the unknown”, she replied with satisfaction and went on with the search.

It was evening again and she had not seen the lid. It would be suicidal to

go back home without the lid. The wilderness provided her with a place

to sleep and the following morning she was upbeat looking for the lid.

Down the river course she saw yet some other beautiful ornaments like

the ones she always saw worn by a bride when being married off.

The sight was so tempting that she sat there just admiring. Suddenly a

voice called out. “Passer-by, suit yourself”. “I belong to my owner and

I do not fetch the unknown”, she retorted. All along down the river, these

types of temptatious invitations were countless and to all, she worn

the temptation of fetching for herself.

Many days passed and she had not seen the lid. One very sunny day,

she took a rest under a tree which grew just at the bank of the river. As

she stood there perspiring, she felt a heavy drop fall on her left shoulder.

She turned her head and found that it was drop of honey. She ignored

it and went on with her rest. Another drop fell on her right shoulder.

It was yet another honey drop. She ignored. She sat down and dozed

off. When she woke up she looked around as she stretched. “A smoke”.

It was a surprise to see smoke after so many days in the wilderness. She

had lived on wild fruits and water the days she had been walking along

the long meandering river looking for her step-mothers lid. A few yards

away from the river, there was small grass thatched hut that was emitting

the smoke from the roof. She could not tell where she was. “May

be if I went to that home I would see people?” She was thinking of what

to do. “Would they make me another lid?” She had no answers to the

many questions she was raising. She, at the end decided to go to that

home and may be just sleep there for the night and proceed on with her

search the following morning.

At the small hut, she found an aged woman who lived alone. The old

woman gave her a very cordial welcome without asking about herp light.

In the small hut, Katiwa was given a fatty lamb’s tail to sit on. She was

then given porridge with milk to drink then shown a place to rest. When

she woke up towards evening, the new found grandmother gave her some

millet to remove husks using a mortar and a paste. To her surprise,

she pounded only once and all the husks were off. She was shown the

fireplace where she cooked the evening meal. She could not tell for what

reason or how, but some how she felt at home and settled with her host

for a long time. All that time, she sat on the lamb’s tail she was ushered

to on the first day she arrived there. The aged woman had treated as if

she was her own daughter. She stopped thinking about the lost lid.

One day, the old woman asked Katiwa whether she wished to go back

to her father’s home. Katiwa was very excited. She had missed everybody.

She all over suddenly felt the urge to see her father, her step-sister

Kalaa and her step mother. She never remembered the beatings she

had received nor did she remember about the lost lid. She quickly told

her long time host that she would love to go home. How? She did not

know. She could not even tell the direction to her home. That evening,

the old woman gave her two drums. One was oiled and taken care of

nicely. The other was very old, damaged, neglected and ashy. She was

told to choose one, get inside and close her eyes. She chose the ashy

drum, got inside and closed her eyes. The next moment she opened up

her eyes, she found herself in her father’s house wooden ceiling. It was

evening and the animals had just been brought home. Her step mother

sent Kalaa the step sister to light fire. The fire place was directly below

Katiwa’s position up in the ceiling.

As Kalaa was lighting fire, she felt some drops fall on her and the fire

making it go off. She shouted out to her mother. “Something is putting

off the fire from up the ceiling”. Her mother ignored her. She tried to

light the fire again and it was put off once more. She ran out scared saying

something on the ceiling was urinating on the fire. Her mother decided

to go and light the fire herself but she faced the same horror. Her father

decided to find out what that could be. He asked for his bow and arrows.

He commanded whatever or whoever was up there on the ceiling to climb

down otherwise be shot. Katiwa called out loudly and identified herself

to her relative’s disbelief. “So, what can make you come down, my daughter?”,

her father asked. “Get an old skin, spread it with ashes and place

it directly below the ceiling opening”. Katiwa explained to her father.

There was mixture of feelings in the whole family.

The father did as instructed and called to her lost daughter to climb down

from the ceiling. When she opened the ceiling door, light, a very glittering

light filled her father’s house. She wore very precious , magnificent

and beautiful ornaments. They were sending rays of light all over

the place. She had everything precious girls dreamt of. She had gold,

diamond, silver and every type of beads. “This cannot be the same Katiwa.

Not the one who by now must have died! This must be a ghost”.

Everybody was in disbelief. The father was even more confused than

the rest of the family members. “Why in the first place ask for ashy skin,

when she is coming with so many beautiful jewels?”, he was thinking

and saying it loudly.

She sat down on the ashy skin. It was truly Katiwa. A father was happy.

A step mother was in a mixture of hatred, envy and jealously. A step

sister was happy. Katiwa would definitely share her fortune with her.

As she sat there she narrated the whole story from the time she lost the

lid, how she feared going home without it, how she went searching for

it and how she had found the old woman who took care of her for all

the period she had been away. The overwhelmed father slaughtered a

goat and made merry for the return of her lost daughter.

When Katiwa had settled for some days, Kalaa asked her for some jewels.

“Since your mother is alive and she buys you everything you need,

and since I do not have anyone to buy for me anything, please let me

just stay with my jewels and then your mother buys for you good ones”.

Katiwa would politely explain.

Full of jealous and envy, Kalaa decided to follow the river as Katiwa

had done. One day she went to the river and after filling the gourd with

water, she dropped the lid into the water so that she could go down the

river searching for it. She started the search which to her was a treasure

hunt. She wanted to go wherever Katiwa had gone to get her fortunes.

She had not gone very far before she saw beads and shells flowing

in the water. “Passer-by, fetch for yourself”. A voice invited her. “Yes!

Yes! This must have been the place”. She thought of Katiwa’s beauty

as she scooped. “Oh, no!” It was only water in her hands. Down the river,

she continued. Attention was not on the lost lid but treasures. She

saw very beautiful rings, necklaces and many other items flowing in the

water. The same voice gave an invitation. “Scoop”. There was only water

in her hands and no more beauties in the water.

She was worn but determined to get back home only if she found her

treasures like Katiwa had done.

After spending many days and nights in the wilderness and never scooping

anything from the invitations, she found the very tree were Katiwa

had rested. As soon she stood there, a drop of honey fell on her left

shoulder. “Wow, honey!”, she licked the drop. Another drop on the right

shoulder! She licked it as well. She dozed off and on opening her eyes

she saw smoke blowing out from a hut. She walked up there to a very

warm welcome. It was the same old woman who had lived with Katiwa

for many days. She was given a fat lamb tail to sit on. As she sat,

she started scooping and eating the fat mutton from the tail and soon it

was a flat skinny tail. She was given millet to remove husks. She pounded

but not a single husk came out. The old woman, her host pounded

only once and all the husk was off. They ate and slept. Kalaa never remembered

to go on with the search nor go home. She lived there for a

long time until one day she was asked by the old woman whether she

wished to go back home. She was very excited and agreed to go if she

only got some guidance home. When the two drums were removed, she

remembered that episode from Katiwa. “Katiwa must have chosen the

oily and smooth one”. She imagined. She chose the oily one, got inside

and closed her eyes as instructed by the old woman.

When she opened up her eyes, she was on the ceiling of her father’s house.

Katiwa was lighting fire then she felts some drops put it off. She shouted

to her step mother. “Something is urinating on the fire”. Her stepmother

rushed into the house excitedly pretending to be complaining.

She knew it had to be her daughter Kalaa. “What is it? There is nothing

here”. She bent to light the fire herself and then it was put off again. She

called out to Katiwa’s father. “It is true. Something is putting off the fi-

re”. The old man went into the house demanding the identification of

who ever was on the ceiling. Taking his bow and arrows he threatened

to shoot whatever or whoever it was on the ceiling. Kalaa shouted her

identification. She instructed her father to oil a hide and place it directly

below the opening to the ceiling. “Why oil the hide? She must be looking

far better than the silly motherless Katiwa”. Kalaa’s mother imagined,

full of excitement. When all was set Kalaa opened the ceiling ready

to climb down. The emerging sight was unbearable. Her mother

collapsed while her father wide-opened his mouth in disbelief. Her stepsister

was in shock. Kalaa was wrapped all over her body with dry and

uncared-for leather straps. She produced very terrible loud sound as she

came down. “lo-ko-ko-ko-ko”. It was as if the straps were breaking down

into pieces. At last, she settled down on the oiled leather carpet. Despite

the despicable sight, her father, after composing himself, went ahead

and had a goat slaughtered for a welcoming party.

The comeback of Kalaa opened yet another difficult episode in Katiwa’s

life. Her step-mother, stepsister and to some visible extend, her own

father showed direct hatred. She was abused, beaten and threatened to

have all her God-given fortune taken away. Her step-mother accused her

of witches.

She never had a single day pass without facing a long quarrel. There

was no peace anymore in her father’s house. She had to leave and leaving

she did. To where she was going! She did not know. She wore all

her fortune and into the wilderness, she went. As she wandered all over

the place, she found hunters skinning their kills. Every time she found

them, she would ask for the just removed skin. She would then cover

herself with it. She did that to hide her beautiful items so that no one

would admire and rob her of them.

As she loitered, she found young men grazing their animals in the wilderness.

On seeing her, all of them but one, ran away. The pieces of wet

skin had made her look like a ghost. The young man who was left behind

was called Ngumbau or the brave one. He went to meet Katiwa.

To him, she was just a normal person. He saw a future wife in her and

proposed to marry her on the spot. She agreed and they spend the rest

of the day together. The rest of the herders separated their animals from

Ngumbau claiming that they could not herd together with a ghost. When

evening came Ngumbau drove his animals back home where his mother

was waiting as she always did. He was very excited and looked forward

to introducing his wife to his mother. “What the hell are you talking

about? That wild-ghost, to be a wife! Are you out of your senses?”,

his mother retorted with dismay. “I cannot share a home let alone a kitchen

with a spirit. Get out of my house”, she shouted. Ngumbau, unperturbed

by his mother’s refusal of her daughter, went ahead and organized

his own kitchen next to his house. They were no more friends

with his mother.

Everyday from then, Ngumbau and Katiwa would go to look after their

animals together. While grazing, they would go to the river in turns to

wash. Katiwa for all that long had not revealed her beautiful jewels to

Ngumbau. She would remove all the pieces of skin, then the clothes,

wash and put them back retaining her ghostly sight. Ngumbau however,

had a feeling that there was more in his wife than met the eye. One

day, when it was Katiwa’s turn to wash in the river, Ngumbau decided

to spy on her. She removed the skinny pieces leaving the shinny beautiful

golden, silver and diamond jewels bear. Ngumbau gasped on seeing

that. He could not fathom what he was seeing. Katiwa finished washing,

took back her clothes and her jewels. As she reached for the pieces of

skin, Ngumbau screamed running down to the river where Katiwa was

now standing scared. “Why have been hiding all these beauty from me?

Why did you never tell me about all these?” Ngumbau did not know which

questions to ask or what to say. “I would have told you but I feared other

herders may rob us”, Katiwa explained. Evening came and the two drove

their animals back home. Ngumbau had renewed energy. His mother

was very happy on seeing the new look Katiwa. She thought Ngumbau

had dubbed Katiwa and found a new life. However, Ngumbau explained

to her what had transpired. Satisfied and very sorry for having disowned

her daughter, she agreed to coexist with them from then onwards.

Katiwa and Ngumbau continued to go to the wilderness together.

Time passed and Katiwa was expecting a baby. One day while in the

wilderness, Katiwa gave birth to a baby boy. They washed the baby, fed

him and when evening came, they did not want to take him home. Their

mother would demand that Katiwa remains home with the baby while

Ngumbau goes herding alone. They placed him in a deserted bee-hive.

On reaching home, they did not tell their mother whether she had gotten

a grandson. They kept it to themselves. From that time onwards, they

would take their animals earlier than usual. When they reached the tree

where the bee-hive was, Katiwa would sing loudly. (“Syana ii sya maithyaniii,

singilya mbwii usingilye siamba usingilye ngao”). Meaning: “You

children of the herding, rattle the cries, rattles the shackles and rattle the

shields”. The child would then cry out. “Ah, Ah, Ahaa”. They would remove

him from the hive and Katiwa would breast feed him from time

to time while Ngumbau looked after the animals.

Ngumbau’s mother, however, had noticed a lot of changes in Katiwa’s

body and behaviour. She was already suspecting that her daughter-inlaw

was breast feeding. She decided to investigate and find out for herself

without asking.

One morning, Ngumbau and Katiwa left for the wilderness as usual. Their

mother followed them incognito from a distant. This time she was the

spy. She was determined to know what her children went to do apart

from looking after cattle. When they reached the area where they always

grazed and the animals spread out to eat, she did herself strategically at

a point where she could see everything they were doing. Then the moment

came. Katiwa went and stood under the tree were the bee-hive was

and sang. (“Syana ii sya maithyaniii, singilya mbwii usingilye siamba

usingilye ngao”). “You children of the herding, rattle the cries, rattle the

shackles and rattle the shields”. The child then cried out. “Ah, Ah,

Ahaa”. Their mother was seeing all these. She was in a mixture of happiness,

disbelief, shock and hatred. “Why had her children hidden the

grandson from her?” Many questions without answers were almost coming

out of her mouth loudly. She held her patience until Katiwa finished

suckling the boy and joined her husband in looking after the cattle.

When the animals had gone far away such that they could not hear

or see where the baby was kept, happy grandmother slowly crawled to

the tree. She sang as she had heard her daughter-in-law sing. (“Syana ii

sya maithyaniii, singilya mbwii usingilye siamba usingilye ngao”). “You

children of the herding, rattle the cries, rattle the shackles and rattle the

shields”. The children cried out. “Ah, Ah, Ahaa”. She quickly opened

the hive and removed the baby and took him home panting. It was her

best day in life. She had looked forward to a day when she would be

called grandmother. When she reached home, she fed the boy and hid

him in her bedroom. Knowing the baby was used to routine, she would

feed him again the following morning when her children would have

gone to look after the cattle.

When mid day came, Katiwa went to the bee-hive and sang. (“Syana ii

sya maithyaniii, singilya mbwii usingilye siamba usingilye ngao”). “You

children of the herding, rattle the cries, rattle the shackles and rattle the

shields”. There came no reply. She sang again and no reply came. She

cried to her husband who also sang and came no reply. He climbed the

tree only to find the bee-hive empty.

They started crying and singing all over the place and no cry came. Evening

came and they drove their animals back home. Their eyes were red

and swollen from crying. They could not tell their excited mother what

the matter was. Everyday they would go to the wilderness and search

everywhere for the baby. Meanwhile, their mother was happily babysitting

her healthy grandson. They gave up the search but continued to

go herding together.

One evening as Katiwa was cooking supper, she remembered the days

she had a baby. She imagined how she used to sing and how the boy

used to cry out in response. She found herself singing the song loudly.

(“Syana ii sya maithyaniii, singilya mbwii usingilye siamba usingilye

ngao”). “You children of the herding, rattle the cries, rattle he shackles

and rattle the shields”. All over suddenly a loud familiar baby cry came

from inside their mother’s bedroom. “Ah, Ah, Ahaha”. Everybody heard

the baby cry. Katiwa and her husband Ngumbau found themselves pushing

each other at their mother’s door to the bedroom. “Abomination,

Abomination! Why are you going into your mother’s bedroom?” Their

mother was shouting but no one heard her shouts in the scramble to reach

the baby. “Mother, why did you do this to us?”, Ngumbau was mesmerized.

Katiwa was only staring at her baby. She had no energy to ask

questions. She had lost her son and the son was found. Ngumbau’s mother

explained how she had suspected their little tricks, how she had fol-

lowed them, how she had picked and hid the baby and why she had done

  1. She complained that it was wrong for them to have hidden the truth

from her in the first place.

They forgave each other and Katiwa the Meek settled down to bring up

her son. She and Ngumbau lived a happy life there after.