We are in the Kalahari Dessert camping under an incredible star-clogged sky. Our guest silently walks into camp. His name is not even writable in English, and is pronounced with a Click from the tongue popping from the roof of the mouth.
He is tall and thin, with long bare legs sticking out from a western oversized fleece shirt. He wears a little flashlight shaped like a large plastic sunflower around his neck. His hair and small beard are greying, but his copper skin shows few lines and is pulled tight over high prominent cheekbones and hollowed cheeks. He speaks quietly, exudes dignity, and smiles with his eyes.
He is one of the San people, the Narrow San, specifically. Known broadly as the Bushmen of the Kalahari dessert who are scattered in small, tight communities here in southern Africa. He is here tonight to tell us stories of his people.
He explains that stories are to teach children the broader truths in the world, and to teach them awareness and caution. And he tells us three stories from his people as we sit around the campfire on this beautiful night.
And he doesn’t just tell the story. The telling is full of gestures and sounds. Expressions and inflections. When a lion hunted through the woods our storyteller moved his arms in graceful rhythmical strides and made the Shhss Shhss Shhss sounds of a big cat moving powerfully. When the ostrich laid her eggs he tilted his head back and closed his eyes and squatted down with an arched back and trilled coooo coooo coooo – the sound that ostriches make when they lay eggs. And when the elephant drank his long arm became the trunk that reached forward and down to the pool of water you could suddenly imagine at his feet, and the water was sucked into the trunk with a big sluuuuurp and then glug glug glug down the elephant’s mouth. And then Ahhhhh – cool water is sprayed over the elephant’s back.
No need for multi-million dollar Hollywood special effects here, when you are fortunate enough to meet a gifted storyteller who is sharing a story re-told for generations – probably in the same way with the same sounds and the same expressions as the ageless people before him.
I never realized how limiting writing can be until now – when I try and re-tell the story of the Lion and the Jackal on this flat screen. So imagine our Bushman in the firelight, telling his people’s version of an Aesop’s fable, with all the sounds and movements that compelled our complete attention for almost an hour.
The Lion and The Jackal
Jackal was very hungry. He saw a lion family with Lion, Lion’s Wife, and five lion children. He went to the lion village and said to the Lion’s wife, “I will teach your children. I am very smart and I know many things. But you have to leave them alone with me all day and just come in the afternoon.”
At first she was reluctant, but then she let Jackal stay and agreed to let him teach her children.
The next morning Lion’s wife left Jackal alone with her children. And Jackal taught the children all morning (here, imagine him squatting down like he’s sitting writing on an invisible chalkboard and fussily saying “teach, teach teach”). Then in the afternoon, Jackal killed one of the children, cooked and ate him. He fed the cooked cub to the rest of the children. And then fed some to the Lion’s wife when she came in the afternoon. He stuck the eaten child lion’s tail -the only part left – into the dirt so it stood straight up out of the ground.
This went on for five days, until all the lion children were eaten. Lion’s wife came on the fifth afternoon and asked, “Where are my children?” Jackal pointed at the row of five little lion tails sticking out of the ground and said, “They went underground, see? They are over there”.
When Lion’s wife went to see the row of tails, Jackal ran.
Lion’s Wife ran to Lion. “Jackal ate our children!. You must go after Jackal and kill him”.
So Lion chased Jackal. Jackal hid under a tree and when Lion found him, Jackal was lying on the ground moaning. “Oh Lion, I’m so sick. Please, don’t kill me. Take me back to your village and I will tell you what happened to your children.” Lion at first wanted to kill Jackal, but eventually decided to put Jackal on his back and take him to the village.
Jackal said, “Lion, there are flies in my eyes. I’m so sick. Can you please give me a branch so I can keep the flies away.” Lion gave Jackal a branch and kept going to the village, with Jackal on his back. Then Jackal hit Lion on the head. Lion said “Why did you hit me?!” Jackal said, “Oh no, I didn’t hit you. I am just brushing away flies.”
Then Jackal hit Lion again. And again. And Jackal kept hitting Lion, and Lion started running, and ran into the village with Jackal riding and beating Lion furiously. Lion’s wife watched and Jackal slid off Lion’s back when they reached her.
Jackal said to her, “See? I ate your children and made a donkey out of your husband”.
And that was the end of the Bushman’s story.