We live in a time of explanations, data, and reason. We don’t see a lot of fairy tales these days – not true fairy tales, where meaning trumps reason, where characters represent attributes, where evil balances good, and magic is both dark and inexplicable. The original European fairy tales were not the watercolor, bright fancies of Disney animation; they were darker, tales told on winter nights by the fire, allegories that captured the threat of a strange and hostile world beyond the flames.
Most cultures possess a tradition of these folk tales. Flat characters, non-linear story telling, talking creatures, magical objects, magic that exists without explanation – these elements are common to folk tales around the globe. Yet, in modern society, elements of the fairy tale are hidden; they do not fit with our need for data, linearity, and sense. Even in the fantasy genre, we see realistic character sketches, explained magic, stories that progress from A to Z.
Enna Neru’s An African Tale is a throwback to the earlier times of storytelling. Although the book is listed as a work of children’s fiction, it is not told for children accustomed to the brightly painted cartoon fantasies of our video era. In An African Tale, violence is not hidden, protagonists make dreadful mistakes, families fracture, and evil and tribulation are needed to balance good. Also, there are no pictures or song-and-dance routines.
Enna Neru is a pseudonym for the white South African writer Anne Uren, who lives at the edge of the Okavango Delta in Botswana. In An African Tale, Neru uses her experiences and knowledge of the region to craft a powerful cautionary tale about man’s misuse of and interference with nature’s resources.
At the beginning of human time, which is longer than long, long ago but not as long as time before humans, there was a large freshwater lake in the middle of the southern part of the continent now known as Africa.
With this opening line, Neru sets the stage for her fairytale. In the mythical beginnings of human time, there was a god named Molemo who controlled the water. For many years, humans lived in balance with water, and thus with the creatures around them. But, “as always happens with humans, the easier things became the more restless, discontented, and selfish they became.”
Expansion of the human settlements led to overfishing, over-irrigation, and depletion and pollution of the lake. Molemo sent warning storms, and for “a short time…the survivors were very humble. They knew that Molemo was angry with them and why, and used their resources with care. But then as always happens when things go well for a while, people forget and they slipped back into their old bad, selfish habits, assuming they were superior to all living creatures and that they could control the elements.”
Eventually, Molemo gives up and destroys the village and lake with a monstrous tornado. The few survivors are forced to use what little water remains responsibly. Enter Ledimo, the son of an ambitious man who takes credit for Ledimo’s skills at finding water in order to enhance his own position in the community. Though justifiably angry at his exploitation by his father, Ledimo is not a particularly estimable young man. In a rage as his father describes his plans to marry the girl Ledimo desires, Ledimo kills his father then feeds the remains to the hyenas.
Rid of his father, Ledimo reveals his own skills at water finding to the village and wins the hand of Bontle, the girl he wished to marry. One day, however, Ledimo finds a magic stone that allows the bearer to control water. Ledimo is given a choice by the voice of Molemo: “eternal life or death.” Of course, Ledimo chooses immortality without realizing the consequences. He is to be the keeper of the stone, responsible for maintaining the balance of water in the region. Yet, he must never marry.
In true fairytale fashion, Ledimo attempts to circumvent his destiny by marrying Bontle anyway. In doing so, he prompts the destruction of bride and village, dooming himself to centuries of solitude. Eventually he fulfills his obligations to Molemo and is promised that he can become mortal, marry, and have children. It is foretold that his two great-grandchildren will come into the world at a time when water is “greatly needed.” These two children will jointly be the bearers of the stone, and will only be able to evoke its powers if they work in tandem. Inevitably, “trouble comes if they are influenced by older, more devious minds.”
And so the stage is set, Ledimo’s wife gives birth to one of the staples of fairytale – twin sons. After the tragic death of their mother, courtesy once again of a failure to heed the gods, the boys are raised in the village. “Lorato was soft and kind, too kind. People took advantage of him at every turn. Kilo on the other hand was a little monster.”
Though unable to control water, Lorato and Kilo display traits that brand them as out of the ordinary. “When they stared at anything or anyone for a while [their eyes] became like dark whirlpools; nobody could look into them for long without the feeling that they were going to get sucked up by some strange force.” Lorato possesses an unusual affinity for animals, Kilo for reptiles. Kilo is banished from the village for his cruelty and departs to seek his fortune in the city.
Eventually, grandsons are born to both Kilo and Lorato. In the same instant, Lotobo and Lesedi are born, their mothers are killed, and Ledimo dies. An African Tale is primarily the story of Lesedi, grandson of Lorato. Raised in the bush, far from the modern conveniences of electricity, television and cell phones that complement the life of his urban cousin, Lesedi is at home in his environment, fishing and befriending a talking gecko.
On his tenth birthday, Lesedi is given an Ivory Palm Nut by his grandfather in the greatest secrecy. Aware in his boyish way that the nut is important, he stows it in a bird’s nest, as any small boy would squirrel away a treasure. The nut is stolen and Lesedi and his grandfather must embark upon a quest to reclaim it.
Lesedi’s quest is rich with the fanciful storytelling, fearsome creatures, and magical tricks that make up a good fairytale. Children will recognize the familiar theme of a young boy seeking to reclaim a magical object with the guidance of an older man and the assistance of magical creatures. Even along the path of Lesedi’s travels, Neru never loses sight of the theme of her parable. Humans need the balance of good and bad, flood and drought in order to maintain equilibrium with nature.
An African Tale ends abruptly, without really incorporating Lotobo or the final destiny of the stone. I find myself hoping that Neru plans a sequel. As a stand alone story, An African Tale is drastically incomplete, as part one of a series, it would be the beginning of a sensational saga.