The man and his wife
Once upon a time a woman prepared very tasty porridge and as she didn’t love her husband much decided not to give him any. But because she feared being found out and subsequently beaten she thought of a way to deceive him. She decided that she would tell him that the porridge boiled over while cooking as she knew that men never drank porridge that has spilled over the pot while cooking.
When the husband returned home with the animals after a long day of herding, he was thirsty and asked the wife to serve him porridge but she replied, “You tell me to give you porridge but the fact is that it boiled over and you men never drink porridge that has boiled over” The husband replied that it was okay.
When the evening came the man went visiting looking very sad as he was still very thirsty and when the other men saw him they asked him what the matter was that he was so sad. He told them that his wife did not give him any porridge as she said that it had boiled over while cooking.
Immediately the men told him that his wife had lied and they advised him to go home and tell his wife thus: “No woman should ever drink milk until the calf has grown its upper teeth” When he returned home he told his wife the same and they remained for a long time in this state – the woman drinking her porridge alone and the man taking the milk.
By and by the woman realized that the calf will never grow its upper teeth. She went to consult with other women and they told her that she had been lied to because cows never grow upper teeth. All at once she realized that her husband was retaliating because of her denying him porridge. She went home and prepared the very best porridge ever and served her husband.
Tit for tat has no bitterness.
The above short story is my translation from the Gikuyu of Fred K. Kago’s Kikuyu Primer, Book 3. “Wirute Guthoma – Ibuku ria Gatatu) first published in 1958 by Nelson Publishers.
Mr. Kago (1950/58), Kiama Gathigira(1957), Mareke Gicaga (1950) and Sadler (1950) have some of the most authentic folktales in Gikuyu. These stories are rich in metaphor and symbol and because they contain embedded meaning they probably are the best sources of information for anyone wanting to understand the traditional Gikuyu.
Fred K Kago was a Gikuyu colonial trained teacher and mixed his traditional Gikuyu stories with European stories retold in Gikuyu like Little Red Riding Hood, and the Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Nevertheless those authentic Gikuyu stories he records are worthy of deep analysis.
If we go back to the story above, we will immediately see that as a literal story it is quite ordinary and lacking in hands or feet as the Gikuyu would put it and actually quite useless. But seen in its symbolic significance we see the power of Gikuyu storytelling.
“Kirira ni ura thoni” or to learn wisdom you have to be prepared to listen without shame. Well, they also used to say, “Guithamba ni kuruta nguo” or why do I keep dilly-dallying on the story of the man and the woman? Let us take the plunge.
The story is about relationships between the male and female, the harmonious integration of yin and yang in the search for wholeness not just for a couple but for the entire tribe. Among the Gikuyu the pot is a habitation of the soul but it also stands for the woman’s womb which bears the same name ‘Nyungu’ in Gikuyu. When a woman is in her periods, that is the Nyungu is overflowing, she could not have sexual relations with her husband and thus the saying, “men do not drink porridge that has overflowed while cooking”
For a woman to refuse with her porridge for an extended period of time like with our unfortunate couple above would mean a breakdown in the relationship. The man refused with his “milk” as retaliation but harmony is restored when they find that none is gaining from the quarrel. The point and the circle are in harmony.
The pot, the porridge, the stirring stick, munduri, the milking of the cow are all symbols drawn in a very complex story.
Updated April 24th 2009