Illustrated By: Jesse Einhorn-Johnson
This legend is from the land of Mali, over a thousand years ago. It takes place at a village called Segou, where an old woman named Kone lived in a hut with her granddaughter at the outskirts of town.
Villagers, who for years had brought food and gifts to Kone and the girl to help them get by, no longer took the time to visit. They had become busy with their own lives and no longer thought about Kone. But Kone thought about them all the time.
Without help from the villagers, Kone became bitter and her heart turned stone cold. If she had to suffer and could no longer live in dignity, then all of the people of the village would suffer, too.
Little did the people of Segou realize that Kone had the power to summon magic. One day at sunrise, Kone stretched her arms to the rising sun and called: "Let them all learn what it means to be hungry! No more rain shall fall on the village of Segou. The crops shall wither in the fields. And let them all learn the meaning of fear."
At that moment a ghost-like image of a buffalo appeared and pawed the ground. The old woman had, in fact, created a double of herself. She was the buffalo, even as she continued to live with her granddaughter in their hut. And as the buffalo she roamed in the forest, attacking and killing hunters.
Indeed, the people of Segou began to know hunger. A few weeks without rain stretched into two months. The crops shriveled in the fields. Worse, hunters who ventured into the forest in pursuit of game were never seen again. A few hunters who had escaped told about a huge, ferocious buffalo that couldn't be killed - arrows simply bounced off its thick hide.
With a drought in the fields and a monster in the woods, the people became desperate. They clamored to their chief, and the chief of Segou sent a call for help to all neighboring kingdoms.
In a far-off village lived two brothers, Kirama and his younger brother Kankejan. They heard the plea for help and decided to go.
"My sons, beware," said their father, "This is no ordinary trouble. The crop at Segou has dried for lack of rain, but our village and all the other villages around Segou have had plenty of rain. There's a monster in the forest at Segou that's killing hunters, but no such monster threatens hunters in forests anywhere else. Mark my words, my sons, Segou is under some kind of enchantment or curse. If you go, you must first visit the wise man Sambo. He has magical powers and will help you."
The brothers went to see Sambo. The wise man brought out his divining tray, put sand in it, moved the sand about with his fingers, and read its meaning.
He spoke: "This is a dangerous mission. The buffalo can be defeated, but not by regular arrows, traps, or heroics. Your mission will be successful only if you show consideration and respect to others. If you succeed, the people of the village will offer you a girl as a reward. She may be poor and plain-looking, but bring her to me. In this way you will repay me for divining for you."
So Kirama and Kankejan thanked the wise man Sambo and traveled to the village of Segou. On the outskirts of the village they passed a very old woman lifting firewood.
"Grandmother," said Kirama. "Let us help you."
The old woman was Kone.
With her magical powers she knew that the two young men had come to kill the buffalo.
"Don't trouble yourselves," she said. "I can manage."
"Of course you can," said Kankejan, not wishing to offend her, "but we're headed the same way you're headed and it's no trouble for us to carry things. Besides, it's not right that a woman of your years should have to work so hard. We'll take two loads, since there's two of us."
"I don't have time to talk," she said, gathering an armful of wood and heading to her hut. "Some of us have to work."
The brothers each hoisted a load of wood and followed her to her hut.
They set down their loads outside her door.
"I didn't ask you to bring that," she snapped. "I'm sure you have better things to do."
"Grandmother, there's nothing else we'd rather do," said Kirama, and they went on their way.
The chief of Segou greeted them warmly and invited them to a welcome feast in their honor (not many men from the surrounding villages had responded to his call for help!). You might know that in those days, certain parts of meat had special significance. One member of a family might be entitled to the breast, or the leg, as so forth. The banquet featured chicken with savory rice, and the brothers set aside a chicken breast and a leg, as well as some milk and kola nuts, and took it to Kone.
They found her outside, hauling a bucket of water.
"Grandmother," said Kankejan, "we brought you some chicken from dinner tonight. Enjoy it while my brother takes your water inside."
"Stop calling me 'grandmother,'" said Kone. "I am not your grandmother, though I see you brought me the breast, and that's set aside for the grandmother. You brought me a leg, and that's set aside for the sister. I am not your grandmother or your sister."
But tradition says that one must accept meat when offered as a gift, even from one's enemies. So she accepted it. While Kirama took the water inside, Kankejan said, "Here's milk for you to wash it down. And some kola nuts, too."
She grumbled, "You think of everything, don't you?" But she drank the milk and put the kola nuts in her pockets to give to her granddaughter.
Every day after that, the brothers visited Kone and brought gifts each time - fruits, nuts, milk, and other treats. She gave up protesting, since they only insisted on doing chores and would do them anyway. On the fifth day, she went to visit them. They talked for a long time and the brothers begin to sense something magical about the old woman. When it was time to leave, it was dark and they insisted on walking her back to her hut. Outside her door, she turned.
"I know who you are. But you don't know who I am. You have come to kill the buffalo. What you don't know is that I am the buffalo."
Her voice rose. "The people of Segou abandoned me and left me to fend for myself - I, an old woman who can no longer farm or fish! It was easy for them to forget about a tired old woman and her granddaughter. Now they, too, know the meaning of suffering!"
She paused. "There is something important I must tell you, but first we must go outside the village to the bush." In those days any contract or important knowledge had to be discussed outside the edge of the village, beyond the bush, where the land is neutral. So they went there and she went on. "I will tell you how to kill the buffalo because you have treated me with respect. Everyone else in the village abandoned me to the crumbs of life, a life without dignity - they can die for all I care! But now I'm ready to die myself knowing that I have been shown the respect I am due. Before I tell you how to kill the buffalo, you must promise to look after my granddaughter. Take care of her as if she were your own family."
They said, "Yes, we agree."
"Good. Tomorrow morning as the sun is rising, follow the south trail past the village until you see a long grove of trees on the savannah on your right. Beyond that grove there's a second grove, also on the right, and beyond that grove there's a water hole where I go to drink every morning. Be there on time. Position yourself in a tree closest to the water hole. Beware, you must first dip your arrows in a mixture of ground kola nuts, some sheep dung, and rice water. And you must take this staff. Aim the staff at me three times before shooting your arrow. If you do not aim the staff at me three times, or if you do not first dip your arrows as I told, I will not be killed. When I am drinking is when you must shoot your arrow." The old woman turned away and walked back to her house.
The two brothers also returned home. "Can it be true?" asked Kankejan of his older brother. Then, the older one Kirama, said...
"What if it's a trick?"
"We know there's something strange about that old woman. To send us to the buffalo like this could mean sending us to our deaths. We would be fools to go along!"
"Though," said Kankejan slowly, "Sambo said we could not succeed with regular arrows. And everyone has said arrows don't work against the buffalo anyway. For as long as we've been here, no one else has given us any other ideas. Let's follow her advice, just as she said."
The next morning, well before dawn, the two brothers gathered a mixture of kola nuts, sheep dung and rice water, and dipped the arrows into it. They followed the south trail past the first grove of trees on the savannah to the right, then the second, then climbed a tree in the second grove closest to the water hole. Indeed, just as the sun was rising, a huge buffalo with black hide and silver horns appeared, went toward the water, and started to lap at its edges. Kankejan, knowing if this did not work the sound of the arrow whizzing by would surely alert the monster that they were in the trees, pictured in his mind the old woman giving her earnest advice.
He let the arrow fly - and with the single shot fired, the buffalo fell.
Could it be? The two brothers waited a long time to be sure the creature was dead, then climbed down the tree. Kankejan cut off its tail and the two brothers rejoiced.
They returned to the village, straight to the chief's hut, and showed him the tail of the buffalo as proof that the monster was truly dead. As they spoke, rain drops started to splatter against the outside of the hut. By the time they left the chief's hut, the rainfall was heavy.
The two young men became heroes in Segou.
As was the custom, the chief hosted a grand victory celebration. At the end, he asked the two heroes what they wanted as a reward. Remembering their promise to the wise man, Kirama said, "There is an old woman who lives at the edge of the village with her granddaughter. The girl is what we want as our reward."
"The granddaughter of the old woman who just died?" said the chief. "She is not a proper gift for heroes like you. She lived in a shabby house and dresses in filthy rags. We have many girls in the village with thick, lovely heads of hair, beautiful figures, and are from the finest homes - we'd be honored to offer you one of them instead."
Remembering their promise to Kone, they repeated, "No, thank you. She is the one we want."
So the chief was obliged to present Kone's granddaughter as their gift. Indeed, she was as dirty as he had said. The young men let her bathe, gave her new clothes and brought her to Sambo. The girl and the wise man were very pleased with each other and they married.
Sambo, the wise man, and his bride lived happily all their years and over time had many children. Each of their children had children, and one of their grandchildren became the legendary hero Keita Sundiata, the famous warrior who united Mali in the thirteenth century and made of it a great nation.
- Why did the old woman turn into the buffalo?
- Why did the old woman tell the two brothers how to defeat the buffalo, knowing that she would die?
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy. ©2005. All rights reserved.
The historical figure Kieta Sundiata (circa 1210-1260?), also known as the Lion King of Mali, is celebrated as the founder and ruler of the Mali Empire. In 1235, Sundiata defended Mali against the King of Sosso and went on to conquer other neighboring domains until Mali became the largest West African empire during the 13th and 14th centuries. He is credited with ushering in a period of peace and prosperity. One story that speaks to the wealth of the Mali empire is that when a King of Mali traveled to Mecca in 1332, he gave away such enormous amounts of gold that the value of gold in Egypt plummeted. Sundiata is still revered as a national hero in Mali and his legend lives on through stories, songs, poems, and dances.