Moufa looked up from the edge of the small lake where she sat looking at the tiny shrimp. It was almost midday and a soft breeze rose from the water and fanned her face. She had always enjoyed playing with the shrimp, imagining what their lives at the bottom of the lake were like. Moufa enjoyed the delicious stews Mama made with the shrimp and she would later go to the lake to say thanks for eating a mama shrimp, or a sibling shrimp, or a grandma shrimp.
But Moufa looked up because something moving on the horizon had caught her eye. A black line that was growing thicker and thicker by the moment. She looked at it for a second, then realised what it was and jumped up excitedly to go tell her mama.
“They’re coming back! The hunters are coming back!” she exclaimed breathlessly as she ran into the thatched roof house. In her haste she ran full force into Mama who was just then putting the midday meal out.
“There there, you little volcano,” said Mama in the affectionate way she referred to Moufa’s explosive personality. Moufa had never seen a volcano, but she had heard stories of hills and mountains that would suddenly belch hot liquids and fire out. Sometimes Moufa felt like one of these mountains.
“Sit down and have lunch and you can tell me all about what you saw,” Mama added.
The hunters regularly took long trips to where the grasses and the trees met to hunt. They went in search of large animals and small animals: elephant, antelopes, bush pigs. And they also went in search of sweet things like honey and fruits.
To Moufa the trips seemed excruciatingly long, and the homesteads would be quiet without the sound of the men. During these times she would only have her shrimp, her Mama and the neighbourhood children to play with. But she missed her father who would tell her stories of the hunt and the forest when he came back.
The hunters had been gone for one moon but now they were coming back. And there would be celebration all round – a good big festival to thank the ancestors and spirit guides who had brought them safely back, and with food. Moufa was looking forward to one special part of the feast especially, the carving of the giraffes.
Moufa wanted to go back out and watch the steadily growing dots of hunters approaching but Mama wanted help with the dishes. She had to start getting things ready for the feast to come, and for Papa’s homecoming.
Mama put out her fresh pots, the ones she had decorated in the last potting season. The pots were large and beautifully etched with wavy lines that Moufa liked to trace with her fingers. The lines seemed to her like the paths the hunters took to the forest in the stories her father told her. Mama would use these fresh pots to make the feast meal.
Out beyond where the other homesteads were, a ringing sound came, it was the community gong sending out a message with five successive notes. Moufa knew what it meant. Tomorrow would be the day of the festival, and everyone must prepare. The hunt had been very successful. The hunters had come back with baskets upon baskets of meat, some fresh, some dried and salted to stay for longer. They had also brought fruits that grew in the forest, and honey that would be used to make wine.
Moufa’s father had even brought her the skin of a large snake that he found lying on the forest floor. He told her the story of how snakes changed clothes every so often. He said they did so whenever they got tired of their old clothes, or grew too big to fit in them anymore. Moufa couldn’t wait to show it to her friends and to tell them the story. She would find them tomorrow during the carving, she promised herself.
“Moufa!” Mama called from the hearth. Could you get me some of the spice grass? And hurry, the stew is almost ready. Then I need to do your hair.”
Moufa jumped up and ran to the edge of the lake where the spice grass grew and carefully picked some for Mama. They would be having some of the meat the hunters brought for lunch today, and the rest would be left boiling for tomorrow, because no-one would have the time to cook until evening.
After lunch Mama sat Moufa down to do her hair. She collected a pot of hippo fat and mixed it with some clay she had picked from the lake. While she parted Moufa’s hair into sections and ran her fingers through to prepare it, Mama told Moufa stories of the people of long ago, and of how the world had come to be.
Moufa enjoyed Mama’s stories although they were different from the ones Papa told. Mama applied the clay-fat mixture onto Moufa’s hair and made thick plaits out of it. After she had prepared Moufa’s hair, she did her own so they would both be ready for the feast the following day.
In all the homes by the lake, the women were preparing their hair in the same way, and covering their bodies with fat to be beautiful and to protect their skin from the sun.
Moufa was up before Mama the following morning- an uncommon thing. She was too excited to sleep for long. The air was crisp and cold as she lay on her reed mat softened by skins. Moufa thought back to other carving days.
Carving days happened after every successful hunt on top of the rocky outcrop some distance away from where the homesteads stood. The men, women and children would all gather to thank the ancestors for a successful hunt. Each family would carry their special carving stones – hard sharpened pieces of rock – and the elders and healers would lead them to the outcrop.
From below it looked only like a rock that jutted up and out of the ground. But on top were the spirit guides. The far-seeing giraffes that were called on to guide the hunters on their dangerous missions to search for food. Moufa had often wished she could touch a giraffe or even ride one so she could see up and far as they could. When she helped in the carving she felt as though she was touching one.
The carving had been going on for as long as Moufa could remember, and Mama said she too had helped in the carving when she was young. It was said that a long time ago the elders had begun with just an outline, the outer part of the giraffes. And since then they had celebrated and prayed by doing more and more, etching the lines deeper and deeper.
Soon Mama was up and so was Papa. They carried their food – the stew from the previous day that had been left simmering overnight – in medium-sized leather pouches, and put water in smaller ones. If there were no clouds it would get hot up on the outcrop. They also carried some fat to rub into the giraffes as a special thanks for ensuring that there was food. Moufa thought about carrying her snake skin to show her friends, but decided that the distance was too far. Besides, she didn’t want to spoil the skin. She would have to tell them the story and invite them back to her home later.
After a quick breakfast of cold soup they set off to join the other families also setting out to the outcrop. The healers led the way and they arrived while the air was still cool.
They carved in turns, some people climbing to the top of the outcrop to do some of the work while the others remained under the trees below singing, clapping, dancing and cheering the others on. The women sang praises of the hunters and danced their joy. Others shared bits of news with their neighbours and compared plaits and pots.
“You must teach me how to do this style Mama Moufa,” one of the women said, “It’s prettier than I can make my pots!”
Moufa and the other children played a game of hide and seek amongst all the adults. It was fun to be away from their usual surroundings and they were enjoying themselves. Occasionally Moufa and her friends would climb up the rock, supported by an adult to check on the progress of the carving. She went up to her father while he was working on the neck of the smaller female giraffe.
Papa turned when he saw her and offered her the carving rock saying, “Would you like to try Moufita?”
“Sure!” Moufa replied and excitedly got to work etching in the square her father had been working on.
Scraping against the light brown sandstone was tiring work. Moufa would scrape a little and then blow on the scraping in order to see how deep the grooves she was making were.
“That’s it,” Papa said. “Say a hope while you do it. Ask the giraffe spirit guides for something. And don’t forget to say thank you!”
Moufa paused for a moment and thought about the giraffes. They could see far off because they were so tall. Papa said they sometimes helped to warn them of approaching danger when they were on the hunt. They were also very graceful. Papa described how they moved and ran as water rippling on the lake- it moved but almost without hurry or violence. Moufa wished she could have this combination of qualities herself. She whispered something under her breathe and continued carving, feeling even closer to the giraffes as she did so.
Eventually Moufa got tired and she went back down to help Mama and the other women to get the mid-day meal ready under some trees. The stew Mama made yesterday would taste extra delicious today after the flavours had slept the night. All the gathering would share the food they had brought. It was one of those special occasions when Moufa would be eat a lot.
After lunch it would be the turn of the women to go up and carve as well. The men would continue the chanting, singing and dancing below.
At the end of the day while the sun was just about to say goodbye to the earth, they all gathered at the top where the women were now rubbing fat into the etched grooves to make them gleam. It had been a busy and successful day.
The community healers led a general prayer that thanked the spirit guides, the ancestors and the gods for their part in keeping the community going. Without food, they could not last. The shrimp and other fishes from the lake were good food, but the food from the forest gave them things the fish didn’t, and kept them going when the fish were few and growing. After the prayer, everyone began the walk home in the twilight.
“So what did you hope for?” Papa asked Moufa as he carried her on his shoulders on their walk home.
“I asked to grow as tall as the giraffes so I can see far.” Moufa answered. “And to be graceful as well,” she added.
“That would be a good thing my daughter.” Papa said laughing.
“How long do you think it will take for the giraffes to be finished?” Moufa asked her father.
“I don’t know,” replied Papa. “While we’re here we will never really finish I suppose. We will keep going, and the ones who come after us will continue where we leave off.”
And they walked on home, Moufa trying to imagine a time when she would not be there, but the giraffes would be.
“I suppose the ones who come after will know we carved, won’t they Papa? And they will remember to say thank you to the giraffes?”
“I hope so young one,” Papa answered. “I hope so.”
by Wangũi Kamonji.
Head of a carved life-size giraffe, ~ 7000 years old, Dabous, Niger. Image credit: TARA/David Coulson