by Mineke Schipper, Humanity’s End as a New Beginning: World Disasters in Myths

9. Beginning and annihilation

(Chagga, Tanzania)

In the beginning Ruwa liberated the first ancestors by bursting them from confinement. He gave them a banana plantation and a garden full of sweet potatoes. In the middle of that garden Ruwa planted the Ula yam, and told the elder of the village, that the people could eat all bananas and all potatoes and yams except for the yam called Ula. “No one is allowed to eat it. If you do, I will break your bones and you will die.” With those words Ruwa left, but every morning and evening he came back to greet the elder and the other people.

One day a stranger arrived. He greeted the elder and asked for food, and was told that he was free to eat whatever he wanted, except for the Ula, because of Ruwa’s prohibition. But the stranger said: “Early this morning Ruwa bade me to go and tell you to give me a cooking-pot to cook this Ula, and to eat it with you and your people to enjoy ourselves.”

The elder believed him and gave him the cooking-pot. So the stranger digged up the Ula and put it in the pot. They cooked the meal and ate. When Ruwa’s minister smelled the odour of Ula, he arrived in a hurry and asked: “What are you doing? What are you eating?”

The elder and the stranger were afraid now. Ruwa’s minister took the pot with Ula yam and carried it to Ruwa. Enraged he sent his minister a second time. He went and spoke to the elder and the other people: “Deceived by a stranger you ate my Ula. Therefore I shall break your bones and burst your eyes, and you will die.”

As soon as he had left, the Wachagga tell, the people and their elder began to break their bones, their eyes sickened and they were dying. So the elder prayed for mercy, and Ruwa sent his minister once again to the elder: “I will have mercy on you. You shall grow old, and when you are about to die, you shall cast your skin, as the snake does, and you shall be young again. However if someone sees you casting your skin, you shall die and not live again.”

So the people lived on and the elder aged, so much so that a granddaughter took care of him. The old man knew that the day had come for him to cast his skin. In order to get rid of the granddaughter he pierced a gourd making many small holes in the bottom, then ordered the girl to go and fetch water. He knew she would take long. However, the girl noticed, plugged the holes, filled the gourd, and hurried back to her grandfather. There she found him, half his skin cast.

The old man stared at her, and cried aloud: “Woe me, woe you! This is my death, and all of you will die. So be it.” Slowly the old man wrapped himself up in his skin again, and died. So they buried him.

Time went by and people became arrogant and proud. This angered Ruwa greatly, and he sent his minister once again, telling them to desist from their bad habits, but no one listened, and misbehavior increased. One girl was excessively proud. She rejected all youths in the country, and said: “I shall search for a husband who has strength beyond all men, and he shall marry me.”

This girl walked all over the country, in search of a husband until she arrived in the forest, where the rivers widen into lakes. There she found a man who lived in a lake.  He was huge but she only saw his head.  He addressed her and asked: “What are you looking for?”

“I search for a husband, one to court me and to marry me, one whose strength excels all others.” 

The man in the lake said to her: “It is me. I am stronger than all others, and that’s what you will see, you and your father and all other people.”

She was very impressed, and the two agreed. The girl went back home and told her mother that she had found him.  “That’s very well,” said the mother, “bring him home, we want to see him, your suitor, the man of your life.” 

The girl now saw it as her duty to bring food to her suitor. To her amazement he swallowed food and cooking-pot together. What kind of man was he?  But she only said: “My parents want to meet you, and allow you to marry me. So, please, come with me.”

The suitor in the lake replied: “My time to rise from the water hasn’t come yet. As soon as the time has come I shall do as you desire.”

The girl went home and repeated his words to her mother. In the mean time she continued to make food for her suitor whose head was the only part of his body to be seen.  Each time he swallowed the food including the pots and pans in which the food had been served. She didn’t comment on that, she only said to him: “Come, let’s go to my home.”

One day the man in the lake answered her request with a song:

I am the canoe of the coast.

I’ll get there and swallow your father.

I’ll get there and swallow your mother.

I’ll get there and swallow your brother.

I am the canoe of the coast.

Singing this suitor rose from the lake and followed the girl.  This creature was really immense.  His body filled the whole country. She didn’t even know his name, until he told her: “My name is Rimu. I have been sent to you to destroy all things and all creation. Ruwa has ordered me to destroy all human beings and animals, because the people have abandoned the ancient customs, and adopted evil ways. They are oppressing the poor and have become indolent and proud.  So I shall first swallow you and your father’s house, and then all other men on earth, and all animals.”

His words made the girl tremble with fear while she walked to her home, with Rimu following close behind her. His steps shook the earth, and from afar the girl’s parents heard a swelling noise of rolling thunder. They were enjoying themselves with the other villagers.  It was a festive day for all, and people were dancing.  As soon as they arrived, Rimu swallowed the girl together with her family, and fell upon the dancers and swallowed them all at once. Not one in the village remained alive, except one woman who had given birth that day. Seeing a vast creature, she hid herself in the stable, she and her girl child, and her new baby boy. 

Rimu passed over the whole earth and swallowed all humanity. Some people had run into the jungle to hide and were devoured by leopards and lions. Others climbed into trees, but Ruwa called upon fierce winds to break the trees and hurl them down. Thus all those who hid themselves died as well. In seven days Ruwa had extinguished the human race, and none was left except this poor woman and her children. Rimu also swallowed all cattle, goats, sheep and dogs which had belonged to men. But in the hut where the woman had hidden herself, two cows and a bull remained, two she-goats and a he-goat, two sheep, one ewe and a ram, and two young puppies, one female and one male. The animals had belonged to a rich family. Ruwa had guarded her and her children, and those few animals in that shed, because she was so poor.

On the eighth day Ruwa’s minister came and said to her: “Come out and rule the earth, you and your infant, because no one will oppress the poor anymore. You shall name your son Mkechuwa. He shall be a great man and make the earth good again. And Ruwa will have mercy upon the earth once again.”

She came out. Wherever she looked, nothing moved; whoever she called, deathly silence. They had to begin life all over again. Mkechuwa married his sister, since there was no other woman available. They had children and he taught them how to behave. After he had died, his children had children, they were all prosperous and had a good life. Since there were less people and animals than there had been before, the cattle found grass in abundance. But then, people became arrogant again, they prided themselves in their property and food. They mocked the poor and refused to share with them. This angered and shocked Ruwa who decided to put the wealthy people to the test. He sent his minister to the earth, in the disguise of man covered with boils. 

The minister went to the earth and walked around, scratching his thin and suffering body, and begging for food and for ointment to soothe the aching boils. But the rich drove him away with stones, and named him Kingusai, “the one who scratches himself”. Finally he came to the house of a man of mercy. When he begged, as usual, for food and ointment, this wealthy man felt sorry for him. He welcomed him and spread a skin for him on the floor: “Please, come in, sit down and eat.” Kingusai tried to refuse, but the man urged him and brought him bean porridge, and he ate until he was satisfied. And his host brought him water to wash his body, and he rubbed him with medicine and curative unguent. And he said: “Take the rest of the medicine with you, and instead of scratching your wounds, just anoint them.”

When Kingusai saw the goodness of this man of mercy, he told him: “I am Ruwa’s minister. He sent me to find out whether people on earth are good or evil. Because of your kindness and good deeds, I urge you to call your relatives and friends, and invite them to come and live in your house. Be quick, please, because dramatic events are at hand.”

The merciful man went and assembled all his dear ones who came with their cattle and sheep and goats, and when they were all there and ready, Kingusai said: “As soon as you hear a smashing noise of fiercely running water, hold fast to the supports of the house, and keep silent, as Ruwa is going to pass forcefully.”

On the eighth day Ruwa brought great waters from the forest above.  By its force the water dragged the evil people along and all others, and their houses and their food and all their possessions, their cattle, sheep and goats. The whole country was empty again, and there was not one thing left.

So, when he arose in the morning, the man of mercy found the country empty. He wondered and looked up to the sky. He spat three times and three times he called the name of Ruwa, the true God who had burst out the human race in the beginning.