The Doctor who rode a hyena to Mecca

Another story for liberal religious children. This story comes from Hausa Folklore, stories told by Maalam Shaihua and translated by R. Sutherland Rattray (Clarendon Press, 1913). The Hausa, who live in what is now Nigeria, were one of North Africa’s major trading powers. By the 14th century, many Hausa people had converted to Sunni Islam, and eventually Hausaland became a Caliphate. Traditional Hausa religion (called “Bori” or “Maguzanci”) persisted in the countryside, and still does today. The present story appears to combine elements from older Hausa folklore (talking animals) with Islamic elements (trip to Mecca). This story reminds us that Islam has been a feature of West Africa for centuries.

A certain doctor, a man of great learning who wrote elegant Arabic script and who was well-versed in the complicated legal, historical, and religious learning of the Hausa people, set out to go on the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Mecca that all good Muslims hope to make, so that they might add to their rewards in the afterlife.

This doctor had a very thin mare. He saddled her, mounted her, and began the long journey to Mecca. He was deep into the forest when be saw a hyena. The hyena saw that the doctor’s mare was very weary.

“Doctor, where are you going?” said the hyena.

The doctor said, “I am going to Mecca.”

“But something seems to be the matter,” said the hyena.

“It is the mare,” said the doctor. “She is weary.”

“Give the mare to me,” said the hyena. “I shall kill her, and eat her up. Then you can mount me and we shall set out to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “So?”

The hyena said, “Yes, it is so.”

The doctor said, “You must not deceive me.”

She replied, “Come now, Doctor, it is because I have seen that your mare is unable to go on that I speak. For my part, if you mount me, this instant I will carry you to Mecca.”

The doctor said, “All right, catch the mare and eat it.”

The hyena seized the mare, tore it up, picked up the meat and took it home. She ate it with her children. The doctor waited and waited for her to return, but she did not come back. At last a jackal came along and saw the doctor sitting there.

“Doctor, what has happened?” said the jackal.

“I was on my way to Mecca,” said the doctor. “My mare got tired, so I sat down. The hyena came along and asked what was the matter, and I said that that I was on my way to Mecca but my mare was tired.

“And the hyena said, ‘Oh, this thing can never take you to Mecca. Give her to me to eat so I can increase my strength, then I can carry you to Mecca.’ I then said,” the doctor went on,, “‘Hyena, you must not deceive me, by eating my mare then running away.’ But she replied, ‘Why would I do that? it is the truth I told you.’ I thought what she told me was true, but after she caught the mare she went off and I haven’t seen her again.”

“Stop worrying, Doctor,” said the jackal. “I will bring her to you.”

The jackal took up all the horse tack — the saddle and saddle-cloth, the bit and halter, the spurs and whip — and off he went. On the way, he found a lump of meat and took it along as well. He dropped the tack, piece by piece, dropping the saddlecloth last of all, when he was near the mouth of the hyena’s hole.

When he got to the hyena’s hole, he stood and announced his arrival.

But the hyena had told her children, “Whoever comes here looking for me, you must say I am not here.” So when the jackal hailed, the children said, “She is not here.”

“Allah curse her, she has no luck,” said the jackal. “Here I have brought her good news, and bad luck prevents her from hearing it. For a cow has died, a very fat one, and I have come to call her and show her. But you say, she is not here. So I will leave.”

Then the hyena said, “Who is seeking me?”

“I am seeking you<” said the jackal. “A fat cow has died, but these children say you are not here. Here, I cut off a big lump of meat and have brought it to you”

“There is no God but Allah!” said the hyena. “You worthless children, I was asleep, but you say I am not here.” And the hyena came out of her hole.

The jackal offered her some of the lump of meat, saying, “Taste it.”

She swallowed the meat, giving none to her children. Then she said, “Let us be off.”

The hyena was eager to get to the fat cow, and she was a long way in front of the jackal. “Here,” said the hyena, “you cannot walk fast enough. Climb up and ride me so that we may go quickly.”

The jackal rode her, and soon they came to the saddle cloth. The jackal said, “Let me spread this thin on your back, for the hair on your back is getting ruffled.” When he had the saddle-cloth on her, he mounted once again and they rode off.

Soon they came to the bit and halter. “Let me lift up this thing and put it in your mouth,” said the jackal. “Perhaps it will be better for me to hold.”

“Put it on quickly and let us get on,” said the hyena. The jackal put on the bit, took hold of the halter, and they rode off again.

Soon they came to the spurs and whip. The jackal dismounted, took up the whip and put the spurs on his feet, and mounted again.

As they drew near where the doctor was waiting, the hyena said, “You must not take this way.” For she did not wish to meet the doctor again, so she took another path. But when they were opposite where the doctor sat, the jackal struck her with the spurs and turned the bit towards the doctor. Then the hyena sprang forward, saying, “Oou, oou.”

The jackal pulled up in front of the doctor, dismounted, and said, “Doctor, behold your debtor. Mount her, and do not get off until you reach where you are going. If you dismount, even at the water, do not take her to a stream of water.”

The doctor replied, “I have heard.” He mounted, and did not dismount until they had ridden all the way to Mecca, over a thousand miles.

When he got to Mecca, his dismounted from the hyena. He asked some children to hold her, saying, “You must not mount her, and you must not take her to the stream.” Then the doctor entered the mosque where they were praying.

But the children did not listen. They mounted they hyena, and rode her to a nearby stream. As soon as she got out of the town, she began to gallop into the bush. She threw them off, and ran away. So when the doctor came out of the mosque, he saw neither the children, nor the hyena.

That is all.


I’m in the process of writing a curriculum for middle elementary that will include a story from the Kongo religious tradition, “Spider Steals Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire.” As a supplementary activity, I’m planning to include instructions for Kisolo, a traditional Congolese game that resembles the well-known Mancala game that’s commercially available in the U.S. So here’s my first pass at Kisolo rules, somewhat simplified for middle elementary grades. (If you play this game, let me know what you think of the rules.)

To make a Kisolo board: Take two egg cartons, and cut their lids off. Tape them together to make a game board with six by four holes. (Most traditional Kisolo boards are four by seven holes in size, but a smaller board is allowable and makes for shorter game play.) You can also use he commercially available Mancala boards — take two of them, place them side by side and ignore the large bins at the ends of the boards.

To set up the board: Place three “seeds” in each bin. You can use actual bean seeds, or small glass tokens or what-have-you, for seeds. (For a faster game, plant only two seeds per bin.)

Simplified Kisolo baord, showing initial set up

To start:

Two players sit at the long sides of the game board opposite each other. The twelve bins on your side belong to you, and the twelve bins on your opponent’s side belong to them. Each player has six “outer bins” (the row of bins nearest to them) and six “inner bins” — see the diagram above.

To play:

Youngest player starts.

When it is your turn, see if one of your inner bins contains seeds AND your opponent’s inner bin opposite it contains seeds. (If that’s true of more than one of your inner bins, just pick one; OR if you can’t capture any seeds, see below.)

Then remove all the seeds from your inner bin, plus the seeds in the corresponding bin that belongs to your opponent, and any seeds in your opponent’s outer bin that’s next to that inner bin.

Now “sow the seeds,” that is, starting with the inner hole you’ve just emptied, place one seed in each of your holes and continue counterclockwise sowing seeds only into you holes, until you have sown all the seeds.

If your last seed falls in one of your inner holes, then you ALSO get to remove all the seeds from your inner bin, plus the seeds in the corresponding bin that belongs to your opponent, and any seeds in your opponent’s outer bin that’s next to that inner bin. Then you sow the seeds as before—it’s like you get another turn (but after that your turn is over).

IF YOU CANNOT CAPTURE ANY SEEDS, then empty the seeds out of any one of your holes and sow those seeds counterclockwise into your own holes.

To win the game:

Capture all the seeds in your opponent’s INNER holes (doesn’t matter how many seeds are in the OUTER holes).

Note that some games will end in a draw, where neither player can win. If it feels like the game is going nowhere, the players can agree to a draw.

Spider steals Nzambi Mpungu’s Heavenly Fire

Another in a series of stories for liberal religious kids, this one from Central Africa. I like this story because of the differences between Nzambi Mpungu and the Christian Jehovah, and the different reasons Spider and Prometheus have for stealing the heavenly fire. The character of Spider is probably related to Anansi the Spider of West Africa myth, and probably to other African tricksters such as Tortoise of Yoruba myth. This story is adapted from Richard Edward Dennett, Notes on the Folklore of the Fjort (French Congo), London: Folk-lore Society, 1898, pp. 74-76 and 131-135.

First you must understand who Nzambi Mpungu is. He is the father of all things, and lives a happy life above the sky, where he has a many wives and beautiful children. He spends very little time thinking about us people here on earth, and since he is a good being there is no use in offering him worship or sacrifices. True, there are lesser gods and goddesses who can hurt us people here on earth, and to them we might offer worship and sacrefice, but Nzambi Mpungu will not mind, for he is not in the least jealous.

Now you may question whether Nzambi Mpungu actually exists. But there is a man still living, near the town of Loango, who says that one day, when it was thundering and lightning and raining very heavily, and when all the people in his village, being afraid, had hidden themselves in their houses, he alone was walking about. Suddenly, and at the moment of an extraordinarily vivid flash of lightning, after a very loud peal of thunder, he was seized and carried through space until he reached the roof of heaven, when it opened and allowed him to pass through to where Nzambi Mpungu lives. There the man met Nzambi Mpungu, who cooked some food for him, and then showed the man his great plantations and rivers full of fish. Then Nzambu Mpungu left the man, telling him to help himself whenever he felt hungry. The man stayed there two or three weeks, and never had he had so much good food to eat. At last Nzambi Mpungu came to him again, and asked the man whether he would like to remain there always, or whether he would like to return to the earth. The man said that he missed his friends, and would like to return to them, and Nzambi Mpungu sent him back to his family. So you see, Nzambi Mpungu does indeed live above the sky.

Nzambi, on the other hand, is Mother Earth. Some say she is Nzambi Mpungu’s first child. She is the great princess, a mighty ruler who governs all on earth. She has the spirit of rain, lightning, and thunder for her own use. She is a stern judge, and a fearsome ruler.

Now we can begin the story of how Spider almost married Nzambi’s daughter.

For Nzambi had a most delightful daughter whom anyone would have wanted to marry. But Nzambi swore that no earthly being should marry her daughter, unless they could bring her the heavenly fire from Nzambi Mpungu, who kept it somewhere in the heavens above the blue roof of sky.

The people all wondered who could ever bring the heavenly fire down to earth.

Then Spider said, “I will bring the heavenly fire to earth, but I will need help.”

“We will gladly help you,” said all the people, “if you will reward us for our help.”

So Spider climbed up to the blue roof of heaven, and dropped down again to the earth, leaving a strong silken thread firmly hanging from the roof to the earth below. Then he called to Tortoise, Woodpecker, Rat, and Sandfly, and bade them climb up the thread to the blue roof of sky.

When they got there, Woodpecker pecked a hole through the roof, and through this hole they all entered into the realm of Nzambi Mpungu, who, as it happens, was very badly dressed. Nzambi Mpungu received them courteously, and asked them what they wanted up there.

“O Nzambi Mpungu of the heavens above, great father of all the world,” they said, “we have come to fetch some of your heavenly fire, to bring it down to Nzambi who rules upon earth.”

“Wait here then,” said Nzambi Mpungu, “while I go to my people and tell them of the message you bring.” But Sandfly followed Nzambi Mpungu without being seen, and heard all that was said. While Sandfly was gone, the others talked among themselves, wondering if it were possible that someone who went around so badly dressed could be so powerful.

At last Nzambi Mpungu returned to them. “My friend,” he said to Spider, “how can I know that you have really come from the ruler of the earth, and that you are not impostors?”

“Nay,” said Spider and all the others, “put us to some test so we may prove our sincerity to you.”

“I will,” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Go down to this Earth of yours, and bring me a bundle of bamboos, so I can make myself a shed.”

Tortoise climbed all the way down to Earth, leaving the others where they were, and soon returned with the bamboo.

Nzambi Mpungu then said to Rat, “Get beneath this bundle of bamboo, and I will set fire to it. If you escape I shall surely know that Nzambi sent you.”

Rat did as he was told, and hid under the bundle of bamboo. Nzambi Mpungu set fire to the bamboo, and lo! when it was entirely consumed, Rat came from amidst the ashes completely unharmed.

“Ah!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “You are indeed sent from Nzambi on Earth. I will go and consult my people again.”

Spider, Rat, Woodpecker, and Tortoise sent Sandfly after him once again, bidding him to keep well out of sight, to hear all that was said, and if possible to find out where the lightning was kept. Sandfly soon returned and told them all that he had heard and seen.

When Nzambi Mpungu came back a little later, he said, “Yes, I will give you the heavenly fire you ask for. But only if you can tell me where it is kept.”

Spider said, “Give me then, O Nzambi Mpungu, one of the five cases that you keep in the hen-house.”

“Truly, you have answered me correctly, O Spider!” said Nzambi Mpungu. “Take this case, and give it to your Nzambi.”

Tortoise carried the heavy case containing the heavenly fire down to the earth. When they got to Nzambi’s house, Spider presented the fire from heaven to her. True to her word, Nzambi agreed to let Spider marry her delightful daughter.

But Woodpecker grumbled, saying, “Surely your daughter is mine, for I was the one who pecked the hole through the roof, without which the others never could have entered the kingdom of the Nzambi Mpungu.”

“No, she is mine,” said Rat. “For I risked my life among the burning bamboo.”

“Nay, O Nzambi, she is mine,” said Sandfly. “For without my help the others would never have found out where the fire was kept.”

And Tortoise complained that he was the one who had to return to Earth to fetch the bamboo, and then had to carry the heavy case down to Earth, so of course the daughter should be married to him.

After listening to them all, Nzambi said: “Nay, Spider was the one who planned how to bring me the heavenly fire, and he has indeed brought it. By rights, my daughter should be married to him. But I know you others will make her life miserable if I allow her to marry Spider. Since she cannot marry all of you, I will not allow her to marry any of you. But I will give you her value” — for the people Nzambi ruled customarily gave presents when one of their children married.

Nzambi then paid fifty bolts of cloth each to Tortoise, Rat, Woodpecker, Sandfly, and Spider.

As for the daughter, she never married, and had to wait on Nzambi for the rest of her days.

Nzambi Mpungu as imagined by an African artist of perhaps a hundred years ago. This artist was a follower of the Kongo religion. The Kongo religion is related to several religions in the Americas including Haitian Vodoun and Brazilian Candomblé. Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale, original photo CC-BY-SA 3.0 Ji-Elle.