On our third day we were treated to a traditional lunch at a neighbor’s house. That was how we met, and fell in love with, Josephine. She proudly showed us her kitchen (with indoor and outdoor cooking fires), garden, and family, told stories, and sang songs. Her husband played a traditional stringed instrument and offered his opinion of the political leaders and historical figures featured in magazine clippings that decorated the walls of their two-room house. We even played a riddle game.
Here’s one of the stories Josephine told us, called The Calabash Tree:
There once was a young couple whose first child was a daughter. When she turned 18, her parents built a house for her, close by, in the shade of a tall, tall tree. This tree was so tall, its upper branches were lost to sight. The daughter planted a calabash vine at the foot of the tree, and there must have been some magic in the soil there, because the calabash also grew and grew up the tree until it reached the highest branches and bore many fruits. They were so high in the branches, however, that no one could pick them for eating.
One day the father challenged his sons: whoever climbs the tree and brings down the calabash fruits, I’ll give them a cow. It was a tempting prize, but the day went by with no one making an attempt.
The next day, the eldest daughter went to her father and asked him, “Do you really mean it? You’ll give a cow to whoever climbs the tree and brings down the calabash?”
“Yes,” he replied, “I really mean it.”
The daughter gathered armloads of leaves and heaped them around the base of the tree to cushion the fall of the fruits she planned to throw down. Then she began climbing, and she sang a song as she went. “Father, my father, I’m climbing high in the tree. I’m picking the calabash and dropping them down. Father, my father, will you give me a cow?”
The father heard the song and ran out to the tree, where he saw his daughter ascending through the branches, picking and dropping calabash from the vine as she went. “Daughter, my daughter, climbing high in the tree, picking the calabash and dropping them down. Yes, daughter, my daughter, I’ll give you a cow.”
So, encouraged by her father’s response, the daughter climbed ever higher, singing her song and listening for her father’s answer. She climbed all day and all night. By morning her father could no longer see her, she was so high, but he could still faintly hear her song, and he sang his answer until, gradually, even her song faded away, too far to hear.
The weather grew stormy and a fierce wind blew. As strong as the wind was near the ground, it was ten times as powerful at the top of the tree, which the daughter had reached by this time. The wind blew her out of the tree and carried her to a faraway land she had never seen, high, high in the mountains. She was unharmed, but exhausted from her ordeal, and so she slept where she landed.
When she awoke, she saw a little house nearby. The house was in disrepair, and no one was at home, which made her wonder if it might be abandoned. But when she entered, she found food and cooking utensils, so she set about cooking and cleaning and even repairing and improving the little house.
The owner of the house was a young man who had gone to herd his livestock back from the far pastures. As he approached the house in the last light of the day, he noticed that the yard had been swept and the fence and roof repaired, but he didn’t see anyone there. When he entered the house, he found a fire on the hearth and food in the cook pot, but again, didn’t see anyone. Was this some kind of magic? He stepped out to clean his hands and found the water bucket already mysteriously full of fresh water from the well. When he went back inside, he saw that dinner had been served. It was a little frightening, but then he thought, if this is the work of spirits, they seem to be kind and helpful spirits, so he might as well enjoy it. He ate the delicious meal and then dozed in his chair.
Of course, it was the daughter who did all this, but she stayed out of sight and observed the young man. By the time he was nearly asleep in his chair, she felt certain that he was a kind man who would be a good husband, and so she went to him and nestled into his arms. The young man was so sleepy at this point, he thought she was just another spirit, or perhaps a dream. It wasn’t until the next morning that he realized that she was real, and he was very happy to have found such a fine wife.
Several years went by, and the young couple prospered and had children of their own. When their first son was born, the young man’s family journeyed from across the mountain to celebrate and to meet, at last, the wife of their son. That is when they first heard the story of how the daughter had come to their land. Telling the story made the daughter feel homesick for her family. Seeing her sadness, the young husband had an idea. “It’s about time our families meet. If we climb down the tree, we can find them.”
His whole family thought it was a wonderful idea. They gathered livestock and gifts to bring as a dowry, and traveled to where the highest branches of the tall, tall tree met the cliffs. The tree had grown even more during the years, and the branches had thickened into steps that spiraled down and down. They went single file, with the young couple in the lead, the aunties carrying the little ones, the uncles helping the elders, and the children herding the cows and goats. As they descended, the daughter sang her song. “Father, my father, I’m climbing down from the tree. I’m picking the calabash and bringing them down. Father, my father, will you give me a cow?”
At first they were much too far away to be heard, but finally the youngest brother of the daughter heard the faint melody. He ran to the house to tell his father that his sister was returning, but the old man didn’t believe him. “Your sister was blown away by the wind years ago. I’m sure she must be dead.” The brother ran back to the tree, straining to hear. When he was sure the voices were getting nearer he went to his father again, and finally convinced him to come and listen.
As the old man approached the tree, the family of the young man were just emerging from the clouds. The father could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the wondrous procession of people and animals spiraling down the immense trunk of the great tree, carrying children and baskets of food. And then he heard the song that he had longed to hear for all these years since his daughter had disappeared. He answered joyfully, “Daughter, my daughter, climbing down from the tree, picking the calabash and bringing them down. Yes, daughter, my daughter, I’ll give you a cow.” Then he said to his youngest son, tell everyone your sister has returned, and we’ll have a celebration.”
The father stayed by the tree, watching the fabulous parade and singing out the answer to his daughter’s song until, at last, her feet touched the ground.This entry was posted in Uganda, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa