Oral Literature. The Nyanjira smile

Once upon a time, there was a girl of enchanting beauty. Her name was Nyanjira. She had soft, smooth skin and a very sweet smile that was always just a little intriguing.

What particularly caught people’s attention, however, was her lower teeth. Not because they were as white as milk or particularly well aligned, but because no one had ever seen them. And this meant everyone desired to see them at least once.

In fact, there were those who swore they had glimpsed them, even if only for a very brief moment. “They are very small and numerous”; “they are all the same and very sharp”; “they are very sharp and so short that they barely peep out from the gums”; “in truth, they are normal, but all the ones in front are missing, that’s why you can’t see them” . . . All lies!

The truth was that no one had ever seen them. Nyanjira was not a frivolous girl. More serious than her age required her to be, she was not fond of playing, joking and laughing. She was always shut up in the hut or in the backyard, intent on the tasks her mother entrusted her with. Was this a fault? Perhaps. The fact is that adults considered her to be the ideal of the perfect girl and the lavish praise they heaped on her only fanned the flames of jealousy in her peers.

One day, they orchestrated a stratagem to get her away from home at least for a day. They went to her and said: “Together with the village boys, we have organised a walk in the fields and woods. Why don’t you come too?” Nyanjira was about to say no, when her mother intervened: “That sounds like a good idea. Go and have fun.” The girl smiled and said, “One minute and I’ll be ready.”

The group of friends immediately set off. They walked for hours, joking, playing and laughing. Nyanjira was overjoyed. She revealed to a friend: “I had never thought that our place contained so much natural beauty.” It was very hot, but the numerous springs gave everyone new energy and a new desire to continue the trip.

At one point, the sky was covered with black clouds, full of rain. “We’d better hurry home,” the young men said to each other. Instead of following the main path that wound through the fields, they decided to take a shortcut through the forest. When they reached the middle of the forest, a strong wind arose and began to shake the trees.

The trees began to dance as if they wanted to fly; they bent until their branches touched the ground and then, after the gust of wind had passed, they straightened up again, hurling their branches against the sky immediately afterwards. You could see them whirling with furious rotating movements, and then they bent down again on the side where the wind was pushing them. There was a first bolt of lightning and then another, followed by two deafening claps of thunder. After that, the thunderbolts followed one another at a pace so impetuous that one would think the sky was on fire.

However, the furious thunderstorm did not deter Nyanjira’s friends from the plan they had devised. And so, the boy who had suggested taking the shortcut pretended to stop to pick something up from the ground, waited for the others to pass him, and then, he turned into a hyena. Then, with four leaps, he caught up with them and overtook them, without being seen.

A few moments later, the young people arrived at a stream. Acting as a bridge was a tree trunk placed across the stream. It was the last obstacle to overcome before reaching the village. But in front of the trunk, almost as if to block the passage, was the hyena. The animal says: “The boys can pass. The girls, however, must first, in turn, sing the song Lak Nyanjira”.

Now the wind is stronger than before. The lightning and thunder have grown closer. The raindrops have already begun to fall. There was no time to lose. The boys passed in a single file. When they reached the other bank, they turned and encouraged the girls to follow them.

The first girl appeared and sang the agreed chant: Lak Nyanjira, nyarma mayande tindo. Tinde nitindo.Rading madichol. Chee, chee. Lang Audi kadho, Yee, Yee. Onjero Kaundi, Jengo undi, undi. (“The teeth of Nyanjira, my mother’s daughter, are small and beautiful. You, pretty brunette, have thin cheeks. Chee, Chee. Aundi’s group passes. Yee, Yee, Onjero, Aundi’s son, passes by”).

The hyena smiles, steps aside and lets the girl pass. “Next, the second,” says the animal. The second girl also passed the test, and so does the third, the fourth … and all the others. Now only Nyanjira was left. With her traditional calmness, she approaches the hyena and says to her: “You will never get me to sing. Move aside and let me pass”.

Her friends on the other side shout at her, “What’s the matter with you? Sing and pass”. She, however, remains impassive. The rain falling on her face makes her even more beautiful. And when a flash of lightning shines, the light seems to focus on her. “Sing, Nyanjira, sing!” her friends insist.

Determined to make her open her mouth, the hyena begins to feign menace. Howling in a deep voice, it approaches her and shows his sharp teeth, but the girl remains undaunted. Then the animal displays a trembling fury: “If you don’t sing, I’ll bite you and ruin that pretty face of yours”.

So, he opens his mouth wide and pretends he wants to bite Nyanjira’s leg. Then he lifts a leg and makes as if to claw it. But he holds back: he does not want to ruin Nyanjira’s skin; he would never forgive himself.

He takes three steps back, points his front paws at the ground, bends his hind legs and then takes a leap at Nyanjira. The girl’s quick movement is useless: and the two end up in the mud. The hyena is on top of the girl. His snout is close to Nyanjira’s face. It almost touches it. The four eyes stare at each other. “All right, all right I’ll sing,” says Nyanjra.

The girl gets up. Then, staring skyward, she lets out a deep sigh and opens her mouth.  Lak Nyanjira nyarma mayande tindo. Tinde nitindo. Radingo madichol. Chee, Chee.

Her song is infinitely more melodious than that of the other girls. More modulated and caressing than that of a swallow. Even the wind calms down. The lightning continues, but no longer followed by thunder.

The forest resounds with the song of Nyanjira. Lang Aundi kadho, Yee, Yee… Caught up in the singing, Nyanjira seems to relax. On her face, the smile returns, and no longer only hinted at, but broad, open. The lips, the beautiful lips, open and the teeth appear in all their splendour.

The hyena, the girls and boys burst into shouts of jubilation. Someone shouts, “I have seen Nyanjila’s teeth!” And the others: “Me too, me too”. There is no longer jealousy in the girls’ hearts. There is real joy which reaches even Nyanjira who finally laughs. She laughs and sings. She sings and laughs. And discovers that it does her good and makes her feel better. Onjem Kaundi, Jengo undi undid.

Having finished singing, Nyanjira lowers her eyes towards the hyena. She no longer sees the animal, however, but the boy she knew very well. She then bursts into laughter and lets him embrace her. Suddenly, the lightning ceases, the thunder dies down, the wind calms down, the trees quieten down, the rain stops falling, the sky becomes clear again and the sun begins to shine again.

Nyanjira crosses the stream, followed by the boy, and the group of friends set off towards the village. Everyone is singing. Everyone is happy. They have finally seen Nyanjira’s teeth. And Nyanjira laughs and laughs and laughs…. (Folktale from Luo people, Kenya. Illustration 123rf)

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