Oral Literature. The Desert is not Empty

The sun had already set on the horizon and the temperature, very high in the daytime, was starting to become pleasant, when three young women, returning from grazing with their goats, were talking about their daily lives and recent events in their valleys, nestled in the mountains of the Air massif in Niger. All of a sudden, Binta, one of the three, stopped, exclaiming: “Oh, look at the tafaka (lizard) on that boulder.” 

Had there been a man with them, he would have marvelled at the woman’s astonishment, but men are known to have no sensitivity to such things. Since they were three women of a certain age and rich in experience, they fixed their gaze on the beautiful animal. It was a female tafaka, with thin red lines on its back. The exceedingly voluminous belly, which had caught Binta’s attention, left no doubt: the lizard was pregnant.

After observing her for a long time, Binta took pity on her, partly because she reminded her of her young daughter, who was also waiting to give birth. She approached her and, more facetiously than seriously, addressed these words to her: “Listen, beautiful tafaka, don’t forget to call me the day you give birth. I will be happy to be your midwife.”

The lizard lowered and raised its head two or three times, in quick succession. This was, of course, that involuntary and habitual contraction that is typical of this kind of lizard. The fact, however, that this movement occurred immediately after Binta’s statement gave the impression that the animal had wanted to nod its head. All three women burst into laughter and continued their journey.

Many weeks passed, during which Binta continued to take care of the housework and, above all, to take care of her pregnant daughter, who was about to give birth.

One day a young man approached her and greeted her and asked: “Are you Binta?” “Yes, I am,” replied the woman. “The time has come for Tafaka to give birth” – the young man said – “Take with you what is needed at such times and follow me.”

It is true that the people of the Air Massif often bear very strange, sometimes even unthinkable names, but Binta knew of no woman in the neighbourhood called ‘Lizard’.

The man’s bearing and the sumptuous clothes he wore led Binta to think that the woman about to give birth to a son must be very important and rich. She, therefore, prepared everything necessary for the event, asked her neighbouring friends to take care of her daughter, and followed the stranger.

After they had gone some distance, Binta asked the man to tell her about Tafaka. “I swear I don’t remember meeting a woman by that name,” she told him. But the young man answered her: “The fact that you do not remember her does not matter much. You will soon see her in person.”

They walked for several hours in silence until, having arrived at a place full of wild felines, the young man ordered Binda to close her eyes and keep them that way until further notice. The woman obeyed and allowed herself to be led by the hand.

“Now you can open them again,” the man suddenly told her. Binda opened her eyes wide and found herself in a very large, rich, and tastefully decorated tent. Lying on a mat was a beautiful young woman about to give birth to a child.

“Don’t you recognise me?” the young woman asked her. “I don’t remember ever seeing you,” replied Binta. “I am Tafaka”, replied the girl, “the pregnant lizard you saw one day on a boulder as you returned from grazing with your companions. You should remember how your words to me on that occasion were a source of amusement to you and your friends.”  Binta did not open her mouth; she merely nodded her head, though she could hardly believe her eyes.

The girl continued: “No, I wasn’t offended all that much, also because I know that you, human beings, always tend to make remarks, sometimes not very flattering, about everything you see, also giving the impression that you are unaware that nature has generated many other creatures than you. Now, however, for you, it is just a matter of keeping your promise to me. Fear not: no harm shall come to you. Do your duty and you will be generously rewarded. Then, you can become the ambassador of the Ginn to the humans.”

When she had finished her speech, the girl went into labour pains and Binta hastened to assist her at that delicate moment. Binta stayed with Tafaka for forty days and throughout that time took care of the young mother. Not only was she treated with care, but she was also introduced to the secrets of plants, thus learning all the mysterious practices that enable the healing of diseases that affect human beings. Eventually, after showering her with precious gifts, the man blindfolded her and led her back to the world of humans.

Back home, a crowd of curious people rushed to her tent. They all wanted to know what had happened to her during her long absence from the village and how she had obtained all those possessions she was now showing off. The woman recounted her adventure in detail to an intrigued and amazed audience.

Soon her fame spread throughout the region, so much so that even among the more distant tribes there was nothing but talk of her and her fabulous wealth.

A few days later, Binta received a visit from a man who had come from far away. He was good-looking and had a noble bearing.

“I have come to you to bring you a very delicate problem”, the stranger told her. “I am told that you know innermost secrets, that you can read the future and see things far away. Tell me where I could meet a woman worthy of me and my ambitions… a woman, in short, who has only good qualities. So far, despite my long searches, I have found nothing but women full of flaws.” Binta asked him to give her a night to reflect and invited him to return the next day.

The next morning the man was back at her place, dressed like a prince; he truly looked like an apparition from above, so much so that Binta judged him the most handsome man in the world. “I have found the woman for you”, Binta told him, “but before she accepts your hand, she wants to test you, to know your courage. No doubt you are beautiful, but beauty is not enough to make a real man. Come back to me at sunset time and you will find her here.”

That evening the man arrived on time and outside Binta’s door he found a woman as enchanting as a fairy. In front of such beauty, he burst into tears: they were tears of joy and love. The woman said to him: “Quickly, accompany me to my house so that I can introduce you to my family”. He agreed and the two set off on a night of a full moon.

On the way, they were attacked by four furious lions. The woman threw herself into the man’s arms, shouting for him to draw his sabre to defend her, but the man, in a voice that betrayed not the slightest fear, replied that he used his tabuka for more serious occasions, certainly not against four harmless mangy cats.

In the face of such confidence and courage, the woman turned and issued a command to the lions who immediately turned into wild cats and came up to her to be petted.

Shortly afterwards, a monstrous being, deformed and with eyes of fire appeared. Fearless, the man advanced towards him, ready to challenge him. But when he was about to seize it, it disappeared and, in its place, only the shadow of a moonlit acacia tree could be seen.

Without further incident, the couple arrived at a place infested with wild felines. Then, as if by magic, the man, again accompanied by the beautiful woman, found himself in an encampment where their arrival was greeted with great rejoicing.

Their marriage was celebrated immediately in the presence of Binta. The celebrations continued for many days and nights in the world of men, to the sound of Tuareg drums and violins. For this was still a blessed era, in which men and spirits lived together.

The man and the woman lived happily and contentedly for many years and gave rise to a long lineage. It is they who are the ancestors of those beautiful women whom one still meets today in the Air Massif and who resemble fairies, with their long black hair like raven’s wings. (A Legend from Algeria)

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