Botswana, October 6, 2013, 6:50:52 PM.
Perhaps the story I am about to tell is but a metaphor, a legend about how we came to have day and night, about how our world alternates between daylight and darkness. After all we humans have a penchant for story-telling, for filling in the gaps between the known and the unknown. It’s in our DNA. We have to have explanations, reasons for everything – we have to create a feeling of comfort, of harmony, for the way we see things and how we want to believe our World fits together.
The people of Africa’s Kalahari Desert are no different.
I write this story in Botswana. Botswana is consumed by the Kalahari Desert. For the most part, it is the Kalahari Desert. But in Botswana’s northwest corner is the Okavango Delta, a gigantic alluvial fan, a flood plain, an oasis, fed by the waters of the Angolan mountains to the North. With camera and pen in hand, I am on safari with Natural Habitat Adventures to explore, to dig deeper into the lessons to be gained from our Creator’s original textbook, Nature’s amazing encyclopedia.
About the time the Abrahamic tribes in the deserts of the Negev were working out their creation stories about how our World came to be, the people of the Kalahari were doing the same. But, their God was not Yahweh; their God was Modimo. Modimo created everything and had the ultimate power over life and death of all of creation. However, Modimo did not deal directly with the people; that responsibility was delegated to the Ancestors, Modimo’s “executive officers,” Modimo’s spiritual cadre of dead grandparents, who carried out His bidding. The Ancestors, granted supernatural powers to alter life on earth, were consulted by the people for guidance in ritual and prayer.
In those ancient times, the earth was bathed in grey, a pale luminous twilight that never varied. There was neither day nor night. A rooster crowed when it was time to get up and chickens went to roost when it was time to sleep.
Kgosi Thebe was then the King of the Kalahari; but he was aging and he was worried. Despite his prayers and sacrifices to the Ancestors, he and his Queen Pula had not been blessed with an heir for his throne. Then, as he was about to give up hope, the sky rumbled. He set his sacrificial lamb free; and from behind the bushes an Ancestor’s voice proclaimed that he and his Queen would be blessed with child.
When Queen Pula presented the King with twin daughters that autumn, the King was shocked. No woman had ever ruled the kingdom and equally as devastating, twins were considered bad luck – the custom was that one of the twins had to be killed. However, the Queen’s prayers were answered and as one of her daughters was about to be put to death, an Ancestor’s voice warned that the babies should not be touched; that they were a “double blessing,” born into the kingdom to bring about many changes.
The Ancestors counseled the King and Queen that the darker-skinned baby was to be named “Lefifi” – daughter of darkness – and the lighter-skinned baby was to be named “Lesedi” – daughter of light.
Though the Ancestors provided guidance, the King and his people were confused. No one knew what either light or darkness was. And neither the King nor his advisors could decide which daughter would be the heir to his throne. Several contests were arranged, but each daughter was the other’s match and neither was the winner. Thus, each daughter was crowned Queen, and Lefifi was to rule during the hunting and breeding season and Lesedi during the plowing and harvesting season. However, the daughters became competitive, jealous, and fought with each other. The rulers’ advisor, the tribe’s “traditional doctor,” prayed to the Ancestors, who confirmed more changes were coming.
Lesedi was to become queen of the day, ruling from the time the first rooster crows until the chickens roost; Lefifi was to be queen of the night, ruling from the time the chickens roost until the first rooster crows. The daughters were to exchange the royal coat, a leopard skin, at the end of each reign, and the exchange times were to be known as sunrise and sunset. Ancestors came to guide the daughters to their new homes, meeting them at the Motse-Wa-Badimo, a rainbow that arched from the eastern to the western horizon.
Lesedi took up her residence in the eastern sky, and an Ancestor tapped a stone in her crown, which became the sun, the “morning star.” Birds chirped, people danced. All were amazed at the brilliance of the morning star, lighting up the whole sky, sparkling on the rivers and streams. People savored the warmth of the sun. Crops grew faster than ever; the fields had never been as productive.
When the chickens went to roost, Lesedi handed the leopard skin to Lefifi, who took it and soared into the sky on her eagle owl. An Ancestor had also touched a stone in her crown, calling it the “evening star,” and millions of stars appeared from her garb, twinkling across the now-dark heavens. The winds became cool, the crickets began their night songs, and parents told their children bedtime stories as they settled down to rest.
At most sunrises and sunsets, the exchange of the leopard skin was peaceful, and the sky remained a pale blue. Sometimes the sister queens decided to celebrate, and sky glowed, from pastels to deep splashes of red and orange and blue. Other times the sisters argued and their voices “thundered,” as they responded to each other with darts of lightening. Often, during their quarrels, the sky remained dark and grey until they settled their differences. When the Ancestors stepped in to stop their bickering, a rainbow arched across the sky. The people were joyous. The kingdom was at peace.
Jonathan Gottschall wrote a fascinating book, The Storytelling Animal. Our brains are vulnerable to stories. In fact, we’re addicted to stories. They’re the metaphors we live by, the mental pictures by which we visualize who we are, where we come from, where we belong, what makes things tick. Stories help us mentally solve problems. When we can’t understand, we create stories to provide explanations. Even our dreams are problem-solving stories. Stories are our virtual realities.
Sacred stories, like the Kalahari story about Lesedi and Lefifi, are prevalent in all societies. Gottschall writes:
“Throughout the history of our species, sacred fiction has dominated human existence like nothing else. Religion is the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over our minds. The heroes of sacred fiction do not respect the barrier between the pretend and the real. They swarm through the real world, exerting massive influence.”
Yes, stories give meaning to our existence, filling the vacuum of the unknown, teaching us much of what we know about our world. But we suffer when, within our belief systems, stories cement themselves as irrefutable historical facts rather than remaining as valuable, insightful metaphors.
Most of us will have little trouble with the sacred story of Lesedi and Lefifi, casting it as an ancient legend about the origin of night and day. But what about our sacred stories, created from the eschatology of the Negev desert wanderers, later shaped and hewn by the influences of the early Greek philosophies? Are our sacred stories illuminating metaphors or irrefutable historical facts?
As we ponder these thoughts. Remember. There I was. In Botswana on the sands of the Okavango Delta, with the brilliant red and orange light of Lesedi’s reign fading below the horizon as the dark blue of Lefifi’s reign rose, dominating the clear, cooling evening sky. It was sunset – time for the leopard skin to be exchanged. And at that precious moment, a leopard raised itself from the crest of a barren tree, stretched as only a cat could do, and sauntered casually down the tree’s trunk, into the darkening jungle. Fortunately, at that breathless moment I had my camera.
Thanks Lesedi and Lefifi from making such a peaceful exchange on this wondrous night.
I love stories.
This story of Lesedi and Lefifi is based on the writings of Bontekanye Botumile, from Maun, Botswana. Her work is titled, The Two Kingdoms. It is one of several legends from the Kalahari worth reading. Her additional books include Patterns in the Sky, The Seed Children and Tlou – The Elephant Story. The publisher is Thari-E-Ntsho.
This entry was posted on Saturday, October 12th, 2013 at 6:22 pm. It is filed under Thought and tagged with belief, Botswana, creation, day, fable, God, Kilihari, legend, leopard, metaphor, night, Okavongo Delta, religion, story. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.