Tsoma and the Mbada
a short story excerpted from
a collection of short fiction by John Bascom
The native African people of Zimbabwe belong to a host of age-old tribes including Shona, Tonga, Batoka, Ndebele, and Venda. Each has its own spiritual and cultural traditions, and its own language.
The safari district where we hunted was named for and defined on its western edge by the Chewore River. Bounded on the north by the Zambezi River, to the east by the M'Kunga, and on the south by the Zambezi Valley Great Escarpment wall, it was completely uninhabited. But the surrounding tribal areas were dotted with tiny subsistence villages of a few thatch-roofed, mud-walled huts each. There were no paved roads, motorized vehicles, electricity, or pure water other than what could be wrung from the seeps and elephant digs in the dry rivers. Each village might have a band of a few goats and a small garden. The area is unsuitable for large-scale farming or cattle. Hunting by the native people is generally not allowed and subject to stiff legal penalties, although the meat from hunters' trophies is often donated to the villagers. Unemployment in Zimbabwe as a whole exceeds 80 percent, much higher in these rural areas. The life expectancy of a black Zimbabwean man is thirty-six years; longer-lived women can expect to survive to an advanced age of thirty-nine. Mortality comes in the form of malaria mosquitoes, tsetse-borne sleeping sickness, AIDS, poisonous snakes, Nile crocs, ubiquitous lions, and assorted predators, all augmented by malnutrition and an almost complete lack of health care.
Yet despite all hardships and odds, these tribes and their villages have survived for countless thousands of years. Africa is the undisputed birthplace of humanity. Modern Homo sapiens first graced the Earth there more than a hundred thousand years ago. The predecessors of modern man—”Lucy” and her kind who spent equal time in trees and on solid ground—stalked the African bush more than two million years ago. It is safe to say every human alive today, whether their roots be European, Asian, Native American, or otherwise, descends directly from the African forerunners of these Zimbabwean villagers.
Our field and camp staffs came largely from the Shona villages of the adjacent Dande South tribal area. The strength and resilience of these people are inspiring. Their practical wisdom and fascinating customs were fortifying. While reading, writing, and mastery of English are rare among these villagers, still they have rich oral traditions that serve to teach moral and life lessons more than to simply entertain. Our number-two tracker, Favor, was a young, fit, and cheerful man from such a Dande South Shona village. His father having been imprisoned for choosing the losing side in one of Zimbabwe's many civil conflicts, Favor was taken in as a child and educated by Christian missionaries. At their hand he learned passable English. One evening after we had made a kill and were waiting for the bush-lorry to be brought in, he used that skill to share with us a Shona tale about a leopard, called “mbada,” and a bushbuck known in the local language as “tsoma.” Given all of mankind's ancestral link to these people, the legend is as much everyone's as it is that of the Shonas. This is the story.
he leopard had to work long and hard to catch his food. He constantly chased and occasionally caught impala, warthog piglets, or even the odd young baboon. He was quite good at it and his kills of this game kept him full and fit. But these animals were not his favorite.
No, his favorite meal was the tender, delicately flavored meat of the bushbuck. But the bushbuck was quick, clever, and elusive. And when cornered, the small, elegant tsoma, unlike other antelope of the Chewore, would not hesitate to stand his ground and defend himself with his graceful, sharp horns. To hunt the bushbuck was often difficult, fruitless, and dangerous. And it distracted from his success on the easier prey. Yet he constantly tried. Finally, tired, discouraged, and losing weight, the mbada decided to make a deal with the bushbuck.
“Little Tsoma,” the leopard called out. “Why should I waste my time and energy chasing you, and you waste yours eluding me? Can we not call a truce and be friends?”
“If I agreed to such a truce,” said the bushbuck, “how could I know you would not attack me when my guard was relaxed?”
“We will strike a sacred oath before God,” the leopard said. “Whoever shall break the truce, all their sons shall die. God will see that it is so. Neither of us could accept such a terrible thing. Our truce will therefore endure.”
The bushbuck agreed. He spent his days leisurely eating grass and leaves. He had no need to be constantly alert nor to flee the mbada. The leopard for his part hunted the easier prey and lounged in the trees for much of the day and night. After a while, both became lazy and fat from lack of exertion.
One day the leopard was napping on a limb of a baobab tree just above the bushbuck sleeping below at the base of the trunk. The leopard began to think about how tasty bushbuck meat was. “I have no sons,” the leopard thought to himself, “only daughters. And I am too old to have more children. There would be no consequence in breaking the oath between us.” He decided to pounce upon and eat the resting bushbuck.
But the leopard had grown weak and sluggish from little activity. He stood up and sprang at the bushbuck too slowly. The tsoma caught the motion from the corner of his eye in time to swiftly lift his head. The leopard fell directly onto the raised long, sharp horns, completely impaling himself.
“Mbada,” the bushbuck said, “why did you break our bond? Will not your sons now die?”
“I have no sons, Tsoma,” said the dying leopard, “and would have no more. So the prophecy would never have been fulfilled. But now you have killed me.”
“No,” said the bushbuck. “It is your father who killed you. You see, he made a similar bond with my father. And your father broke it by killing mine. Now the prophecy is completed with your death. My role was never to kill you, but only to assist you in fulfilling the destiny put upon you by your father. It has long been the duty of all bushbucks to help others fulfill their destinies.”
With that the leopard died, and the bushbuck lived to a ripe old age, siring many sons and daughters.