Stories

African American Ancestral Libation

The story below is extracted from the religious poetry or Odu Ifa of the West African Yoruba people. It was published in a series of interviews with Baba Wande Abimbola, entitled Ifa will Mend our Broken World: Thoughts on Yoruba Religion and Culture in Africa and the Diaspora.

In traditional African villages, when someone wants to build a house, they don’t go to the bank for a loan, they go to their neighbors and ask for assistance. So one day, Mr. ByForce (who unlike most of his neighbors tends to do everything by force) stopped by Mrs. Grasshopper’s farm and asked her if she would help him build his house. Mrs. Grasshopper replied, “Oh yes. But please don’t invite Mrs. Hen. Whenever she comes around she just eats us grasshoppers all up, babies and all.”

“Don’t worry,” ByForce answered. “Who needs that old hen anyway.” Mr. ByForce then left grasshopper and went directly to Mrs. Hen to ask her if she would help build his house.

Mrs. Hen said, “Oh of course, but do not ask Mr. Wolf. When ever he shows up, he just eats us all.” By Force of course assures her that he will not ask Wolf, right before going directly to recruit Wolf as well.

And the pattern continues. Wolf asks ByForce not to inivite dog. Dog asks ByForce not to invite Hyena. Hyena asks ByForce not to invite hunter. Hunter asks ByForce not to invite Viper. Viper asks ByForce not to invite Walking stick. Walking Stick asks ByForce not to invite Fire. Fire asks ByForce not to invite Rain. Rain asks byForce not to invite Drought. And ByForce of course invited them all. He invited all of the enemies to help him build his house. And he also invited Dew Drops, who, unlike the others, had no enemies.

When everyone arrived at the worksite, Mr. ByForce sat each neighbor next to his or her natural enemy while giving them instructions. So the tension in the group was very high, but they set about doing the work as they promised anyway. At lunchtime, however, instead of providing food for the workers as customary and expected, Mr. ByForce just left to run some errands. At that point all of the starving enemies, started tearing each other apart until Dew Drops intervened to cool the situation down. As the neighbors came to their senses, those who were still alive were so badly wounded that they had had to help each other to even stand up.

So then they made a pact to create balance and what we would call “sustainability” among themselves. So nowadays when Hen is hungry, she doesn’t eat all of the grasshoppers she can find. She only eats what she absolutely needs and leaves the rest. Similarly for wolf and hen, and all of the rest of the neighbors. This story, which is usually recited in the lyrical poetry of the Yoruba language, ends with an observation that seems also like a meditative prayer:

Doing things by force has ruined the world of today
Dew drops, come and make repairs 
Dew drops, come and make amendment. 
Don’t you see how doing things by 
        force has spoilt the world of today…? 
Dew drops, come and make repairs.

A children’s story in four chapters:

Chapter 1 of the Paper Magic Story
Chapter 2 of the Paper Magic Story
Chapter 3 of the Paper Magic Story
Chapter 4 of the Paper Magic Story
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