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Berger’s Burg: African folktales teach kids valuable lessons

February is Black History Month, a time for the media (including your humble columnist) to recount the accomplishments of many African-American icons who are prominent in black history. This year, Gloria — forever a kindergarten teacher — convinced me to write something for children. So, kids, I present to you two folktales from Zaire, a country in Africa. Pay attention because I will quiz you later.

Do you know why birds stick their bills up in the air when drinking water?

“Once there was a great drought, and the birds couldn’t find water anywhere. As a result, everybody was crying, including the baby chicks. One day the king of birds, the Eagle, called all the birds for a great gathering.

“ ‘Listen,’ he said. ‘We now have a great drought. There is no water anywhere. What we will do is to fly all over the world and hunt for a place where we can find water. When someone finds water, he can come back and tell us.’

“The birds began to scatter in all directions. At midnight, one bird came back and reported that she had found water very far away. It was water left over in a tree stump. The next morning, all the birds flew to that place and began drinking.

“Suddenly, a rotten tree branch fell from a nearby tree and knocked the eagle down, breaking a leg. The birds were very sad. They carried the eagle back to his nest, and for two weeks no one would go to drink water because the king was sick.

“At the end of two weeks, the king got well. The birds flew back to the area to drink the water. But just as soon as they started drinking, the king stopped them. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘the last time we drank water together, I had an accident. I am going to make a rule. Every bird who drinks water should, after every sip, look up to the sky to see if another piece of rotten wood is falling. If so, he can warn everyone and they can get away.’

“The birds then began drinking again. Each one would drink a little and then look up in the sky. He drank a little more and then looked up to the sky again. And, that is why, to this very day, every time a bird drinks a little, he will look up to the sky to check if a piece of rotten wood is falling on him.”

Now children, pay attention to another story from Zaire.

“One day, many years ago, several animals agreed to hunt together in the forest. They set up a hunting camp close to a deep well. After hunting that first day, they became thirsty, (just like the birds in the first story).

“ ‘Mooloko, you are both swift and clever,’ said the rhinoceros. ‘Go and bring us some water from the well.’ Mooloko, the small antelope, set off to get the water. Meanwhile, Mo, a small snail, had fallen into the well.

“ ‘If someone comes to draw water, he may bring me up with it, drink me, and my life will be lost,’ Mo thought to himself. ‘I must frighten everyone who comes to draw water.’

“When Mooloko came to draw water, he heard a strange song, a song that echoed from the walls of the well: ‘Beware all those who would drink from this well. As for those who serve others, your death I foretell.’

“Mooloko, fearing for his life, ran to the other animals. ‘I cannot bring you water,’ he said. ‘There is something strange and dangerous about that well. I heard a terrible song coming from beneath the water.’ All the animals laughed at him.

‘You have no courage, Mooloko,’ they said. ‘We shall send Nknoi, the leopard. He is strong and not afraid of anything.’ Nknoi went to get water. But as he came close to the well, he heard a strange song echoing from the walls of the well: ‘Nknoi, Nknoi, why should you die? Let those who sent you come here and try!’

“Nknoi, afraid, ran back to his friends. ‘Mooloko was right,’ he said. ‘There is something dangerous about that well. I too heard a voice beneath the water.’

“ ‘Well,’ said the animals, ‘if the leopard is afraid, we shall ask Enri, the elephant. He is strong enough to frighten that voice in the well.’

“As Enri entered the clearing, he could hear the voice echoing from the walls of the well: ‘Beware! Beware! Seek not your water here. The one who does another’s work — has everything to fear.’

“Enri did not stay to hear any more. He ran crashing through the brush to the place where his friends were waiting. ‘Mooloko and Nknoi were right,’ he bellowed. ‘There was a voice in the well. Someone else will have to draw the water.’

“ ‘Then I shall go,’ volunteered Luka, the Lion. ‘It is easy to see why I have become the king of beasts. No voice from a well can keep me from the water we need.’ And off he went to the well. But Luka fared no better than the others, for he too heard the strange voice from the well and was afraid.

“For two weeks the animals went without water, since none dared to face the strange creature in the well. Finally, Nkulu, the wife of the tortoise, decided that she would fetch the water.

“How the rest of the hunting party laughed! ‘When such fierce, strong animals as the lion and the leopard cannot bring water from that dangerous well, what makes you think that you can do it?’ they asked. Nkulu heard them laughing, but still set off toward the well.

“As she came close to the well, she could hear that strange voice: ‘Nkulu, Nkulu, stay far, far away. Or those who sent you will mourn you today.’ But Nkulu continued to crawl along until she came to the very edge of the well. ‘I will drop down into the well and see this creature who sings,’ she said.

“As she sank lower and lower, the voice became louder and stronger, but still Nkulu would not leave. At last, when she reached the bottom of the well, she found that the singer, that dangerous creature — was only Mo, the snail.

‘Mo,’ she said. ‘So you are the one who has frightened the antelope and the leopard and the elephant and the lion. And you are the one who has kept us from the water we need. I shall take you with me so that they all can see what a dreadfully dangerous creature you are!’

“Picking Mo up in her mouth, Nkulu swam to the top of the well. Step by step, she crawled back along the path to where the rest of the animals waited. She dropped Mo at the feet of the lion. ‘This,’ she said, ‘is the one who drove us from the well — this single singing snail. Come now, let us drink.’ And, praising the will and wit of Nkulu, the animals hastened to the wall to quench their thirst.

“And that is how this brave turtle saved the wild animals of Africa from dying from lack of water.”

Now the quiz. Children, explain why water is so important to the birds, to the other animals, and to you.

Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 140.

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