Organic mixed media artwork by Kay Sexton
A mzungu who tries to learn more than the handful of simple Swahili words required for basic everyday communication—especially those for hello and goodbye and toilet—is often amused to find ziwa means both lake and breast. Sometimes a mzungu I am driving on safari will say to me, Yusufu, how can it be that you Tanzanians and your Kenyan brothers use the same word to mean these very different things? I might answer, It is because in Swahili some of our nouns are classified according to shape, so we consider the roundness common to many lakes and most breasts to be important.
That is the answer I give to the sort of mzungu who is amused by us Africans and who therefore wishes to receive an amusing answer.
If the mzungu is a more thoughtful sort of person, I give a different answer. I say both the lake and the breast give life. When I am driving on safari, I take care to show to every mzungu peaceful scenes of zebras and wildebeests drinking from lakes or from small pools of water, as the child drinks from the breast. The more thoughtful sort of mzungu seems to be touched by this answer rather than amused.
In fact, I have no certainty what the true answer may be. In my village there is a family whose members would give a third answer if asked, though my village lies far from where the rich mzungus like to go on safari, therefore I believe no one in the family has ever spoken to a mzungu. This family's story about why ziwa means both lake and breast comes from the old times. The story tells of an ancestor who had been given the fine name of Praise God but who did not deserve such a fine name.
Praise God was a fisherman, living along the shore of what would come to be known as Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria is not perfectly round, and it does not exactly resemble a breast. Yet I know that seen from far above, by a bird or from an airplane in which the rich mzungus travel, Lake Victoria communicates the idea of roundness.
But the shape of Lake Victoria has no bearing upon the story Praise God's descendants tell. Praise God was a fine fisherman who loved only one thing more than he loved fishing: women. He loved women too much, which is to say he did not exclusively love his wife. This is why I say he did not deserve the fine name of Praise God.
Because he spent much time with women other than his wife, Praise God needed often to draw upon the restorative powers of the protein supplied by the fish he had caught. For this reason it was fortunate he was a fine fisherman. A poor fisherman in the habit of eating as much of his own catch as Praise God did would not have succeeded in feeding his family. Such a poor fisherman might have grown fat, but he would not have been happy, because for happiness one requires a family.
While Praise God enjoyed the excellent good fortune of being a skilled fisherman and most pleasing to women, the day would come when he would suffer from misfortune. This was to be expected because of his wicked behavior, for we know God punishes the wicked.
Yet it was not God who punished the fisherman. His punisher was a lesser god. The lesser gods also have powers of which mortals must beware. And Praise God finally ran afoul of the goddess of the lake, known to the local people as Naluba.
For a number of years Naluba observed without approval his harvesting of enormous quantities of fishes. Not only did this do harm to the lake; inasmuch as Praise God's need to catch great quantities of fishes was motivated by his appetite for pleasure, his fishing involved immorality. Naluba asked herself if she ought to punish him.
The answer to her question came with the news that Praise God had seduced Naluba's own daughter, Erewe, after observing her at her bath. Erewe had delivered the news herself. She told her mother she loved Praise God and wished to become his wife. She hoped her mother would eliminate his mortal wife so her wish might come true.
Naluba recognized she would be unable to bear the humiliation of such a match in front of the other gods. She thought first to berate and punish Erewe. But then she understood her daughter was only a child. The fault was entirely Praise God's, therefore the punishment ought also to be all his. She needed only to decide upon how to deliver it, and it seemed to Naluba his proclivities might provide an way.
The goddess had learned from Erewe that she intended to meet Praise God again the next morning. The girl had been so excited, and Naluba so convincing in her pretense of joy on her daughter's behalf, she had even revealed the exact spot of the assignation. It was to take place early in the morning.
But Naluba ensured her daughter would oversleep by acquiring a potion from the most famous witch among the local people. Naluba had offered a handsome price to the old crone. However, when the goddess explained the reason for her need, the witch said she was aware of Praise God's actions. She believed those actions ought to cease, therefore she insisted Naluba accept the potion for free.
It was, as you will have surmised, the goddess Naluba herself who kept the assignation.
No one could have mistaken Naluba's body for that of her daughter. But, of course, Praise God had no special interest in seeing Erewe. The story is an old one, unsurprising if you are familiar with the ways of many of my sex, who shame me: Praise God had suggested the girl might become his wife only so he might lie with her. His plan that morning may have been to tempt her further, by imagining with her the details of a wedding he knew would never happen. Or he may have intended to have his way with her once more, and then to give false reasons to explain why their marriage could not be. We will never know.
No matter what thoughts occupied the fisherman's mind as he made his approach across the lake toward the goddess, we can be certain the closer he drew, the more his thoughts turned to the satisfaction of his unholy lust. For Erewe was pretty, indeed. She radiated the joy she must have felt, having experienced the first bloom of womanhood, as well as the pleasures peculiar to womanhood, introduced to her by the fisherman one day earlier.
Yet Erewe was also slender, and her breasts were small. She was as much girl as woman, whereas her mother was fully a woman. Naluba's breasts hung from her chest with the weight of the fruits of the baobab tree as they dangle from their branches, irresistible to the elephant. One must imagine Praise God thought no more of the daughter once he had glimpsed the mother.
Naluba made as if preoccupied with her bath. She made as if she had not seen the fisherman even after he stopped his paddling, having drawn within an arm's length of her.
Good day, Madam, he said.
He addressed her in the voice that had served as one of the keys to his success in unlocking the secrets of so many women. His voice communicated strength, delicately counterbalanced by tenderness.
Madam, I see there is more of you than two hands can wash. May I please lend you my own two hands?
The goddess feigned surprise. Then she favored the fisherman with a smile as she rested her hands upon her breasts.
I have made the mistake of washing everywhere but here, she said. She raised her hands. Now I find these hands are exhausted and can scrub no more, she said. For this reason I would be grateful for your assistance, fisherman.
Praise God dipped his paddle in the lake. He made one gentle stroke and moved closer. He placed one hand on each breast.
Madam, he said. He paused, observing the goddess had shut her eyes in response to his touch. Madam, the elephant savors the fruit of the baobab tree. Yet he achieves his greatest satisfaction by burrowing deep inside the trunk, for that is where the baobab stores the water that gives the elephant life. Will you give life to this humble fisherman, Madam?
Naluba's eyelids fluttered open. Praise God saw her vision had lost its focus. She said, Do you dishonor me by suggesting these fruits are like thorns, adhering to my trunk only as disagreeable obstacles, meant to guard the entrance?
Madam, the fisherman said, I am not a giraffe, blessed with a tongue impervious to the thorns of the acacia. The proof that I intend no dishonor to your fruits is I am pleased to rest my soft tongue upon them, and even to reduce myself to a condition of childish trust by taking them inside my mouth, should their breadth permit. For my tongue and mouth are moist and therefore well suited to provide the washing you had requested for your fruits.
The eagerness of the fisherman to taste Naluba's fruits was such, he had come close to dispensing with his request for permission. But as a consequence of his lengthy experience of seduction, he had come to appreciate the benefits of patience. Now, as he pressed forward with his massage of the goddess's fruits, he discerned a quickening of her breath, implying it was she who had begun to lose patience.
What say you, Madam? he asked.
She answered simultaneously with a word—Yes!—and a gesture, pulling his head forward upon her left breast so swiftly, he was able to open wide his mouth only after contact had been made.
He suckled greedily. As he did so, he thought although soon he must burrow deep inside the trunk, her breast had already given him life. For as the goddess of the lake, Naluba drew her sustenance from a diet even more rich in fish than the diet of the master fisherman. Her breast tasted of the fish Praise God loved, of swimming creatures so abundant, and in it he divined the promise of a new life, in which permanent attachment to her breast might free him from the necessity to toil in order to survive.
In his passion, Praise God did not notice the goddess had dragged him from his canoe. Nor did he take notice of her gradual descent into deeper water. Because Naluba was the goddess of the lake, she had a way to keep her feet planted on the ground while they followed the contour of the lake bottom.
When I drive the rich mzungus to Lake Victoria, they ask whether the lake is deep. I answer that many lakes are deeper and its greatest depth is little more than 80 meters. However, Praise God's attempt to seduce the goddess of the lake happened in the old times. The elders among the local people report in the old times the greatest depth was greater by a factor of ten or twenty. The goddess of the lake was able to breathe at such a depth, but Praise God was a mortal man.
Once Naluba had attained a depth of 800 or 1,600 meters, she spoke to Praise God. She had a way to speak in the water so her words might be clearly heard, as if spoken on dry land. She said, Now it is time for you to burrow deep inside my trunk, Tembo.
She used the word tembo, elephant, to mock him. For the elephant is strong, but at such a depth beneath the surface of the lake, Praise God had no strength. He removed his lips from her breast. Then, seeing his predicament, he took it in his mouth again. But her breast could not supply oxygen.
Naluba emerged from the lake with the fisherman still attached to her breast. She did so because she wished the local people to witness the consequences of deceiving her daughter. She wished for them to tremble in awe of the goddess of the lake.
She walked with the proud strides of a god to the dwelling the fisherman had shared with his wife and children. Only at the entrance to the dwelling did she detach him from her breast. She declared to the wife that since neither she nor her children had been at fault, she would make certain they would not fall into destitution.
The local people who had followed the goddess to Praise God's former dwelling observed his initially passionate and finally desperate clinging to her breast had produced a change in her anatomy. The nipple of her breast was seen to be surrounded by a small ring of flesh colored differently from the adjacent skin. The local people judged the appearance so attractive, they encouraged all mortal women to cultivate the feature.
But one person, prominent among the local people, did not judge the appearance of the new feature to be attractive. Indeed, this person saw not a single pleasing thing in Naluba's display. I speak of the man who had become chief of all the local tribes, a man so revered, I must not pronounce his name.
The chief had earned reverence in battle, through ferocious defense of the local tribes from assaults by their enemies. But he was an equally ferocious enemy of lustful behavior. He was known to beat his own male sexual organ because it dared to express unclean desires. Most often he used his bare hand, but at other times he used a club. It is said on one occasion he used the thorny branch of an acacia.
The great chief ordained that henceforth the female breast ought to be called ziwa, as the lake was called. Thus, any man who might feel an urge to suckle a breast would think of Praise God and the fate to which his lust for the breast had driven him.
It is not often I tell the story of Praise God to a mzungu. Even the most well-meaning among them cannot resist asking a question that gives me embarrassment. They ask if the great chief's decree is effective. They inquire whether I have success when I apply the decree with the purpose of conquering my own lustful urges.
When a mzungu asks this question, I bring the Land Cruiser to a stop. I become very still and quiet. I crane my neck to stare out the window. After a long pause, I whisper that far away in the distance I see a lion. I ask if the mzungu can see the lion, too.