Mickias Musiyiwa

The Significance of Myths and Legends in Children’s Literature
in Contemporary Zimbabwe


This paper interrogates the relevance of myths and legends in children’s literature in contemporary Zimbabwe. Specific reference is made to the Shona people’s creation and aetiological myths and the legends of Nehanda, Chaminuka and Nehoreka. Like most countries the world over, Zimbabwe is rich in folklore, some of which like myths, legends, folktales, music, dance and songs have constituted children’s entertainment since time immemorial. While in modern times, children still listen to orally rendered legendary and mythical tales, especially in rural communities, they now also have the opportunity to read the same stories after some have been adapted to children’s literature. The paper proffers the view that as largely stories in history, Zimbabwean myths and legends are still crucial in the content of children’s literature books. Creation and aetiological myths help children come to terms with their society’s physical and social phenomena and indeed its cultural traditions and beliefs. Legends develop children’s historical and cultural consciousness thereby helping them celebrate the historical achievements of their society and also understand societal contradictions that have transpired in the past.  Far more important legends embody the highest moral values of a culture and thus contribute in shaping children’s moral consciousness. Both the fantastic and the supernatural motifs so abound in myths and legends develop children’s imaginative capacities and ability to conceive strange worlds.


When we examine the importance of myths and legends we are not merely interested in how they make children historically and culturally conscious but also how they develop children’s literacy abilities, mental capacities and imagination. Thus the evaluation of the relevance of myths and legends in children’s literature is premised against two issues. The first which recognizes the folkloricity of myths and legends justifies their relevance against the general reason why folk literature is of value in contemporary children’s literature. The second justification drawn from specific reference to Shona myths and legends foregrounds benefits children accrue from reading the selected historicizing and culturalizing stories. It should be pointed out from the outset that such captivating and intriguing stories as myths and legends are not only relevant to children’s literature now. Throughout the course of human history, the stories were at the centre of every society’s worldview. In spite of the advancement and accumulation of scientific knowledge regarding the nature of the universe, the value of these traditional tales to contemporary children’s literature and society at large remains critical and cannot be over-emphasized.  

Brief History and Nature of Children’s Literature in Zimbabwe

There are two categories of children’s literature in Zimbabwe classified on the basis of deliverance. Children’s literature in the form of oral literature is the traditional literature unique to Zimbabwean children. It is drawn from the oral fictive traditions that have been handed down from one generation to the next since the mythical times of Zimbabwean society. This form of literature constitutes what can be referred to as folk literature, an integral component of Zimbabwean folklore. The folklore of the Shona people who constitute over eighty percent of the population of Zimbabwe is the oldest and most popular.

In this paper examples are drawn from this rich and sophisticated folkloric corpus. As verbal art folkloric literature provides children with an array of entertaining literary forms such as ngano (folktales), epics, myths, legends, zvirahwe (riddles), nziyo (songs), traditional games and theatrical art forms which they greatly enjoy. The second category of literature is western (children’s) literature. It was introduced from the 1890s after the colonization of Zimbabwe during the scramble and partition of Africa by the European powers. It should be pointed out that although some parts of Africa acquired or developed writing techniques very early, the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa did not acquire or invent literacy until it was brought by European Christian missionaries and colonial administrators towards and after the colonization of Africa.

It is important to emphasize that the two categories of children’s literature (folk and modern literature) are not exclusive to each other, though they can be independently identified. In terms of creativity written (modern) children’s literature has borrowed both style and content from oral (folk) literature and in some cases traditional folktales have merely been  transposed from the oral to the written form. In Zimbabwe writers of children’s literature like Margaret H. Tredgold, Stephen Alumenda, Miriam Bamhare, Laetitia Gutu, Rewaizvenyu Makina, Roger Harmon, John Kapuya and many others have either retold or transposed folk stories into the written form. Yet others have crafted their works infusing folktale styles with modern literary stylistic modes or fashioned new stories out of folkloric story styles. This literary creative reality has given rise to the fact that we now have stories that remain in the folkloric history of Zimbabwe and others which have been incorporated into modern children’s literature.

The Oracy-Literacy Dialect in Children’s Literature

In order to appreciate the importance of historicizing tales in children’s literature today, we need first of all to understand the dialectical relationship between oral and written literature. The interface between folk literature and modern literature where the latter is inspired by the former in one way or another is a literary phenomenon that was described by literary critics as the oracy-literacy dialect. This emerged after the realization that the rise of modern literature in Africa was largely influenced by folk literature or put differently, written (modern) literature draws most of its material from traditional literature. In some instances in the 1950s when African written literature emerged, modern literature was merely folk literature which assumed a written form. It is this strong leverage of folk literature on modern literature that led Abiola Irele (1981: 46) to argue that any meaningful criticism of African literature must take oral literature as its starting point.

Of course the oracy-litaracy dimension is a global phenomenon particularly in children’s literature. In western cultures a considerable part of modern children’s literature alludes to folk literature especially Greek myths, Aesop’s fables and Biblical stories (Chalottee S. Huck, et.al., 1993: 310). In Germany the Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, have recorded and published folktales that originated from a pre-historic group, the Aryans. Even stories by Hans Christian Andersen, the iconic Danish writer of children’s literature, though a product of the author’s own creation, are written in fanciful style reminiscent of traditional (oral) literary stylistic modes. Just as storytellers in the various cultures of the world did over thousands and thousands of generations, adapting and varying inherited stories to suit their needs, conditions and aesthetic considerations, authors and illustrators today may also alter the original versions, customize their stories for a target audience or transpose a familiar folktale to an unfamiliar setting. Some of the traditional stories Zimbabwean authors have adapted for modern children’s literature are myths and legends, the subject of this paper.

Although Zimbabwe is rich in folklore, it is the largely fictional folktales (ngano) which Zimbabwean authors have largely depended on for their creativity. Written children’s literature in Zimbabwe first emerged in the early years of the first decade of the twentieth century through the efforts of Christian missionaries who introduced formal education as a springboard for their evangelical activities. For instance, Christian missionaries and their African converts at the Dutch Reformed Church mission station of Morgenster produced the first ever written literature for African children in 1903 and 1906.

Ngano (Folktales) (1993) was an anthology of traditional Shona stories while Shumo (Proverbs) (1906) largely contained traditional tales, children’s songs and myths (Kahari, 1990: 9). At the Roman Catholic Chishawasha mission established in 1892 six readers, each for the six year primary school education included Shona folktales. Reader Four is of particular mention because it included the legend of Chaminuka as well as sagas about the migrations of some Shona clans in the pre-colonial period. This can be said to be the first book to adapt a legendary story for children’s literature. While the practice of merely taking oral stories and converting them into the written form still continues even in contemporary times, some writers have abandoned this trend. Although they draw from folk literature, they have retold and adapted to stories to meet the needs and expectations of children in modern times as, for instance, Joseph Jacobs did for British folktales.

The works of Margaret H. Tredgold, Stephen Alumenda, Roger Harmon and many others reflect this phenomenon. In spite of this new trend, the practice left by Christian missionaries and their African teachers of being biased towards folktales still exerts a strong influence on writers for children’s literature today. Consequently, very few Zimbabwean authors of children’s literature have experimented with historicizing tales such as especially legends. It appears the majority of authors seem to believe that children only enjoy the make-believe or fantasy elements in folktales and cannot handle the complexity of myths and legends. It is, however, Margaret H. Tredgold who has of late attempted to adapt legends and myths for children’s literature. In her book, The First Ones: Nehanda and Chaminuka (2001), the author writes children’s stories based on the greatest Shona legends, Nehanda and Chaminuka.

What are Myths and Legends?

Defining the terms ‘myth’ and ‘legend’ is a vexing exercise. Richard Dorson (1976: 16) confirms that these are “slippery terms” which when universally applied trigger all sorts of problems because in many non-western cultures they do not carry the same connotations as in western cultures. In the context of western folklore and mythology, a myth has generally been defined as a “traditional story … handed down within a culture, about gods or ancient heroes” (Bourdillon, 1990: 54). A myth in the context of Shona and generally all black African cultures can be defined as a prosaic or versified traditional narrative handed down from one generation to the next within a particular culture to try and explain the mysteries and phenomena found in that culture.

Like in most cultures of the world, Zimbabwean myths fall into two main classes; creation myths and aetiological stories. Creation myths explain the origins of the universe and humankind. In the African context in general, these stories are about the genesis of the universe, creation of human beings, animals, vegetation, mountains and everything in the physical world. Aetiological myths (why stories) are explanatory narratives which basically attempt to trace the origins of certain socio-cultural and physical traits within a culture (Sunkuli and Miruka, 1990: 1).

These are concerned with the causes of all manner of things from apparent movement of heavenly bodies to the shape of a neighbouring hill or the origin of local custom (Rose, 1959: 12). Since these myths endeavour to explain the natural environment, they are sometimes called nature-myths. A legend is a traditional narrative coming down from the past that recounts the deeds of heroes and heroines, the movements of peoples and also the establishment of customs and traditions in a particular culture (Haviland, 1987: 346). While myths can generally be distinguished from legends by virtue of the fact that they are mythologizing tales and the latter historicizing tales, both are firmly rooted in the cultural history of a society.

Relevance of Myths and Legends as Folk Literature

As products of the human imagination’s grapple with the attempt to explain the human condition, traditional literature creates a framework for children to comprehend and interpret in their capacities real life experiences in its variegated manifestations. We have already emphasized the rootedness of modern literature in traditional literature. As folk literature, myths and legends provide children with a foundation to understand modern literature. Children would easily understand the literary realm of modern literature, its characters, stylistic devices, motifs and other essential literary issues. For instance, the works of Margaret H. Tredgold, Stephen Alumenda, Roger Harmon, Laetitia Gutu, Miriam Bamhare and other Zimbabwean authors drawing as they do from folkloric material are, to children, easy to comprehend. They incorporate such literary devices like personification of common animal characters like Hare, Baboon, Lion, Elephant, Jackal, Tortoise and others which Zimbabwean children are already familiar with from their oral narrative sessions.

The stories, more often than not, also employ humour. Northrop Frye (1964: 48) is right to state that all thematic issues, characters and stories themselves that we encounter in literature are elements of a “one big interlocking family.” Although sometimes not to the same degree as fairy tales and folktales, myths and legends are also scintillating due to their marked narrative power. They intimately engage the listener thus deeply provoking his/her imagination.

With normally a didactic moralistic intent, folk stories often contain or end with poetic justice; whereby the good are rewarded and the evil chastised. This certainly appeals to children’s sense of justice thereby developing their moral judgment and consciousness. Shona legends contain men and women characters of a high moral integrity, which would not budge an inch from their moral ideals. Such cultural heroes act as models from which children can develop positive character. We are now living in a world where juvenile delinquency is worsening. Stories like legends with their usual motifs of greatness inspire children to achieve greater things in life. If we decide to withhold folk literature from children and expunge modern literature of all the components and traces of folk literature, we deprive children the right to imagine about the past (what might have been) or the future (what might be) by compartmentalizing their literature to only the present (what is). It is also their right to know what children of earlier generations, i.e. their parents and ancestors, used to entertain themselves with. This helps them appreciate the similarities and discrepancies between children’s entertainment then and now.

Moreover, children have a cultural right to access and enjoy traditional literature. In as much as it was the right of earlier generations of children, to inherit and alter traditional literature in accordance with their aesthetic desires, it also remains the right of contemporary children to know the same literature in its original or adapted versions. Besides, myths, legends and other stories are a literary heritage which is part of the whole heritage of a culture that children are rightful heirs to. They are also crucial for children’s cross-cultural studies particularly in the modern phenomenon of globalization where nations and communities are investing more in understanding and be tolerant towards one another in the endeavour to promote peace and sustainable development. Again children who compare myths and legends may marvel at the human imagination and see the world in a different way. Comparing myths often raises interesting questions for children about the similarities, connections and migrations of early people (Huck, et.al, 1993: 365-6). What is more, the stories develop children’s imaginative powers.

Beyond purely entertainment, the stories fire children’s imagination. They help children imagine the past, the present and the future. Imagination is critical to the development of children’s psychic perception. Our minds as adults were partly but significantly nurtured in childhood by these stories. The Russian poet, Kornei Chukovsky (1963: 119) observing the role traditional literature plays in fostering children’s imagination noted that: “Fantasy is the most valuable attribute of the human mind and should be diligently nurtured from earliest childhood.” Finally, in many societies myths and legends are an integral component of a country’s national mythology. Consequently, the tales help children engage with the idea of national identity and the shared national culture of their society.

Shona Myths and Legends in Zimbabwean Children’s Literature

Aetiological myths (why stories) have been of much fascination among Zimbabwean authors. This seems to arise from the fact that the stories appeal to children who always want explanations about the puzzling reality around them. Children normally marvel at things their minds find complex and their inquisitive minds long to discover and explain the intriguing reality. For instance, children are fascinated by the appearances and actions of especially wild animals; why are they of different colours, shapes and sizes? Why do some have horns and others without? Why do some stay in water and others on land? Why do some birds fly and others do not? They are equally amazed by themselves as human beings. Why are others boys (males) and others girls (females)? Why do women have breasts and men do not?

Stephen Alumenda’s Yemurai and the Talking Drum and Other Stories (2008) contains two such why stories, “Why the Chameleon Walks Slowly” (pp. 11-13) and “Why Pig has a Blunt Snout” (pp.19-24). In the latter story,  it is said that Pig climbed up a tree to fetch some honey. But when the bees began to sting him, he fell headlong and his nose hit the ground and became flat. Roger Harmon’s Hare, Baboon and their Friends (1987) is another interesting anthology of aetological stories which can fascinate children in their incessant wish to know why certain animals appear and behave the way they do. Some of Harmon’s enchanting aetiological myths are “How the Pig’s Nose was Turned Up,” (pp. 7-8), which is similar to Stephen Alumenda’s described above, “How the Animals Came to Live with Men” (pp.18-20) and “Why the Hippopotamus has Short Hairs (pp. 29-30).

In Harmon’s second story, Lion wanted to kill Dog because he had eaten his children. He started to chase him and Dog ran telling other animals, cows, sheep, goats, chickens and others, that Lion would come and also kill them. Dog told the animals to follow him. They ran and came to a certain home where Dog pleaded with the people of that home to protect them from Lion. When Lion came, the men in that home brought out their spears and killed Lion. Afraid to go back into the wild, the animals lived with man for good. In the last story, Hippopotamus’ hairs became very short because his once long hairs were burnt by fire after he was tricked by Hare to let fire burn his sleeping mat.

The origins of mankind still remains a conundrum to this day like it was through the ages. Nevertheless, throughout history man has endeavoured to explain this puzzle. One of man’s attempts to come to terms with his mysterious genesis has been the composition of stories which now have been passed from one generation to another as ‘true’ stories. While in Judaic, Christian (mostly western) and Islamic societies the “Adam and Eve” creation myth is the traditional story used to explain the origin of humanity, other cultures have their own stories of creation too. In Africa there is a mosaic of such stories owing to the complex ethnicity of the continent.

The Shona people of Zimbabwe have several such cosmogonic myths. One of them called “Mwedzi and his Two Wives,” says:

Mwari (God) made man whom he called Mwedzi (Moon). He then created a woman whom he called Hweva (Morning Star) and gave her to Mwedzi as wife. Mwedzi was going to live with her for only two years after which Hweva would return to heaven. At night in Mwedzi’s hut the two slept together and the following morning Hweva’s belly was hugely swollen. She birth to vegetation of all kind. When the two years were up Mwari called Hweva back to heaven. He then sent another woman, Vhenekeratsvimborume (Evening Star) to be Mwedzi’s wife whom again he was going to live with for two years. After sleeping with Mwedzi, Eveining Star’s belly became swollen and she gave birth to cattle, goats and sheep. The following morning she gave birth to boys and girls. Mwari came and said the two years were finished and Evening Star had to return to heaven, but Mwedzi slept with her and she gave birth to lions, leopards, snakes, scorpions and other dangerous creatures. Mwedzi became king of a large realm.

While the story attempts to explain the origins of human beings, it also quenches children’s thirst on other puzzles such as why marriage started, why women become pregnant and give birth, how death came about and the origin of vegetation, rainfall and wild animals. It also offers explanations to the movement and nature of such celestial bodies as the moon and the stars. Again children are introduced to their culture’s religious beliefs. For a Shona child, Mwari is Musikavanhu (the Creator of human beings) and he lives in the skies, hence he is called Nyadenga (Owner of the sky). Aetiological stories and creation myths therefore purge children’s imaginative turmoil regarding the phenomena that surrounds them.

According to Bruno Bettelheim (1976: 309) such tales help children to cope with their dreams and inner turmoil. Each tale “is a magic mirror which reflects some aspects of our inner world and of the steps required by our evolution from immaturity to maturity.” Myths deal with human relationships and also with the gods. They are relevant to children because they contain action, suspense and basic conflicts.

Shona mythology also contains many epic heroes of national and cultural significance. Legends like Nehanda, Chaminuka, Kaguvi and Murenga, to mention but a few, embody all the ideal attributes of greatness. It is the legend of the heroine, Nehanda, and the hero, Chaminuka, that have been adapted for children’s and adult literature. The reason behind this is due to Nehanda and Chaminuka’s extra-ordinary deeds which by far surpass those of other legends. Solomon Mutswairo’s novels, Mweya waNehanda (The Spirit of Nehanda) (1988) and Chaminuka: Prophet of Zimbabwe (1983) and Yvonne Vera’s Nehanda (1993) are all narratives based on these historical figures.

Cognisant of the relevance of the two legendary figures to Zimbabwean history and culture, Margaret M. Tredgold has adapted stories about Nehanda and Chaminuka for children’s literature. In their oral form, the Chaminuka and Nehanda legends are long and complex narratives, covering as they do the entire pre-colonial history of the Shona people stretching over one and a half millennium years long. Tredgold has however, simplified the sophisticated narratives to make them accessible and penetrable to juvenile minds but still retaining their characteristic pathos. Besides, she accompanies the stories with impressive and eye-catching illustrations on every page of her book. The visuals aid children to imagine and appreciate the historical, social and cultural context in which Nehanda and Chaminuka lived and performed their great deeds. Through these legends Tredgold introduces children to the fascinating rhythm of Shona life characterised by music and dance, drum and percussion, spirit possession, farming and hunting, healing and prophecy, ritual and mysteries.

What does Tredgold tell children about Nehanda? In the story, “The First Nehanda,” she traces the origin of Nehanda to the great Shona kingdom of Munhumutapa (15th to 19th century). However, there are several people who have been called Nehanda during the course of Zimbabwean pre-colonial and colonial history. This is due to the fact that the spirit of the original Nehanda possessed successive mediums in the history of the Shona people. The Nehanda Tredgold presents to children was a daughter of the founder of the Munhumutapa state, Nyatsimba Mutota. The name she was given at birth was Nyamita and she was her father’s favourite child. She was given a district of her own to rule called Handa, hence she became known as Nehanda (meaning ruler of Handa). She was a brilliant ruler who ruled well. When her father died, it is said that after his burial she and her followers on their return to Handa did something very strange. Nehanda struck a huge rock with her staff. The rock opened and she entered with all her followers and disappeared. The rock was later called Gumbi raNehanda (Nehanda’s Rock Cavity) and became a shrine where people conducted religious rituals. However, Tredgold further unfolds the intriguing legend by informing her juvenile readers that in the 1880s another Nehanda emerged whose personal name was Charwe who lived in the Mazoe Valley. Her rise as the medium of Nehanda coincided with the encroachment of Europeans into Zimbabwe - hunters, concession seekers, traders, explorers, Christian missionaries and colonialists who wanted to colonize the land.

In the 1890s when Europeans had just conquered Zimbabwe, Nehanda organized an army of warriors to drive the Europeans out of her country. She was angry at foreigners who were taking her people’s land and livestock and forcing them to work in mines and farms they had just established. The war Nehanda and her people fought became famously known as the First Chumurenga, which means war of liberation. However, eventually Nehanda was captured and executed on April 27, 1898.

The story of Nehanda is important to contemporary children in a number of ways. First, the legend of Nehanda is largely an embodiment of Zimbabwean pre-colonial history. It helps in the development of children’s historical consciousness. Without the narrative of Nehanda Zimbabwean history is dull, incomplete and uncaptivating. Tredgold should be commended for this realization and for her decision to retell the legend in a manner children can comprehend. Second, every nation expects its children to be patriotic and to learn to love their country right from infancy. Children are the leaders of tomorrow, they are the rightful inheritors of their nations. They therefore ought to learn to love their country from a tender age. The heroic story of Nehanda imparts children with an awareness of the distinctiveness of their nation among others in terms of its historical and cultural identity and destiny, thus inculcating patriotism and a spirit of nationalism in them. Through the courage, determination and selflessness epitomized in the person of Nehanda, children are inspired to do the same in order to serve their people and nation’s interests. In the writer’s words Nehanda “is an inspiration to the young, for her determination and her love for her country” (p. 8)

Third, the Nehanda narrative is also an inspiration to the girl child. In many cultures of the world, women have been considered non-achievers, inferior to men and incapable to taking challenging responsibilities in society. A young girl who reads the story of Nehanda is motivated to succeed and to have confidence in herself as a woman. Indeed the powerful leverage of the influence of the Nehanda legend on Zimbabwean society has been evident throughout history. During the Second Chimurenga many young women joined the war of liberation inspired by what Nehanda did.

Today Nehanda remains an icon and cultural hero inspiring both young men and women in their endeavours. Lastly, children become conscious of their cultural identity through reading this heroic narrative punctuated as it does with rituals and religious shrines. Generally many children are born within a particular cultural milieu which they inherit from their ancestors. It is the culture which they claim as theirs and which gives them a cultural identity. Despite the phenomenon of globalization in which some cultures are gradually being effaced by global cultural processes children still need to know their cultural identity before they know and begin to appreciate those of others. Even children of immigrants throughout the world have a right to know about their cultural identity. Children’s books containing stories of the heroes and heroines of their cultures can play a critical role in teaching children about their ancestral origin and cultural identity.

In the second story, “The First Chaminuka,” children are invited to the Shona world of spiritual beliefs, magic, mysteries and wonderment. Chaminuka was a great prophet, healer and performer of miracles. He was killed in 1883 by the Ndebele just after the medium of Nehanda, Charwe, had become active. “He had great powers over both men and animals and he was able to cure sickness, both of the mind and the body, by means of rare wild plants … . He could also foresee the future and was said to be able to call down rain in any season… . Chaminuka kept tame pythons and other snakes, none of which ever harmed him. In the evenings wild antelopes and birds would come in from the bush to be fed with a little grain and to play fearlessly around his huts. His great bull, Mhindudzapasi, … followed him around,  lying down, rising and trotting forward to his command” (p. 10), writes Tredgold for her juvenile audience. What is more, Chaminuka was a great musician and a famous player of the mbira musical instrument. Other researchers on the Chaminuka legend like Michael Gelfund (1959: 31) maintains that the spirit of Chaminuka could be heard speaking on trees and rocks.

Such intrigues and mysteries will certainly fascinate children as they try to grapple with the amazing world of Chaminuka. The story of Chaminuka has also a moral dimension relevant to children. Chaminuka was a man of virtue. All storytellers of Chaminuka applaud and constantly commend his generosity and his commitment to peace and happiness. While a leader, he also had a heavy heart. Love towards others is the hallmark of a sane and harmonious society, committed to the cause human progress. What parent does not want his/her child to be kind-hearted? Apart from making children morally conscious, like the legend of Nehanda, the Chaminuka narrative develops children’s knowledge about their history, religion and beliefs.

Before Charwe, Shona history is dominated by Chaminuka. He was feared and respected by the Ndebele who had entered Zimbabwe from South Africa in the late 1830s. Lobengula, the Ndebele king, was marveled at Chaminuka’s miraculous powers and decided to give him a wife, Baveya. However, when Chaminuka and his people refused to be subjects of the Ndebele king and to pay tribute too him, Lobengula decreed that Chaminuka should be punished. A big army of Ndebele warriors was dispatched to raid Chaminuka’s chiefdom and kill him. But Chaminuka would not allow the Ndebele warriors to harass, kill and enslave his people. Instead he decided to submit himself to the Ndebele and be killed for his people to remain in peace. “If my time has come, I am not afraid to die” (p.12), he said to his people who were advising him against going to his enemies.

When he was approaching Ndebele territory he saw hundreds of armed Ndebele warriors who had been sent to capture him. Now something strange happened. Chaminuka “sat calmly on a rock, playing his mbira,…With shouts and threats the warriors charged forward, stabbing him with their spears, but the spear points bent and the heads fell off, doing no damage. Now those who had guns fired their bullets which  rained down like hailstones, but none of them even touching Chaminuka’s feet” (p.12). The Ndebele warriors could only kill Chaminuka when he told them to give a spear to a small boy nearby to kill him instead. But before the boy stabbed him Chaminuka uttered prophecies that today have been accurately fulfilled. He prophesied about the coming of Europeans, the destruction of the Ndebele kingdom once and for all, the building of railway lines, roads and cities in the land, the Second Chimurenga and the attainment of independence. “Oh, people, …there shall come from the sea a race of a people without knees who are stronger than the tyrant Ndebele. They will subdue your enemies and will pursue Lobengula to his shameful death. Then this kneeless people will build white houses on the land. … The kneeless people will rule the land with an iron fist and will not respect our customs. ... Do not, therefore, be afraid of the Lobengula or the kneeless people, but be prepared for the good times that will come thereafter (Mutswairo, 1983: 175-6), he said. After this the small boy stabbed him and the spear sunk deeply into his body and he died.

The story of Chaminuka invites children into the world of both fact and fiction. They learn the history of their society through the historical facts contained in the narrative while Chaminuka’s miraculous deeds and piquancy of the story. Children can also be reminded of biblical stories for the deeds of Chaminuka resemble those of Jesus Christ in many respects. Like Chaminuka Jesus Christ was a miracle-maker, healer of the sick, prophet and a man of great compassion. As Jesus did not flee from those who sought to torment him but offered himself to be falsely accused and eventually killed by his enemies whom he forgave for their evil deeds, so did Chaminuka. So the story of Chaminuka allows children to engage in cross-cultural analysis to appreciate the disparities and similarities between stories from varied cultures. With the legend of Nehanda children are introduced to the historical contradictions of society which they become familiar with from an early age. Similar to all societies, Zimbabwean society experienced conflicts which have profoundly affected it during the pre-colonial and colonial periods and continue to do so in contemporary times. As children become aware of these historical contradictions, they also learn about the strategies their societies adopted to resolve them in order to maintain peace and harmony. In Zimbabwe black-white and black-black problems were partly resolved through the policy of reconciliation enunciated in 1980.

The story of “Makate and Nehoreka” is a story in history which fuses both fact and fantasy. Although still unadapted for children’s literature, but only recorded for anthropological study, children can still access the story from traditional storytellers. The story happened about 1840 in the district of Mtoko in north-eastern Zimbabwe.

Chief Makate who lived in Mtoko was well known and feared for his powerful war charms. No other king could defeat him and none dared go to war with him. But one king from the north, Nehoreka, decided to invade Makate’s chiefdom intending to take Makate’s fertile lands. As expected he was defeated as Makate used his dreaded war charms. However, Nehoreka was determined to defeat Makate. He thought of a plan to defeat him. He sent messengers to tell Makate that he was so remorseful about invading his country. What he did was bad and he wanted the two to have cordial relations. To show his sincerity he had sent the messengers with his young and beautiful sister, WaMakate, whom he offered to Makate as wife. Makate accepted Nehoreka’s request and was especially happy to be offered such a beautiful wife as WaMakate. Makate loved and trusted his new wife so much that he eventually told her about where he hid his war charms and how to use them. One night WaMakate woke up in the middle of the night and went to the cave where her husband hid his war charms. She stole all of them and fled to her brother’s kingdom. Immediately Nehoreka’s armies invaded Makate’s chiefdom. On discovering that his charms had disappeared, Makate quickly called his people and told them to take all their possessions; cattle, sheep, goats, tools and all household utensils they could lay their hands on. He then asked them to follow him and he led them towards the east and came to a huge flat rock. To the sheer amazement of Nehoreka and his soldiers, the rock opened and everyone entered and disappeared as the rock permanently closed.

Again like the stories of Chaminuka and Nehanda, this story is an encounter with Shona pre-colonial history. Children learn about the historical experiences of the Shona people particularly the nature of diplomacy between chiefs and the various means and strategies leaders of the past employed to protect their nations, defeat or establish peaceful relations with their counterparts. It can be quite interesting for children to compare the actions of leaders in the past and those of leaders in modern times. The story is also good for cross-cultural analysis. The mysterious disappearance of Makate and his people into a rock is reminiscent of the German story of “The Piped Piper of Hamelin” in which the Pied Piper disappeared into a cave with a multitude of all the children of Hamelin for good except one.


Although myths of the aetiological type have been tapped by many writers of children’s literature in Zimbabwe, historicizing tales like legends and cosmogonic myths have remained in their oral form. Thus some stories have remained in history as folklore while others have been adapted for children’s literature. Authors in Zimbabwe have clearly not done enough research to foreground history in children’s literature being largely obsessed with tapping fictional folktales characterized by animal characters and fantasy.

The writers certainly underestimated their juvenile audience’s reading abilities to comprehend stories of a historical content particularly legends let alone the benefits children accrue from reading such narratives. It appears the incorporation of mythologizing tales such as myths and historicizing stories as legends in children’s literature today is a tradition with a strong leverage that Zimbabwean authors and indeed authors the world over cannot avoid. Folklore is an important ingredient of children’s literature such that without it children’s literature is robbed of its foundation.

Besides, as part of children’s literary heritage, it is within children’s cultural right to learn the very stories that children of earlier generations also learnt. With specific reference to Zimbabwean myths and legends, the paper has emphasized that myths and legends as both stories in history and stories in contemporary children’s literature are relevant for children’s cultural, historical and moral consciousness. The stories promote patriotism and inspire children to serve the cause of their nations and communities. Furthermore, they provide children with a framework to comprehend the historical contradictions in their society and how to come to terms with them. They also motivate children to engage in cross-cultural analysis thereby understanding and appreciating other cultures and their historical and cultural experiences.       

Mickias Musiyiwa, Zimbabwe

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen 2008


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