Last week I was in Africa, where I came, quite by chance, into possession of a very beautiful carved stick. It was made by a man who names himself Stephen (though I suspect he has a different name within his tribe). He is apparently a shy person, who lives near the banks of the Zambezi not far from the Kariba dam. That is all I know about him, apart from the fact that he honours the gods of his ancestors, and is a proper craftsman. This is the stick he carved with love and attention to detail, and which I have now brought back here, very far from Africa.
The stick tells a story, which is one of the reasons I was drawn to it. The head represents the river spirit and god the BaTonga people call Nyaminyami. Nobody has ever seen him, nobody knows how big he is, but he is rumoured to have the head of a snake and the body of a fish. He and his wife live in the Zambezi, but she has never been seen and her name seems to be a secret.
The next part of the stick represents the flowing waters of the river which (before the Kariba dam was built) gave life and sustenance to the BaTonga people, sustenance represented lower down by the fish and the tree. In return for this bounty, the people poured beer into the river, and worshipped him with singing, dancing, drumming and rattling on the namalwa, ngoma and muyuwa.
Next come the rings - sometimes worn round the necks of BaTonga women as a tribute to the god's own long neck - then the ball containing the magical seed which wards off evil spirits.
This is held up by the hand of the female shaman or sangoma, whose wrist narrows into the sacred pipe, made from a calabash and used in ceremony to promote visions, as with many other shamanic traditions, notably in North America.
It was the female hand that was the other thing which made me feel the stick was right for me to have. My own hand fits over it almost exactly, one female shaman to another.
It's a long, long way from home now, my nyaminyami story stick, but I sent a message to its maker, hoping that it will get through to him. The stream which flows through my garden, runs on to the sea, joining the oceans of the world. The note I sent to Stephen said this: All Waters are One. I will think of him and his people respectfully every time I touch the beautiful object he has made, and hope that in time, the stick will share some more stories with me, or help me find others of my own.
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