How The Birds Came

When the sun was half way up the sky one morning, and the birds were still noisy looking for food, Mwanga was sitting with two of his grandchildren. Aiya the boy was seven, and Lilla the girl was seven and a half. The compound was quiet because the adults had gone to visit people in other compounds to borrow things like a hoe or some seeds. Or perhaps they had gone to sit under a tree, because it was one of those days that seemed to carry happiness in the air, and people could smile at each other easily.

Mwanga, Lilla and Aiya had found a comfortable place in the morning sun, and Mwanga was trying to tell the children how to understand what birds were saying. He said, “I am listening to the birds all the time and I hear what they are saying and what stories they tell. It fills my heart with love Lilla.”

Lilla sat listening for a while, but looked puzzled. “I don’t hear them speak anything to me Mwanga. Why do you hear them?”

Aiya didn’t say anything. He just sat staring at Mwanga. He knew he loved Mwanga, but he didn’t think it was because of anything Mwanga had said. His grandfather saw the love shining out of his eyes and smiled at him.

Just then a mother bird with her two young fledglings flew to the ground near the cattle enclosure. She was pecking up small insects. As she did so her two youngsters were crouching with their feathers fluffed up to make themselves look as much like babies as possible, and they were chattering all the time. Then the mother bird would give a loud whistling call to them and put food into their mouths.

Mwanga pointed to them and said, “You can surely hear what they are saying to each other can’t you?!”

“The babies are saying – ‘Feed me! Feed me’!” Aiya said, hunching himself up like one of the babies.

“And they are saying – ‘I can’t find any food! I can’t find any food’!” Lilla said laughing.

“So what is the mother saying to them?” Mwanga asked.

Lilla started with, “She is saying ‘Look, here is some food’!”

Then Aiya continued, “She is saying, ‘This is how you find your own food. Watch me! Watch me’!

“That is good” Mwanga said laughing. “So you CAN hear what the birds are saying.”

“Well I didn’t know you meant like that Mwanga” Aiya said, “and I still don’t know what makes you love them when they speak.

“Ah” Mwanga said, still smiling, “that only comes when you have fed your babies too, and seen them grow until they can find their own food. Then your heart listens also and you know what the mother bird feels. You know that all living things have a connection, and that connection brings love bubbling up like a spring from mysterious places.”

The children didn’t speak for a while. Then Lilla spoke as if she were still thinking deeply about what Mwanga had said. “I still don’t hear them telling me a story like you say they do with you Mwanga.”

“Stories take a bit more practice at listening Lilla” he said. “Birds only have a few words they can speak, but each word means lots of different things. That’s because birds have to say all they feel and know using the few words they have.”

Mwanga paused for a while pondering, then said, “When I was a small boy about your age I noticed many birds would often sit together. They would talk with each other. They weren’t eating and they weren’t mating. They were standing, fluttering their wings and talking with each other. At that time I wondered what they were saying. Slowly I learnt you must watch what the birds are doing as well as what they are saying. Only then can you hear the story.”

“Tell us what story the birds were speaking to each other Mwanga” Aiya asked.

“I will try Aiya” Mwanga replied. “But it is a difficult story to tell. You see, birds, like our tribe, have their own history. With our tribe each year we tell the history of our people. We sing what has happened to our tribe, and some parts we dance. Each of us remembers that history because out of it we have strength and wisdom in our own spirit. When the birds get together in a big group and flutter their wings, they are singing and dancing their history. If they didn’t do that they would lose their strength and forget how to make their nests.”

“So each different sort of bird is like a tribe!” Lilla said.

“Yes” Mwanga agreed. “But at the beginning, all the different birds history is the same story, and that tells how the birds came to fly, and that is the story I will tell you today as we watch and listen to the birds.”

Lilla and Aiya moved so they could face Mwanga as he told the story. Sometimes he used his hands and eyes as he spoke the words, and they wanted to see this. When they were ready, Mwanga started by saying, “When the birds tell their history they say to each other that in their sleep and dreams they remember all the years birds have flown in the sky. But the great dreams tell them of a time when there were no birds. In those days no birds flew to the trees, and the sky had no sounds in it apart from the wind. The clouds moved across the sky, and they were the only things to fly except for the insects and the leaves dropped by the trees. Nowhere in all the land, nor in all the water were there any birds.”

He paused to let this strange idea fill the children’s imagination. Aiya was looking at him with eyes wide. “In those days long ago” Mwanga continued, “sometimes the earth roared and the sea and sky cried. Then the earth was dark and there was fire in the sky as the hills and rivers were being shaped by powerful spirits.

“At that time there were great djinn spirits who lived in the mountains and the rivers. They were the ones shaping the land. And one of these, Kakudra, lived in a mountain above a swamp, where there were many flies.”

“What is a djinn?” Aiya interrupted.

“It’s the invisible power behind things we can see happening in the world around us, like the lightning and thunder, but we don’t know how they happen. So we give the invisible power a name. Kakudra must have been a djinn who shaped the mountains and the animals. And because he lived on a mountain above a swamp the flies were always landing on his nose and his eyes, and this made him angry.”

Mwanga slapped at the flies that were even then landing on his forehead. “When Kakudra looked across the land from his mountain he saw there was nothing in the air to catch the flies. He thought that if only the lizards had wings, they could chase the flies and eat them.”

“Like the swallows do” Lilla said.

“Just like the swallows” Mwanga said. “So Kakudra took up a lizard that was lying on a fallen tree in the sun. He pulled and pulled at the skin under the lizard’s front legs until the lizard cried. Then he pulled some more until the skin was stretched back from the legs like wings.

“Then Kakudra lifted the lizard up above his head and threw it into the air down the mountain. The lizard spread its legs out wide to land, but the wind took it as the stretched skin spread like wings, and it floated on the air until it landed in the swamp at the bottom of the mountain.”

“Was it hurt?” they both asked.

“It was very sore from where Kakudra had stretched it’s skin” Mwanga said, “But as it had floated on the wind it didn’t bruise itself much when it landed in the swamp. That was good because with his power Kakudra called the lizard back up the mountain and lifted it above his head. Before he threw the lizard again he said to it, ‘Glide on the air around the mountain and eat the flies.’ Then he threw the lizard high into the air and the wind took it again. But it took many throws and some more bruises before the lizard learnt to chase the flies in the air.”

“I wouldn’t want to be thrown down the mountain if I were the lizard” Aiya said defiantly.

“It was dangerous and frightening” Mwanga agreed. “But don’t forget the lizard was now catching a lot more flies. That is why the birds say this is a great part of their history, because it reminds them that to catch more flies you might get a few bruises.”

“I burnt my fingers a few times when I was first learning to cook” Lilla said, holding her beautiful long brown fingers up to show Mwanga.

He looked at the small burn marks on the tips of her fingers. “That is what happens sometimes when we learn something new” he said. “But Kakudra was pleased that the lizard had faced the dangers. He put a spell on the lizard so all its children would have skin stretched from their front legs to their back. And he told the lizard to jump from tree tops to chase flies so he would not have to constantly throw it into the air.”

“But it still wasn’t like the birds” Aiya remarked.

“That is true. But look at the chickens there” he said, pointing to the chickens wandering around the compound trying to find food. If you look at their legs, you can see they still have scales on them like lizards. Only slowly did the rest of their body change. The change happened because to catch flies and to avoid enemies, the lizard and its children gradually learnt to jump into the air and move their arms so rapidly they could fly instead of glide. This was difficult. It was a struggle and some other lizards were jealous and also learnt to fly.

“So that is how the birds came into the air, because Kakudra was angry with the flies. And as it was such a great thing to have done, the birds still tell this story to their children.”

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