As always with these traditional fables, I acknowledge the Congolese storytellers, Pere Lepoutre who gathered them and published them in Lingala, and my gifted translator, Stan Hotalen, who has lived most of his life in the Congo. Quality translations from one language/culture to another always require a certain amount of retelling and editing. I have not shied away from that, but I believe that the end products are true to the original stories. The booklets in Lingala have some fun illustrations by an artist named simply Kalundi, a rather common name down that way. The consensus opinion in the murky world of copyright law is that folktales cannot be copyrighted, unless someone pretty much photocopies the text and then claims it for their own. However the same is not true for original artwork. I wish I was a competent illustrator, but then I also wish that I’d played first base for the St. Louis Cardinals. If any of you folks out there are wannabe illustrators and would like to join in on these folktales, leave a comment.
A young man named Lombo forged metal to make things for the local community. His forge was located near the forge of an elderly smith, since in villages similar businesses tended to be located together. After the old smith had watched Lombo work, he approached him: “Look, you are not casting and forging metal the best way. Let me teach you how to do it right.” Lombo replied: “How is my work any of your business? I don’t want your help. You do things the old fashioned way. We young folks have our own way of doing things.”
Everyday the old man approached Lombo again and offered to teach him, and everyday Lombo refused, while becoming more and more annoyed. Finally Lombo demanded why the old man kept bothering him. The smith replied: “And I must continue to do so. You are young and inexperienced. You would benefit greatly from my knowledge. You see it is important to me that the work is done properly. You will never become a good smith without my help.” Lombo said: “Fine then, if you won’t leave me alone, I will move my forge out near the jungle where I can work in peace.”
So Lombo took his wife and child out to the edge of the jungle and built a house and forge. One day as Lombo worked the forge, eight gorillas approached carrying a dead gorilla. The gorillas stopped: “Lombo, you must forge us eight strong hoes and eight strong axes, so we can bury our friend properly. If you refuse we will kill you right here and now.”
Lombo knew that he was not skilled enough to produce the quality hoes and axes that the gorillas demanded. So he sent his child to the smith to see if he knew how to forge those tools. The elderly metal forger replied: “I tried my best to help that young man and he insulted me. Forget it! Go tell him that I will not help him now that he has gotten himself into trouble.” The child returned and told Lombo what the old man had said. Lombo considered his problem, but he just couldn’t come up with another solution. So he instructed his wife to go and beg the smith to relent and teach Lombo proper metal working. The smith could not refuse Lombo’s distraught wife. Since he was all too aware of the poor quality of Lombo’s work, he told her to tell Lombo to send the gorillas down to the creek to fill eight of Lombo’s pots with water and bring them back. Lombo told the gorillas that he needed the water for his forging. The gorillas went down to the creek, but the water kept leaking out of Lombo’s pots. They tried and tried with no success. Of course that gave Lombo and his family the opportunity to escape to the village. Once they were safely back, even hard-headed Lombo realized that he should have accepted the experienced metal forger’s help in the first place.
MORAL: The neck cannot surpass the head.
I love the cryptic symbolism of that moral and didn’t want to alter it, so I conferred with Stan about its meaning. I was headed in the right direction, but I wanted to make sure. He explained that in the Congo traditionally a young man shouldn’t own land until his uncle owns land. And if they both own land, the young man shouldn’t build on his land until his uncle builds. Also back in the day young men were expected to walk a pace behind their elders, perhaps they still do. So as the neck follows the lead of the head and turns as the head turns, so the younger generation must always follow their elders and bow to their wisdom. He also felt that it was likely that the moral was a well-known proverb or possibly part of one, and that the meaning would be obvious to the Congolese.