The descendants of Batman
A conversation at a movie house in Johannesburg, sometime at the end of July, 2012, as a middle aged man- his hand clasping an adolescent boy- waits in a queue to buy tickets to watch The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan.
Boy: “father, why are we called the bat people?”
Man: (in a tone meant to stifle conversation) “because I was a fan of Batman films when I was growing up.”
Boy: “Ok, but when we are home, in Zimbabwe, in the countryside, they chant a poem for grandpa which goes:
“Hail to the blind and furry one,
He whose has a red mouth,
A mouth full of blood,
Whose teeth stick out,
Ready to tear into flesh.
Neither an animal nor a bird.
He moves at night, unblinking and sightless
Yet he doesn’t bump into mountain cliffs.”
I can’t remember the rest of it. How does it finish? Grandpa is not blind. Is he also a fan of Batman?
Man: (clearing throat) Well…
Boy: If he is, why didn’t you go fetch him from up country so that he could come and watch the new Batman film with us?”
Man : (sighing) “Ok, it’s a long story. I will tell you when we get home”. He realised that, until he told him the legend, his son would never give him rest. The man had been meaning to tell his son the source of the myth, but he thought the boy wouldn’t understand. He had been impressed that the boy had remembered the clan praise poem. The old man, back in the country, would smile at what he could call, in his quaking school-masterly voice, “groundedness in his culture”.
Later at home, after watching the film, he told his son: “ok, take that chair and come here and I will tell you how we came to be the bat people.” The boy, face lighting up, dragged a stool, and sat in front of his father.
Well, let’s begin at the beginning. This happened in the old days, when donkeys had horns; this was also the time when dogs went to circumcision rites. Ok, you know that everyone in Zimbabwe has a totem? This is an animal they can’t eat. They can’t marry someone, even someone who is a distant relative, who are of the same totem. You need to know this: the Mpofu people can’t eat the eland; the Ndlovus can’t eat the elephant; the Ncubes can’t eat monkeys. Now, stop laughing; there are people who eat monkeys.
But there is a time, now vanished, when there were no totems, when people could eat whatever they wanted. But one day this wise and powerful chief sent out representatives of families into the wild on a mission. He realised that if everyone ate everything, soon nothing will be left. Someone had to protect one species of every animal that the earth and God has given to us.
Whatever animal you catch, you would mix it with some powerful muti, ritually eat part of it, bury the rest and plant a tree above its grave. From that day, you couldn’t eat that animal. If you did, you would lose all your teeth and many other terrible things would happen to you.
Among the men who answered the king’s call was Mhashu, also known as Muremwa, a great hunter. He was known throughout the land; he had many dogs, which accompanied him on his hunts in the fierce forest. When Mhashu went on these trips, which at times lasted weeks, he would return laden with game meat: buffalo, eland, kudu and other animals, sometimes even elephant meat.
In those days, the forest didn’t only teem with buffaloes and lions, the spiky porcupine and the smelly skunk but was also guarded by jealous spirits who required you to tread the earth with care and respect.
These were the days when you could not eat a fruit from the tree and remark, ‘oh, it doesn’t taste nice’. You had to be polite. You couldn’t take more than what you needed. If you did, the fruit would rot instantly. The earth wouldn’t allow you. If you did, you would get lost and never find your way home. You could be torn to pieces by wild animals.
Anyway, a man of Mhashu’s nature and temperament had an advantage over everyone and would have killed the biggest animal in the forest, the elephant or the king of the forest, the lion and declared it his totem. So the chief, an insecure man and seeking to consolidate his power, said to Mhashu: “you can’t go with the rest as you are a good hunter. You are going to be the last to give others a fair chance”. It was a statement coated with thinly disguised malice. By the time he got to the centre of the forest, all the choice animals had been killed. Only the jackals, hares and other small animals were left. Everywhere he looked there was a Ndlovu (lion); Phiri, Ncube (monkey); and many others. Other people who weren’t good hunters asked for the hearts of the bigger animals and in this way became Moyos. He returned, asked the king for more time to catch an animal of his choice.
In the meantime, he continued going into the forest, bringing game, which he would skin. On his hunts it occasionally rained and whenever it did he hid in caves. There was one cave, populated by bats, that he frequented. He was unusual for most of his peers were terrified of caves. Caves, unknowable and with a darkness you could touch, were rarely frequented. It is said one afternoon, clouds which had looked sparse and uninterested in one another , soon collated and began spitting out huge goblets of rain.
Mhashu rushed to a nearby cave to seek refuge. He soon realised he wasn’t the only occupant. Startled by the intrusion into what they thought was their exclusive home, the bats began flapping about, flying this way and that way, all the while yelping. One bat almost bumped into him. Jumping and reaching out wildly, he caught one bat and promptly killed it. He had decided the bat was going to be his totem. He solemnly put it into his goatskin bag. The others, hearing their companion’s cry of distress, joined in a unison, discordant choir. They also started flapping about, flying this way, flying that way in a general panic that even Mhashu was shaken.
“When his eyes had grown accustomed to the dark, he walked to a corner of the cave and sat to wait for the rain to reduce its fury. After the initial flurry, the bats soon rested. As if they were kins. And Mhashu soon stretched out his legs, relaxing, thinking of the kudu he had started skinning. Some of his dogs, as they became accustomed to the dark and seeing him loosening up, soon relaxed. Some of them, perhaps scared of the darkness of the cave into which the bats disappeared, just sat under nearby trees near the entrance to the cave, waiting for the rain to dissipate and for their master to come out,” the man explained, “should I finish the story or you want to go to sleep?” “No, no, I don’t want to sleep.” The man stood up to go and make cappuccino for himself and hot chocolate for his son.
“So we are bat people because our ancestor sought refuge in a cave that was full of bats?” the boy asked. “Not exactly,” he responded as he switched on the coffee machine. “If you want to hear how the story ends you have to first do your homework.”
Boy: “Wow, you should fly grandfather to see The Dark Knight Rises. He should see what his cousins are up to.”
Man: “I will. It’s time to go to sleep.”