As a little girl in the west, the stories you hear are of princesses. Though this trope is being critiqued and perhaps modified, it is still the case that traditionally the girls in these stories are sweet, beautiful, compliant, and often awaiting rescue. They look for the prince in the frog or the Beast and draw these characteristics out of them.
What stories do Tanzanian girls hear? What stories are they told? Yesterday in language class, we discussed one of those stories everyone knows. (It was in a Tanzanian school text book – I’ve been taking the reading comprehension stories and doing them orally. I romp in the comprehension exercises when I’m reading, but my listening comprehension lags behinds, and this approach means I have to pick up all the details accurately the first time without reading.) This story was about Maringotele (Mah-ring-oh-TE-leh) – her name means ‘one who puts on airs’. Here’s my translated paraphrase.
Maringotele was one of seven daughters, the only one who was not married. She was proud and not at all like her good married sisters. One day, she and her sisters went to the river to wash and get water. There was a dog not far off with some very fine food. Maringotele wanted it and asked the dog to give it to her. He did, she lit a fire there at the river, and ate the food.
When the daughter went to return home, the dog followed them. He refused to leave them alone, singing to them about how he intended to marry the one who ate his food. They all denied him but he continued following them and singing his song. When they reached home, their mama asked why they had come with a dog and they related what had happened. The dog kept singing.
At night, the dog was given food in a dog bowl. He refused, demanding Maringotele’s bowl. He washed before eating like a human, amazing everyone and when it was evening he refused to sleep outside. He wanted to be in bed with Maringotele. He continued singing, insisting that he would marry Maringotele.
Maringotele’s parents instructed that she would live with this dog who was provoking them so. Maringotele agreed grudgingly. She and the dog lived separately from there others in a small hut but the dog disliked how small it was.
One day a cow of the father was stolen. The father ordered the husbands of his six married daughters to go and look for it. The dog, Maringotele’s husband, was not invited. The others went off with their weapons and the dog followed along behind.
After a long way, they found the thieves together with the cow in the forest. They were evenly matched, but then came Maringotele’s husband – transformed into a man. He fought bravely and beat the thieves. Then he instructed the six should return the cow. He warned them not to say anything about the fight, to keep it a secret.
When the six arrive home they were received with joy. The father congratulated them and threw a party. He instructed a big bull to be slaughtered. On this day, the women all worked hard to ready the food and the party was pumping. Everyone ate, sang and danced. Maringotele and her husband were not invited to the party. Instead, they were given a bit of the innards of the bull afterwards.
The cow was stolen again. Same as last time, the six were sent to bring it back and Maringotele’s husband was not invited. He followed them in secret, and fought until he had beaten the thieves. He instructed the six to return the cow again. On this day, he returned with a gazelle. As everyone ate the meat, Maringotele asked herself questions about this event of her husband and how he followed the six and hid himself to return later on his own.
At one level, this is just a story about reaping what you sow, but the elements of the story from the main character to her traits are feminine and the story is aimed at women and girls. Here’s the moral to the story: put on airs, and you’ll end up with a dog of a husband.
No, seriously! This man-dog clearly had the ability to participate in the family and to protect and provide for Maringotele. However he only appeared as a dog because that was all she deserved. This also isolated her from her family.
No good comes of stepping out of place in life. Her airs were as ridiculous as a dog washing its hands, demanding to eat out of human bowls, sleeping in a human bed, and marrying a woman. It’s completely out of place and inappropriate. If you want to have a good life, the best thing for you to do is to follow the habits and practices of a good woman.
Once again, my language tutor and I read this story in two different ways. I saw this as a punitive story designed to keep women in their place. My language tutor saw this as a story of how women can have a good life and have things go well for them.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.