Napolo and the Python

by Steve Chimombo. Heinemann, 1994. 182 pages.

The heart of Napolo and the Python is a long narrative poem called "Python! Python!" In it, the poet combines and simplifies various legends of the rainmaker Mbona, a key figure in the mythology of the Nyanja people of Malawi. In so doing, he creates a modern-day epic on a traditional theme.

Mlauli is the rainmaker of a people who have migrated southward from their original home in Uganda to a new land along the shores of Lake Malawi. As the poem begins, Mlauli's people are suffering from a severe drought. He performs the rain dance, but no rain comes. The chief and the elders suspect that the spirits may have shifted their favor to Mlauli's nephew and apprentice, Mbona. Mbona is reluctant at first to take his uncle's place, but his first official rain dance is spectacularly successful. Unfortunately, lightning from the storm kills his uncle's son.

Spurred on by his grief-stricken wife, the old rainmaker urges the chief to subject the young rainmaker to an ordeal by poison, arguing that Mbona is a sorceror who merely unloosed the rain that he had tied up through witchcraft in the first place. The levelheaded chief advises Mbona to flee and save himself, and after some reflection he takes this advice. Pursued by his uncle, he makes an epic journey across the rivers, forests, and mountains of Malawi, leaving the marks of his feet and his spear in the solid granite as he passes. He soars over the elephant grass on a magical flying top, heals the festering boil of a mysterious old man, and narrowly escapes a seductive "water maid" who sticks to his body like a tar baby when he touches her.

Like Osiris, Achilles, or any good culture hero, the young rainmaker eventually confronts his enemy, accepts his fate, and is transformed by death into an enduring symbol and inspiration to his people. The story is familiar. What is unusual is the freshness and humor with which it is told. The poem is distinctive not so much for its formal structure or thematic subtlety, but for its energy, vividness, and fast-moving narrative drive. With charming verve, the poet yokes together high and low language, antique conventions and up-to-date idioms.

"Python! Python!" teems with echoes of the Iliad, the Bible, Beowulf, Russian folktales, and Brer Rabbit. Yet despite the Western allusions, and although it is written in English, it is steeped in Southern African lore and landscape. In it the reader finds old traditions about serpents that cause earthquakes, witches that ride on the backs of hyenas, and underwater spirits, as well as loving catalogues of the birds and fish and foods of Malawi.

The poem is so well supplied with Malawian words that the glossary at the back of the book becomes an essential part of the work. "I opened my heart to you," says the treacherous water maid, "as I open a basket of chigwada/swimming tenderly in ground-nut sauce." Chigwada, says the glossary, is a word for pounded cassava leaves eaten as a vegetable. Other entries tell us that a kafadala is a beetle that plays dead when touched, an mseketela is a witch-finder, and mbododo is food that is regarded with contempt because it is too easy to cook. Of how many books can you say that even the glossary is intriguing?

From Napolo and the Python:

She took him to her domain under the lake,
past the forest of fishes, small, big, huge,
flecked with the rainbow's colours: parading blues,
greens and reds; cavorting stripes,
spots, streaks and hues;
past fanning fins, flipping tails
and wriggling bottoms
of silver-coated chambo,
golden-streaked mpasa,
black-caped sleep mlamba,
down to the submarine sandcastles
and turfs in the craters
and cones at the bottom of the pool,
playing hide-and-seek with courting cichlids,
brilliant in their mating colours outside their bowers,
dancing to unheard marine melodies and rhythms,
circling males and nuzzling females
in amorous dalliance,
hovering over the undulating,
fluorescent, sandy bottom.