Before looking at an African creation myth, it might help to compare it with the Biblical narrative from Genesis. Let’s consider two quotes made directly by Yahweh:
“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26)
That quote, of course, comes before the Fall. Following the disobedience of the Serpent, Adam and Eve, God has this to say:
“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” (Gen 3:22)
It is knowledge that cause Yahweh to exile his children, a theme that is recapitulated in the story of the Tower of Babel:
The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” (Gen 11:6-7)
So here are some key motifs: Man is created in the image of God, and given dominion over nature; Man gains knowledge of good and evil, for which he is banished from paradise; and generations later, humanity attempts to build something that also appears to threaten God. Now, let’s compare this to the creation myth of the Barotse (also called the Lozi) people of Zambia:
Nyambi was a great builder; he worked with wood, he forged with iron, and brought forth life. The animals, the birds and the fish, and even a man, who he named Kamouna. This was an age of harmony in the world, and at first Nyambi didn’t worry about Kamouna copying his practices – until Kamouna started forging iron. Nyambi started harboring second thoughts – what evil might befall his glorious creation if Kamouna abused the knowledge he had acquired?
Nyambi found the answer soon enough: Kamouna forged a spear, and killed an antelope. And that was just the beginning.
He reprimanded Kamouna, and exiled him for a while. However, his heart eventually softened, and he let his creation return. There was a catch – he had made Kamouna a garden, and warned him not to kill anymore.
At night buffaloes trampled through Kamouna’s garden, and he slew them. Then some antelope came through, and he hunted them down as well. Death had entered the world, and Kamouna himself would not be left untouched.
First, his dog died. Then his pot broke. Finally, his child died. Distraught, Kamouna went to Nyambi; to his surprise, he was greeted by his dog and his child; Nyambi even had his pot by his side.
Kamouna demanded enchanted medicine so no more of his things would perish, a request which Nyambi squarely refused. After Kamouna left, Nyambi turned to two of his advisors, stating with fear that Kamouna knew too much. They concluded that Nyambi should flee.
He moved across a river, setting his kingdom up on an island, but Kamouna built a raft. Nyambi climbed a mountain that he built from boulders, but Kamouna was able to scale it. He sent out birds to find a new place to hide, but the birds found nothing. Finally, in desperation, Nyambi went to diviner, who told him to seek Spider.
Spider weaved a thread that ran from the earth to the heavens, and Nyambi climbed the thread with his wife, Nasilele. And then, as per the diviners instructions, he blinded Spider; that way, there was no chance of Kamouna forcing Spider to led him to Nyambi’s new kingdom.
Undeterred, Kamouna gathered other humans (there were many generations by this point) and worked on building a tower to reach Nyambi’s court in the sky. Alas, the logs were too heavy, and the tower collapsed under its own weight.
And so it was that Kamouna never met Nyambi again. However, every morning, when the sun rose, Kamouna would go out and greet his creator, shouting “Here is our king. He has come.” This was how all of the people would greet the sun, chanting and clapping for the God who got away (when the new moon comes, the people paid respects to Nyambi’s wife, Nasilele).
So, in this tale, we have reversals of many of the motifs found in Genesis. Not only does man not have dominion over nature, it is man’s abuse of nature (and knowledge) that forces God to leave (another reversal; man isn’t banished, rather God runs away). This is a God who regrets what He taught man, and a vision of humanity that is both barbaric, but also devoted to their creator. In Kamouna’s desperation to be reunited with God, he constructs a tower, but unlike the Tower of Babel, which Yahweh preemptively strikes down, Kamouna’s tower is doomed by his hubris and his ignorance.
Nyambi is a God who is at one with nature – he doesn’t rule it, he communes with it.
Now, by no means am I suggesting that practitioners of the Abraham faiths are intrinsically anti-ecology – that flies in the face of common sense, as well as my own personal experiences of some very monotheistic, very ecologically minded people. However, I can’t help but wonder the following: if the Genesis account read more like the Barotse narrative, might we live in a more eco-friendly world?
Nyambi only knows…
P.S. this Barotse/Lozi creation story can be found in Barbara C. Sproul’s Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around The World.