The Chameleon’s Message (A Tale From Southern Africa)
Long ago there was a valley where reeds of many shades and colors grew in abundance. The valley was as colorful as a rainbow, and when Sky God looked down at the valley, he fell in love with the place. He decided he would marry this land, and called it Umhlanga.
Sky God announced his plan to the other gods, and before long, Sky God married the valley in a beautiful ceremony.
When the celebration came to an end, Sky God broke off many of the multicolored reeds. “These will be people,” he told the gathering. “They will be my children, and I will look after them always.”
The valley filled with people. Sky God named them Ukulunkulu, which in the language of the Zulus means Ancestor. From each reed came one man and one woman, and soon they joined in pairs and created their own children. The population of the valley grew, and everyone was joyful.
Sky God began to think about how to make the world as lovely and light as possible, and to do this he named two gods Sun and Moon. He told Sun to rule the valley by day and told Moon to rule by night.
He smiled when his plan was finished. The world was filled with color, and light always shone on his people and on their abundant valley.
Now when Sky God looked down, he saw many different groups of people, and he gave each group a different name. Some he called Sun People and another group he named Bushmen, and another he dubbed Moon People. He offered names to all the different tribes.
Sky God did not stop there. The more he created, the more he wished to create, and so he made more trees, and seeds, and taught his people to grow corn and to make fires from the wood he created. He made cattle and sheep, goats and dogs, antelope and elephants. He created hundreds of other creatures, thousands of birds, and made insects that scurried across the wildland. He made rivers and lakes and streams so that all his creatures could find water to quench their thirst and douse their fires.
One day Sky God called to a tiny lizard we call chameleon. Sky God called him Unwaba. He loved this creature, for Unwaba knew how to change color, to blend into the many hues of the world above and below. “Unwaba,” said Sky God, “I want you to travel from the sky to give the people a message from me. Tell them that they will live forever in this wondrous world I have made.”
Unwaba set out for Earth. He moved slowly, for he never hurried anywhere. He was busy as he traveled, turning to different hues as he passed through the many different places. Sky God watched him from above, saw him crawling slowly along, and as he watched, Sky God changed his mind, for he suddenly realized that if every creature lived forever, soon the Earth would have no room for all the new creatures.
“Hare,” Sky God called to the creature he had made with long, swift legs. “Come to me.”
When Hare arrived, Sky God said, “Hare, you must go quickly to the people and tell them that each of them will die one day. Tell the same to the cattle and the sheep and the dogs, and to every other creature. Nothing will remain on Earth forever. I was mistaken. You must make sure you give this message before Unwaba arrives with his own.”
Hare agreed to give the message and sped as quickly as he could back to Earth.
All this time Unwaba was treading onward, stopping now and then to eat or to sip water from a stream. Hare quickly passed Unwaba, leaving him behind in his dust. When he reached the people, he asked them to listen, one and all.
“All you people, and every creature tame and wild, white and black and red, will die one day,” Hare announced.
The people and the animals listened to Hare’s news. They all agreed that Sky God, in His wisdom, had made the proper decision. They would grow old and die, and in this way, they would make room for all those who came after them.
When Unwaba at last arrived, he called to the people to listen to him. “I have news from Sky God,” he announced, but the others quickly told him he was too late. “Sky God has given us the news that we will each die one day,” they said.
Unwaba turned from green to brown in his sadness, but he knew he was too late. The word of Sky God cannot be taken back, and so, from that time, all living things on Earth have been destined to die and to leave behind their children to carry on with the world.
Unwaba, too, accepted Sky God’s word, though he often wondered if the world might have been a different place if he had traveled more quickly.