Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters

Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters
John Steptoe
Once upon a time, in a certain place in Africa [Zimbabwe?], a small village lay across a river
and half a day's journey from a city where a great king lived. A man lived there, with his two
daughters, whose faces were a delight to look upon. Their names were Nyasha and Manyara.
Nysasha was gentle and good-natured, and Manyara, well, she was the kind who saw the
ugly in everything. Nothing pleased her, and the thing which pleased her least was her little
sister. She did her best to wipe the smile off of Nyasha's face whenever she could, and one
of her favorite things to say was, " Someday, Nyasha, I will be queen, and you will be a
servant in my household." To which her mild mannered sister replied, " If that should come
to pass, I will be pleased to serve you. But why do you say such things? You are clever and
strong and beautiful. Why are you so unhappy?" Manyara blamed Nyasha for everything: for
making HER look bad because she was so good, for growing a rich and bountiful garden
when her own straggled along, and most of all, for being the favorite of their father.
Nyasha just shrugged her shoulders and went to tend her garden. She sang while she
weeded and watered, and her sunflowers and yams and millet were so tall and vibrant that
they attracted birds from all around. Their bright red heads and golden wings bobbed
among the leaves, and their song mingled with the girl's. Birds were not the only creatures
attracted to the garden. One morning, " Nyasha noticed a small garden snake resting
beneath a yam vine. " Good day, little Nyoka" she called to him, " You are welcome here. You
will keep away any creatures who might spoil my vegetables. " She bent forward, gave the
little snake a loving pat on the head, and then returned to her work.
The garden flourished, and time passed. One day, a messenger from the big city arrived.
"The most Worthy and Beautiful Daughters in the Land are invited to appear before the king,
and he will choose one to become queen!". That was the message. Now, Mufaro called for
both his girls, assuring them that each of them had what it took to be chosen. He knew not
of the rivalry between them, as Manyara was cunning as well as cruel, and Nyasha was
passive as well as polite. She did not complain to her father because she knew it would
sadden him to hear. Now, Manyara tried to convince their father that Nyasha was too frail
for the journey, that she would waste away from missing her home if she went to the city,
but father would not hear of this plan.
" Prepare yourselves for a journey to the city. I will call together all our friends to make a
wedding party. We will leave as the sun rises."
And so the plan was made. But greedy Manyara would not wait. She snuck away in the night,
taking a pouch of food. She had thought it would be easy to arrive first, but had not figured
on the dark being so dark, or the way being so long. She was nervous, and, suddenly, a
small boy appeared in her path.
"I am hungry. Will you give me something to eat?"
he asked sadly, eyeing her bag. But Manyara shoved him rudely aside, saying she had
business to attend to and no food to spare. And off she went. After awhile, she came to an
open place, where the moonlight shone. And there an old woman sat upon a big rock,
watching the girl approach.
"I will give you some advice Manyara, " she offered, but that girl snorted rudely, asked how
the lady knew her name, and tried to hurry past. The old woman gave her the advice
anyway: soon, she said, Manyara would come to a grove of laughing trees, whose laughter
must not be returned, and then, a man with his head tucked under his own arm would pass
by. She was to show him respect, as well as the trees. Manyara was sure she knew better
than a silly old grannie sitting on a stone in the forest. So when a mile or so down the road,
the trees on either side beside began to chuckle as she passed, she jeered right back, " I
laugh at you, Trees! " and raced on down the path. That's when she saw a man with his head
under his arm, and she sure enough wasn't going to make polite conversation with him! "I
will be queen! I will be queen!" was the rhyme that kept her feet moving all the way to the
big city.
When dawn came in the village, they found her gone. Nyasha savored a look at her home,
drinking in the details, wondering if she would see it again. Could she trade its familiarity
for the home of a king? She would find out soon. The party traveled through the green
woods, and " brightly plumed birds darted all about in the cool green shadows beneath the
trees. " Suddenly, a small boy appeared in the pathway in front of Nyasha. He was so thin
and forlorn that she immediately drew one of her homegrown, roasted yams from her
purse, saying, " You must be hungry." He took the yam, and was gone. By and by, Nyasha
saw an old woman, sitting on a stone by the side of the path, pointing the direction to the
city. Her reward was a handful of the delicious sunflower seeds Nyasha had harvested.
Now the path took them under a grove of tall trees, which swayed and bent respectfully
before her. And now, "Nyasha ran ahead and topped the rise before the others could catch
up with her." She called to her father, and he joined her, and together they gazed in awe at
the gently rolling hills, the floating clouds, and the towers of the city in the distance. Late in
the day they reached the city gates, and whom should they see running towards them but
Manyara? She was shaking and snuffling, and clutched at her family.
" Do not go to the king, my sister,” she babbled, talking on and on of a snake with five
heads who recited her faults to her and made her cower. Nyasha was scared, but she had
come this far, and would see what fortune brought her. Mufaro took Manyara under his arm,
and watched while his younger child went bravely to the door of the king's chamber.
With trepidation, she pushed through, and, as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she burst
out giggling with relief. Indeed there was a snake: her little friend, Nyoka.
"Why are you here?' the girl asked, stroking his smooth, soft scales. And he replied, " I am
the king." and transformed into a young man whose warm brown skin glowed under the
white of his robe. Gold bracelets encircled the muscles of his bare arms, and his body
seemed to ripple with strength as he told her,
" I am the king. I am also the hungry boy with whom you shared a yam in the forest and the
old woman to whom you made a gift of sunflower seeds. But you know me best as Nyoka.
Because I have been all of these, I know you to be the Most Worthy and Most Beautiful
Daughter in the Land. It would make me very happy if you would be my wife."
The preparations for the wedding were made, and Nyasha herself baked the marriage bread,
of millet harvested from her own garden, rich with the love of her home. As for Mufaro, he
lived happily ever after. Why not? He had two beautiful daughters, one of whom was
queen....and the other, a servant in the queen's household!