Gogo breathed deeply of the cool evening air. She paused beneath the darkening sky, hands pressed into her back.
“Woza, Gogo!” called little Methembe, who, although he seemed to have unlimited energy, always waited for his granny. “Come on!” he encouraged as he turned and dashed up the final rise toward the homestead. Gogo chuckled, shook her head slowly and forced her feet to continue up the path. “Hawu!” she thought to herself. Soon she would no longer be able to make it down to the river and back. By the time Gogo came within sight of the evening fire, the children had put away the washed clothing and deposited the firewood where it was stored. They were now squatting in a tight circle, the older ones rocking on their heels, waiting for their elders to finish eating that they might then have their dinner.
After everyone had eaten and the pots were filled with water to soak, Gogo and the children settled down before the fire. “Gogo,” asked Methembe rather tentatively, choosing to look into the fire rather than at his beloved granny, “why do people grow old and die?” The old woman looked lovingly at her grandson and smiled. She knew his unspoken fears.
“Ahh, my little Hope,” she answered, looking into the fire herself. “That is a very interesting tale! Shall I tell you, my children, the story of why people must grow old and die?”
“Yebo, Gogo! Yes!” they all answered as if one.
“Alright then…” And Gogo began. “Kwasuka sukela….”
After God the great Creator finished making all things, he sat back and took a long look at the world he’d made. He smiled and decided that it was very good. He was especially pleased with the people, the first man and woman. They, after all, were the most like himself. “Yes,” he thought, “this is good! Very good!”
But as time went on the Creator noticed that man and woman kept injuring their bodies. Oh, the skin would heal with time, but it always left scars. And after many years the first man and woman’s bodies were looking old and tatty indeed! “Hmmm,” thought Creator, “these bodies are wearing out! Time, I think, for new ones!”
So Creator called Chameleon to himself. “Listen, Chameleon,” said Creator, “I have a package that I want you to deliver to man and woman. It is most urgent, so do not delay. Go straight to the people, tell them I sent you, and give them this parcel from me!” With that he pushed a small package into Chameleon’s hands. “I trust you, Chameleon, for you are loyal and swift. Go now!”
So Chameleon set off to do as his Lord bid. In those days Chameleon was fast as lightning. He sped toward Earth, the parcel neatly tucked beneath his arm. When he reached the great river he paused to take a drink. And this proved to be his undoing!
Snake just happened to be drinking at the same time. “Hello, Cousin Chameleon,” he hissed. “My, you are in a great hurry today! What are you about?”
Chameleon looked up. “Ah, yebo! Sawubona, Nyoka!” he politely replied. (sah-woo-boh’-nah nyoh’kah = “Yes, I see you, Snake!” or “Hello, Snake!”) “I have a package to deliver for Creator. Something for the people.”
Now Snake hated the people. They walked so far above the ground, often treading on Snake and his family members without even noticing. And Creator seemed to pay so much more attention to them than he did to the other animals. Snake was bitterly jealous of people, and when he heard that Chameleon was taking a gift to them from Creator, Snake began to scheme. How could he make sure that people did not receive this gift?
“Oh, dear Cousin Chameleon,” Snake hissed, edging closer to Chameleon and the parcel. “It is so good to see you again! My family has missed you a great deal! All of our other relatives come often to share a meal. But you never seem to have time for us! One would tend to think that perhaps you thought yourself too good to associate with your close kin!”
Now Chameleon was a sensitive fellow. It worried him to think that Snake might have something against him. “Oh, no, dear cousin Nyoka,” pleaded Chameleon. “I assure you that I hold you in high regard! I would be honoured to come for a meal sometime!”
“Well,” Snake answered quickly, “why not now? My wife is at this very moment waiting lunch for me. She would be pleased beyond words to see you dine with us!”
“Oh, dear!” answered Chameleon, looking at the parcel still tucked beneath his arm. “I really have an urgent errand for Creator at the moment. Ummmm….perhaps some other time?”
“Yes, yes,” hissed Snake turning away with a hint of disgust in his voice. “Just as I thought. Too good for the likes of us! Well, run along then with your all-important business.”
Chameleon looked at the sun. It was still high in the sky. He could have the mid-day meal with Snake’s family and have plenty of time left to deliver the package. Perhaps he was being too hasty. “Wait, Snake,” Chameleon spoke quickly. “I was being too abrupt. I beg your pardon. I really would love to have a meal with you. To prove it I will dine with you now and do my business after the meal!”
Snake smiled to himself before he turned back toward Chameleon. “Oh, Chameleon,” Snake replied, sounding quite humble indeed, “Thank you! It is we who will be honoured by your presence, I assure you!” And with that he led Chameleon off to his burrow.
Snake’s wife had really outdone herself, as usual. She’d prepared a huge and sumptuous meal and truly was delighted to see that Chameleon had come to share it with them. She encouraged him to have more and more, and as it was so delicious, Chameleon helped himself until he was almost too full to move. He was having such a good time, and was especially enjoying Snake’s outstanding utshwala (oo-chwah’-lah = a traditional Zulu beer brewed from sorghum), that he forgot all about his special mission. Snake smiled slyly as he watched Chameleon’s head nod and his eyelids droop. Snake laughed aloud as Chameleon fell asleep with a satisfied little grunt.
“What is so funny, my husband?” asked Snake’s wife, accustomed to the ways of nature to rest after the mid-day meal in the hottest hours of the day. She saw nothing strange or funny about Chameleon’s behaviour. It was actually a compliment to her as a hostess, that she had made her guest so comfortable and welcome.
“Look here,” Snake hissed, as he gently lifted the package from under Chameleon’s arm.
“What is that?” she asked.
“A gift for us from Creator,” Snake laughed. And with that Snake tore open the parcel. “Look, my good wife,” he exclaimed, lifting something from the box. “Creator has sent us new skins! New skins, so that whenever our old ones wear out we can change into new ones!” Snake laughed again, louder this time, waking his guest. Chameleon took one look at the parcel and immediately knew what had happened.
“No, Snake!” Chameleon pleaded, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Those are not for you! They are for people. You know that! Give them back!” Chameleon stretched out his hands toward the skins. “Please, Nyoka! Give them back!”
But Snake just laughed, holding the skins beyond Chameleon’s reach. “No, my cousin. These are my skins now!” And with that Snake slithered away.
As the sun went down Chameleon was sick with sadness for the way in which he’d been betrayed and for the way in which he had disobeyed. He hid away from Creator in the braces of the trees, clinging to the limbs, moving slowly so as not to be detected. He was too afraid to face Creator.
“And so, you see, my children,” finished Gogo, “how it was that people were cheated out of new skins by Snake. To this day snake will shed his old skin and don a new one whenever he is feeling his age.”
“But that’s not fair, Gogo!” cried Methembe. “Creator should make Snake return the skins!”
“Ah, well, my boy,” Gogo looked at him and placed a hand on his head, “Life is not always fair. But while Snake got the skins, Creator did not stop the people from standing on Snake from time-to-time. In fact, when most people encounter Snake these days they give him what they think he deserves: a sound thrashing! And, of course, Chameleon is still hiding away in the trees, moving so slowly that he usually goes undetected. And as for people, well, Creator gave them another gift that was better than new skins!”
“What was that, Gogo?” the children asked
“Oh, my children,” Gogo replied with a smile, “That is a story for another time! Now my weary old bones tell me that it is time for a good night’s rest!”
And with a great heave Gogo lifted herself from her stump by the fire and walked slowly toward her hut.
“Lalani kahle, bantwana!” (lah-lah’-nee kah’-hlay bah-ntwah’-nah = “Sleep well, children!”)