My friend Summer spent many months in a village in Sierra Leone. She made many friends and seamlessly integrated into the Mandinka people’s culture. Summer always told me of how the Mane (also called the Mani) would tell clever stories as a way to impart knowledge to young and old, to teach about the moral and ethical standards of culture, how to function in the community and with the natural world that is such an important part of the Mane’s lives. She learned to listen to both the external and internal messages of stories, because to understand both what is said and what is not said is the holistic way of understanding a story and experiencing its power and meaning.
Months before her death, Summer sent me the the story of the Heart Eater. From an external observation, it could be thought of as just a fantastical tale, which it is in some sense, but a closer observation unravels that it is more than just a story with a genie that eats hearts.
At the beginning of the tale, the sentence “before the wind spoke to the ears of the living, before mountains walked near villages to protect them from storms…” serves as an anchor to set the story in a place where the natural world is as alive as the humans and animals that inhabit that space. This image also shows that after this story, whatever its conclusion might be, there is going to come about a deeper understanding of this landscape, a transformation that always occurs when there are interactions between people, between people and animals, between people and their environment and so on and so forth.
The other details that follow about the river and what people do with the water are very important. This illustrates the life source of a village, the river that is used to grow crops, and perform all activities that allow life to flourish. Within this detail, the listener or reader knows that this is a community that grows its own crops, that doesn’t have tap water. This information is relevant because when that source of water is affected, the community changes, its dynamic and functionality is altered.
In addition, the most obvious images in a story have hidden meanings that are sometimes easily ignored by the listeners because they are only looking at the external presentation of the image. An example in this story is the fact stated in the first paragraph that the village and all the living things in it wash their faces with the river every morning to avoid crying that brings about unhappiness. The question here then that would allow us to dig deeper for the meaning of this task of washing faces in the river, is to ask why and how does this prevent sadness? With this question in mind, it starts to become clear that sight without ritual gives rise to sadness in this story. And the washing, the ritual, is the provision of pure sight free from judgment, especially judgment without knowledge. So the washing of faces is a way to start the day from the unknown, from a clean slate if you will, and therefore allowing the natural occurrence of things. Another important point of the story is how useful the hearts that contained fear and unhappiness are to bring about happiness. Therefore the sack that the hunter carries is a useful one and even the genie will in time become useful for transformation.
In conclusion, as much as I am tempted to explain the meaning and purpose of this story from what I know from hearing it from Summer, I won’t. Reason being that there is no singular meaning to explain any story and if I do so, I take away the purity of how each reader experiences the story. However, I would strongly suggest that you keep in mind that each detail, each image has a hidden meaning, a visible and invisible meaning.
Thank you Summer for sharing your experiences and for opening a window into the Mandinka culture of Sierra Leone.
Once upon a time, before the wind spoke to the ears of the living, before mountains walked near villages to protect them from storms, there was a village called Muwor (the place of crying). The village stood near a river that flowed in abundance, even in the driest season. It was a river where people came to fetch water for their crops and cooking, to bathe, and especially to wash their faces early every morning. Each morning before the sun lit the sky, the entire village came to the river to wash their faces. Everyone had to perform this task; even children who hadn’t walked or had a voice for talking were brought to the river and their faces washed by their parents. Animals of all sorts came for this morning ritual. Anything with life that had eyes had to wash their faces in the river in the early morning. If someone failed to wash his, her, or its face, they would cry uncontrollably all day, and the entire village would be sad. The only time that it wasn’t required for all to wash their faces was when someone died in the village. The elders believed that this crying was necessary as it cleansed the heart and made it understand that death is a part of life.
One morning, everything changed. The night before that morning, a genie had found a home in the river of tears. The genie had been flying over the land and had lost its flight and fallen into the river. While in the river, it felt every sorrow, happiness, and fear of the village as its body was soaked with the water of tears from all living things on the land. The genie decided that it would wait at the river in the morning and capture some people so that it could eat their hearts. The genie felt that their hearts were pure and, by eating the hearts of the entire village, it would become good. So it waited in the river for morning.
In the morning, as customary, everyone descended to the riverbank and began the washing of faces. The genie leapt from the water and caught an old man. Everyone ran away, even those who hadn’t washed their faces that morning. The genie took the old man’s heart and ate it. It didn’t feel better afterwards and thought that perhaps more eating of hearts was required to become happy. What the genie didn’t realize was that the old man had been so frightened when attacked that all happiness left his heart and only fear remained. Therefore the genie had eaten only that fear. Since the people and all living things were now afraid to come to the river, the village was consumed with terrible sadness and crying. The genie was angry when it heard all the crying. It believed that the village was crying for the old man it had eaten. It decided to enter the village and eat the hearts of everything with life it could find. Still, it remained unhappy. Some people escaped the village and went to other lands where they told the story of heart-eating genie.
The story fell on the ears of a hunter who decided to travel to the land with the river of tears. He was not an ordinary hunter. His specialty was hunting fear and unhappiness and he had collected hearts that contained both. He loaded his sack with those hearts and headed for the village of Muwor. The hunter took his own heart out and hid it as he neared the village. He then replaced his heart with one of the hearts poisoned with fear and unhappiness from his hunting sack. He sat by the river and the genie immediately sprang out of the water and plucked out his heart and ate it. He took another heart from the sack and put it in his chest and the genie snatched it quicker than the first time. This went on for hours until the genie had eaten all the hearts from the sack. It was filled with rage that fumed out of its pores. The anger, fear, and sadness exhausted the genie and it came on the land to rest. It was then that the hunter removed his arrow and shot the genie. The arrow wasn’t the one that killed but it put the genie into a coma until the hunter decided to shoot it with another arrow to activate its life fully. He collected the body of the genie and stuffed it in his hunting sack. News spread of what had happened and people returned to the land again, and were never afraid to wash their faces in the river, which sparkled with joy and sometimes ripples of sorrow that came and went with the seasons.