In ancient Afrika, there was an empire known as the Maravi Kingdom, ruled by Chief Nzelu of the Lomwe Tribe. She had six children, and her third and most curious daughter was Nanzi. Nanzi’s curiosity often led her far from the boundaries of her tribe, in spite of being repeatedly punished.
One day, when Nanzi was miles from her village and waist deep in the Shire River exploring river slugs, a young man from the Ngoni tribe saw her. She was the most beautiful woman in the Maravi kingdom, with skin browner than smooth cocoa beans, kinky hair in twists that touched her shoulders, and curves the moon envied.
“I’ve never seen anyone take such interest in river slugs,” said the young man. Nanzi turned, startled and smiled when she saw the strong handsome man, skin like the ripest mulberry, playful eyes that reflected her own curiosity.
“There aren’t any downstream,” she replied, tilting her head, her twists falling behind her ear like a curly waterfall.
“Where is your home, Beautiful One?”
“I rode here on my okapi from Thyolo, Strange One.”
“You call me strange yet you ride an okapi! I am jealous by the way.”
Nanzi laughed. “Perhaps I can teach you to ride… for a fee.”
“I’ll pay anything.”
“Tell me all about your river slugs.”
“No. The price is too low. I will teach you everything about my land.” He perched on the river bank. “My name is Kambe…”
Nanzi and Kambe spent many days by the river, sharing stories of their tribes. When she returned home, she spoke of nothing else with her sisters. Soon the Chief heard got word and called for her daughter.
“Nanzi, when you wander, you risk capture by enemies. You could be held for ransom if they learn you are royalty,” she began.
The Chief raised her hand. “Do not interrupt me.” Her quiet voice, struck dread into Nanzi. “We have been at war with the Ngoni Tribe for generations. You cannot see him again.”
“Hush!” Now her anger was clear. “There are things you do not yet understand which affect more than your careless heart. You are royalty, you must marry wisely.”
Nanzi’s heart broke. She ran into the forest, weeping, and the Chief let her go to return in her own time. But Nanzi didn’t return for a whole moon cycle.
The Chief sent scouts to every corner of the capital in search of her. A witness soon came forward and told a horrifying story of a great beast, part snake, part elephant, which had taken Nanzi up to Mulanje Mountain. Her daughter had been taken not by a rival tribe, but by a Grootslang, a creature known for stealing and hoarding things of beauty. The Chief struck her spear deep into a stone and wailed in grief. She called upon the bravest warriors in the Maravi kingdom to rescue her daughter and be rewarded with her hand in marriage.
After many failed, Kambe came forward. When the Chief learned who he was, she almost had him executed.
“Wait! Let me try. My tribe are fierce warriors. And we have seen many strange things. You have little to lose, Mfumu.” He spoke desperately as the royal guard tried to pull him away.
The Chief raised her hand and addressed him. “Ngoni, you may attempt to rescue my daughter. But send word to your people that your death will not be the fault of the Lomwe.”
“And,” her lips tightened. “Should you succeed, you cannot marry her. You may be rewarded in other ways.”
Kambe agreed, but had hope he could change her mind. He prepared himself for the journey by learning about Mulanje Mountain from a spirit healer. She guided him as far as the base of the mountain, and told him how to get to the highest peak named Sapitwa. “I have asked the spirits not to harm you.” Before she turned away, she added, “Do you know what Sapitwa means, Ngoni?”
“I do, ma.”
“Then you are a fool.” And she was gone. Sapitwa; where no man should go.
Kambe climbed through the forest. He appeased the spirits by offering them beer and food. By evening, he reached a pool with a small waterfall named Dziwe la Nkhalamba where he rested on the flat rocks.
At night, he was awoken by Nanzi’s voice. He looked around for her until he peered into the pool’s gently rippling water. There he saw her face instead of his own reflection.
“An enchanted mirror… listen, there is no time! I only want to say; turn back now.”
“I am coming to rescue you.”
“I do not want you! I would rather die than marry a Ngoni man.”
Kambe was silent as his eyes widened. By some miracle, he found words to speak again. “You don’t mean that.”
“I do. Ngoni’s are stubborn, dull, disrespectful-“
“Let a more worthy man come. Not you.”
Kambe’s throat tightened. “You’ve been bewitched…”
“Listen to me. Do I sound bewitched?”
Kambe sighed. “No.”
“Then you know I mean it. You disgust me.” Her image was broken by the waves, replaced with Kambe’s own dumbfounded expression. He had once been stabbed in the ribs in battle – he would choose that pain over this any day.
He cried out and flung a stone into the pool. Turning, he climbed down the hill, but found that with every step, his chest tightened. He could not leave her. Much as she despised him, he knew that the absolute only thing worse than her cruel rejection was losing her to death. Reluctantly he climbed again, hating every foolish step he took. He would let the ungrateful woman live to marry whomever she wanted.
He reached the top of the highest peak, where two large rocks stood like a rabbit’s ears. He stepped through the gap between the rocks and everything was strange. Instead of on top of a mountain range, he emerged in a dimly lit cave.
He cursed his own foolishness for the fiftieth time. Taking caution he saw a huge dark shadow, rising and falling. The Grootslang. It was curled below a mountain of treasure. He snuck around it, searching for Nanzi. She was sitting against a large mirror with her head bowed low, her twists tied up, save two which dropped in front of her face. He watched her as if seeing her for the first time again. She looked up with tears streaming down her face.
“No… not you, no…” she whispered.
“I know that I disgust you,” murmured Kambe. “But no one else is coming and-”
Nanzi shook her head miserably. “Don’t you see, Kambe? The beast will kill you. I broke your heart so you could live!”
Kambe’s world ceased to spin as he realized she loved him more than her own life. He pulled her to him and they embraced, then she kissed him through her waterfall of tears. He held her shoulders and looked into her eyes. “Let us both live. Tell me everything you know…”
The Grootslang’s weaknesses were the end of its snake tail and a blind spot created by a horn dead-centre between its elephant eyes. Nanzi climbed onto the horn, then Kambe stabbed the tail hard, waking the beast up with a screeching roar. It spun around, and launched down at him. As it did, he jumped up and Nanzi caught him.
They held on tightly to the horn, completely invisible, yet right in front of its face… It slithered towards the rabbit ear stones, but before it went through, Nanzi pulled a fruit out of Kambe’s bag and threw it into a deep pool. The Grootslang sped towards it while the heroes struggled to hold on. Kambe signaled for them to let go. They got out of the way just as the Grootslang stabbed its horn into the water. They ran to the gateway, as something strong began wrestling the monster in the water…
With one leap they were on Sapitwa Peak again. They caught their breaths, watching the fading stars and the coming dawn bathe the land for miles around. Nanzi reached out and held Kambe’s hand and they smiled.
The Chief was so grateful that she blessed their union happily. Kambe proclaimed that he would only have her if Nanzi accepted. They courted, until Nanzi accepted to marry Kambe. In their years together they built a Centre of Wisdom where people from all tribes could exchange knowledge from around the kingdom, thus creating a lasting peace between the Ngoni and the Lomwe.
The tale of their escape from the Grootslang became legend, told by parents to their children, then their grandchildren. The crafty chameleon was named ‘nanzikambe’, for its skills in hiding from sight.
The Grootslang was defeated by a giant spirit water snake that would later be known as Napolo… ah, that is another story.