Leza and the Tower to Heaven

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(Ila, Kaonde/Zambia)

Leza, the supreme being, is closely identified with nature; as Lubumba, the creator, he is above nature, and as Chilenga he is regarded as the grand institutor of customs. So close is the connection between God and nature that rain is given the same name, Leza. People pray to him on occasion; prayers are also addressed to the mizhimo, the ancestral spirits; the mizhimo mediate between God and man.

In the beginning, a man descended from above accompanied by his mother, his wife, his mother-in-law, cattle, goats, and dogs. The women herded the cattle but used to quarrel about it. Consequently, the cattle frequently got lost. One evening, the cattle had not returned and it was too late to find them. The next morning they went into the forest to look for them, and found that they had turned into buffalo. That was the first misfortune. After a time, another misfortune arrived: the mother of the man's wife died. The woman told her husband that they must bring back her mother. The man refused, insisting she would turn up of her own accord. When the man's mother died and he wanted to go to get her, his wife refused because of his earlier attitude about her mother. That is why people die and do not return.

A very old woman, in ancient times, was perplexed by the riddle of this painful earth; she set out to seek Leza and to demand from him an explanation. She was an old woman of a family with a long genealogy. Leza, being Shikakunamo, the besetting one, killed her mother and father while she was a child, and over time everyone connected with her died, even the children of her children. She became withered with age, and it seemed to her that she herself was at last to be taken. But a change came over her: she grew younger. Then came into her heart a desperate resolution to find God and to ask the meaning of it all. Somewhere up in the sky must be his dwelling. She cut down tall trees, joining them together and planting a structure that would reach to heaven. As it was getting to be as she wanted it, the lowest timbers rotted and it fell. She fell with it, but without being killed or breaking a bone. She again erected the structure, but once again the foundations rotted and it fell. Somewhere on earth there must be another way to heaven. She traveled through many countries, seeking the place where earth and sky touch, to find the road to God and to ask what she had done to him to deserve these afflictions. She never found where the earth ends, but though disappointed she did not give up her search. People asked her what she sought, and she said, “I am seeking Leza.” Why did she seek Leza? How had she suffered? Because, she said, she was alone, a solitary woman. How are you different from others? they asked. “Shikakunamo sits on the back of every one of us, and we cannot shake him off.” She never obtained her desire: she died of a broken heart. From her time to this, nobody has ever solved her problem.


Subjects: Religion.

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