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The International Textile Collection

Venda Folk Tale
Unidentified women’s cooperative (Venda)
Muswodi, Limpopo, South Africa
Cotton, cotton/polyester, polyester batting, embroidery thread
69 ½ x 96”
MSUM 2002:9.1
Photo by Pearl Yee Wong, all rights reseved by the Michigan State University Museum

Muswodi lies between the Limpopo River and Soutpansberg mountains near the border of South Africa and Zimbabwe. The embroidered panels illustrate images from a Venda folk tale.

Eternal Life Forever Lost
Once upon a time there lived a Venda king high up in the Makonde mountains. During his reign the people were happy and healthy. The rains came at the right time. Mealies, sweet potatoes, bananas and mangoes were plentiful. It was indeed a good time to be living high up in the Makonde mountains. The Venda king, however was heartbroken because day by day he watched his old mother getting weaker. One morning the women came to tell him that she had died during the night.
“Why can man not be like the moon?” The king wondered. “The moon gets smaller and smaller, but always returns to the sky and again grows stronger.”
He called his councilors and they decided to send a message to the gods with the request to grant man everlasting life – like the moon.
“Who shall we send?” they asked.
“Chameleon is an extremely trustworthy messenger,” the king said. “With those large eyes he notices everything and when there is danger he can quickly change colour and hide. As his companion I will send Centipede. With all those legs, Centipede can move fast and this is indeed an urgent matter.”
Chameleon and Centipede were called to appear before the king.
The king said, “Centipede, this is your message to the gods: ‘The Venda king from the Makonde mountains asks you all very humbly to allow man to live again after he has passed away.’”
“Chameleon, this is your message to the gods: “The Venda king from the Makonde mountains asks you all very humbly not to let the moon rise again, once it has set.’”
With great speed the two messengers took off. But, alas something unforeseen happened. Centipede came across a tree full of ripe sandapples. He could not tear himself away from the feast and ate and ate.

In the meantime Chameleon had arrived at the land of the gods. He appeared before them and delivered the king’s message. The moment, however, was too great for this simple messenger from Vendaland and in the presence of these awe-inspiring gods a dreadful thing happened, Chameleon forgot his words. There he stood, eyes rolling from one god to the other, tongue-tied. At last he stuttered, “Oh, oh gods! Our Venda king from the Makonde mountains ask you all humbly…to allow man to remain dead…after he had passed away…”

The next day Centipede arrived. He was brought before the gods and delivered his message. “The Venda king from the Makonde mountains ask you all very humbly to allow man to live again after he had passed away.”

“Oh no we had already granted the request of the first speaker, we cannot change that.”

And that is how human beings lost their chance to have everlasting life and why the Chameleon is hated and feared by the Venda people.

By Marsha MacDowell

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