The Mwindo epic is an oral tale from the Congo told by the Nyanga people. The origins and creation of the Mwindo epic are mostly unknown since the story is only passed down orally. The first literary work of Mwindo was recorded by Daniel Biebuyck and published by the University of California Press in 1969.
The Mwindo Epic varies from typical oral myths in that it is not only spoken, but performed among gatherings of locals. The myth is performed mostly by a single bard wielding a calabash made into a rattle and donning various bells and other forms of noisemakers. To tell the story properly the bard acts out all the parts and does not refrain from being very animated in his dances and acting. It is not unusual for the bard to throw in some narrative not native to the story detailing his own life and his own personal experiences. The narrator is usually accompanied by four younger men who play on a percussion stick.
Audience participation is important. The audience will often sing along with the narrator and the percussionists during the songs, and repeat certain lines of the story while the narrator pauses between sections. The bard is often shown appreciation by the audience with applause, yells, and gifts.
As with any oral myth there are many different interpretations between the different storytellers. As the storyteller adds his own story to the tale, he will usually emphasize certain parts so that it will seem more relevant to the point he is trying to make. This emphasis may be picked up by future bards, but most always each bard tells the story from a personal perspective. According to Biebuyck, the differences in the story are welcomed and expected by the audience.
The Epic begins in the village of Tubondo ruled by the evil chief Shemwindo. He decreed upon his seven wives that they must only produce him daughters; if a son is born, he (and in some versions his mother) will be executed. This was Shemwindo's ploy to get richer, as it is tradition for a man to pay a dowry or bride-price if he wishes to marry a woman.
He laid with them and all his seven wives became pregnant at the same time. The first six wives soon gave birth to daughters, but ,the seventh wife, Nyamwindo's pregnancy was prolonged. Due to her pregnancy she is unable to perform her duties and chores but, to her surprise, every work is mysteriously done without aid; this was the work of her unborn son. At the time of the deliverance, the unborn child climbed from the womb and came out of Nyamwindo's middle finger. This male child is named Mwindo. The child was born wielding a conga-scepter, an azde-axe, and a bag of the fortune goddess Kahonbo that contains a long rope.
Shemwindo soon learns of the birth and tries to kill the boy in several ways. First he throws seven consecutive spears, which were all repelled by Mwindo's conga-scepter; second he tries to bury his son alive, but Mwindo simply climbs up during the night; and finally he seals the boy inside a drum and throws it by a nearby river.
Unsurprisingly, the drum surfaces and floats but Mwindo decides to sail away, to seek refuge to his paternal aunt Iyangura.
Journey to Iyangura
Mwindo, still inside the drum, encountered many aquatic animals, to which he boasted his prowess. After a while, his path was blocked by Musoka, the sister-in-law of Iyangura, under the orders of Mukiti the river deity, Musoka's brother and Iyangura's husband. Mwindo simply dug under the river's sandy floor, reemerged after passing over Musoka, and continued on his quest.
Mwindo then encounters Mukiti, the serpent spirit and the husband of Iyangura, who also denies the boy access to his aunt. Meanwhile, a group of Iyangura's maidens, who were gathering water in a nearby watering hole, witnessed them. The maidens quickly reported to Iyangura. At once, his aunt retrieved the drum and slashed it open with a knife, releasing Mwindo from his cage. She then instructed Mwindo to go ahead to her house.
Mukiti held a secret council on how to kill the boy. Meanwhile, Katee, the hedgehog god, warned Mwindo on the dangers ahead if he wishes to go to his aunt's abode. Undeterred, Mwindo wishes to go to his aunt's home anyway. Katee assisted him by building a tunnel that led directly to Iyangura's house. Unbeknownst to them, Mukiti had already instructed his ally, Kasiyembe, to set multiple pit traps on the floors of Iyangura's house.
Upon exiting from the other side of the tunnel, Mwindo was immediately challenged by Kasiyembe into a dancing contest, hoping that the boy falls in at least one of the pit traps, which contains razor sharp spike down below. One by one, Mwindo danced at the middle of each traps but did not fall due to the intervention of Master Spider. Master Spider, who favored Mwindo, built bridges, made out of thin web, on every pit trap before Mwindo's arrival.
Kasiyembe then called upon Nkuba, the lightning deity, to hurl lightning at Mwindo. Nkuba hurled seven consecutive lightning strikes but all attempts barely missed. Mwindo, through magic, retaliated by setting Kasiyembe's hair ablaze and evaporating every water source to prevent people from extinguishing the flames. Unable to extinguish the flames on his head, Kasiyembe dies.
Iyangura tearfully begs her nephew to show mercy and implores him to revive Kasiyembe. Mwindo, moved by her compassion, waves his conga-scepter on Kasiyembe's face. Suddenly, Kasiyembe is resurrected and all the water supply were replenished. Kasiyembe repents and acknowledges Mwindo's superiority.
Return to Tubondo
After accomplishing those deeds, Mwindo told his aunt that he plans to return to his home village alone tomorrow. Iyangura persuades him to take her, and a handful of warriors, to his aid. She also persuades him to first head to the home of the Baniyana, bat gods and Mwindo's maternal uncles, so that they can forge him for they are also renowned smiths. The bat gods forge him: some versions say that they make him a full body armor while some versions say that they cut his body in parts, forge it, and revert them back, turning his body into iron. His uncles then joined him.
Upon reaching the outside of the village and setting camp, Iyangura expresses her concern that the army has nothing to eat. Mwindo simply waved his conga-scepter and sang his magic songs. Almost instantly, food were magically hoisted from Tubondo to Mwindo's camp enough to feed the entire army.
Mwindo then sent first his uncles and the warriors to fight while he and his aunt observed. A battle erupted between Mwindo's forces and Shemwindo's forces, until all of Mwindo's forces were wiped out. One of his uncles barely escaped with his life, and reported back at camp. Mwindo went to the village center and called upon Nkuba, the lightning god, while raising his conga-scepter to the heavens. Almost immediately, seven lightning bolts obliterated the village and its inhabitants to ashes.
Mwindo, using his conga-scepter, revives his uncles before giving chase to his father. Meanwhile, Shemwindo barely escapes the destruction. Shemwindo goes to a kikota-plant, uproots it (revealing a deep pit), and descended. This was the portal to the Underworld, the realm of the Nyanga Pantheon.
Journey to the Underworld
When Mwindo learns of this, he goes down to the underworld the same way his father, Shemwindo did. Mwindo falls into darkness until he lands in the great cavernous jungles of the Underworld. He follows a path until he comes to the hut of Kahindo, daughter of the God of the Dead, Muisa. Kahindo would be a beautiful young maiden, but she is infected with yaws, which leaves pussy sores all over her body. She immediately falls in love with Mwindo and agrees to help him beat her father. She warns Mwindo that when they meet, Mwindo must not accept a seat, food, or drink from Muisa, or Mwindo will be forced to remain in the land of the dead forever. In gratitude, Mwindo washes Kahindo's sores, and in the morning she looks a little better. Mwindo meets with Muisa. Muisa admits he is sheltering Shemwindo, but he will not give the chieftain to Mwindo unless Mwindo proves his worth by doing a "little task." He must grow a banana forest and harvest the fruit all in one day. Mwindo agrees. That night, Mwindo stays again in Kahindo's house and washes her wounds. In the morning, she looks much better. Mwindo uses his powers to make the banana forest grow. One of Muisa's servants sees this, and warns his master. Muisa sends his cowry shell belt to kill Mwindo. It begins strangling Mwindo, but at the last minute he knocks it away with his scepter. Mwindo sends the scepter to punish Muisa, and the scepter bangs the god's head into the ground. Mwindo returns with the harvested bananas, but Muisa says he must still do one more task. In the morning, he must harvest abucket of honey from the god's honey tree. Mwindo is frustrated, but he agrees. That night, Mwindo stays again in Kahindo's house and washes her wounds. In the morning, she looks completely normal. Mwindo uses smoke to drive the killer bees away from the tree, but then finds the trunk is petrified and impossible to break. He calls on Nkuba, who sends a lightning bolt into the Underworld and blows up the tree. One of Muisa's servants sees this, and warns his master. Muisa again sends his cowry shell belt to kill Mwindo. It begins strangling Mwindo, but at the last minute he knocks it away with his scepter. Once again, Mwindo sends the scepter to punish Muisa, and the scepter bangs the god's head into the ground. Mwindo returns with the honey, but Muisa says he cannot give him Shemwindo. The chieftain has already escaped, back to the world by another tunnel. Outraged, Mwindo beats the god flat with his scepter and promises to leave him that way until he finds Shemwindo. Mwindo then says goodbye to Kahindo and follows his father back out of the Underworld.
Mwindo follows the trail of his father to a cave which is blocked by the huge aardvark spirit Ntumba. Mwindo warns Ntumba to step aside, but Ntumba refuses. Mwindo calls on Nkuba to blow up the cave, and finds that Shemwindo was hiding behind the aardvark. Shemwindo gets away. Mwindo punishes the aardvark by inflicting him with elephantitis, a painful swelling disease. Mwindo returns to the world and pursues his father all the way to the Great Rift Valley, where the trail stops. Mwindo realizes his father has escaped into the clouds, but he does not know how to follow. He sees the giant children of the Sky God playing nearby and asks their help. They say they will help if Mwindo makes them a snack. He brings them twelve enormous bowls, cut from tree trunks, full of good things to eat. As the children finish their snack, they turn the bowls upside down and stack them, making a stairway into the clouds. Mwindo climbs the bowls and comes to the village of the Sky God, Sheburungu. Sheburungu refuses to give up Shemwindo unless Mwindo gambles for him. Mwindo bets all his cattle from Tubondo and loses. He bets all his houses and loses. He bets all his people, even his mother and his aunt, and loses. Finally he bets his conga scepter and begins winning everything back, until he owns all the Sky God's town and his father's life. Shemwindo is brought forth in chains. Mwindo gives the Sky God back his town. He then retraces his steps. He cures Ntumba of elephantitis. He heals Muisa's wounds, but when Muisa offers his daughter Kahindo to him in marriage, Mwindo refuses. He must return to the world and marry a human maiden. Mwindo returns to Tubondo, helps rebuild the city, and rules as a wise and powerful king. He has three brass thrones made, which float ten feet off the ground. Mwindo sits in the middle, his aunt on the right, and his imprisoned father on the left. Shemwindo's punishment is to live the rest of his life watching his son be a better ruler than he was.