The Mother of the Soroko

Hayley Milliman - Content Lead

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Adapted from a Nigerian folk tale.

The beast came at harvest time.

No one in the village knew where it came from, or why, but come it did, every year, as soon as the crops were ready for picking. The earth would tremble, the river would shake and the beast would appear, beads of water from the mighty Niger dripping off its pointed teeth.

Those who saw it and survived the encounter said that the beast resembled a hippopotamus, though no real hippo could run faster than the eye could see or stood taller than the tallest man.

It was best, the villagers said, to flee as fast as you could in the other direction if you ever happened upon the monster. Its hide was resistant to even the sharpest of spears and many swore the beast could shed its skin, transforming into a crocodile or bird or manatee to elude capture.

The only fortunate thing about the whole situation was that the beast seemed more interested in the rice crop than the humans that tended the plants. It would generally leave you well enough alone if you did not stand in the way of its feasting. But each year, the beast grew hungrier, consuming more and more of the vital food the villagers needed to survive, until, one year, there was nothing left.

Desperate for help, the villagers turned to a man named Fara Maka.

Fara Maka, the legends say, was as tall as a tree and twice as strong, with legs as thick as roots. Fara Maka knew many things, like the names of all the fish in the river and the best plants to use as potions to cure different ailments. He had a daughter, as well, named Nana Miriam, who was just as strong and smart as her father.

But Nana Miriam had a secret – she had a power, slumbering quietly inside her, that could only be described as magic. And though she had this power, Nana Miriam told no one of it, not even her father. Her people despised of boasting, and Nana Miriam did not want to disappoint anyone.

When the villagers came to Fara Maka for help with the beast, he agreed at once. He armed himself with seven spears and 120 hunting dogs and went to the river, accompanied by the chief of a nearby land.

Fara Maka, the chief, and the dozens of dogs crept alongside the river bank until they heard the ominous crunching of something feasting on the crops. From their view on the hilltop, they aimed their spears at the beast. One by one, they hurled the weapons and one by one, the spears were burned to a crisp before they even reached the monster.

“Sorcery,” the chief whispered, then motioned to the dogs.

Teeth gnashing, the dogs charged as one, a ferocious, deadly pack. But their strength and their fierceness was all for nothing – the beast simply turned from its former lunch and ate the dogs one by one.

As Fara Maka and his companion turned to run, the wise man cast one glance at the beast over his shoulder. He swore he saw it laughing.

The banks of the Niger River

When they returned to the village, Fara Maka and the chief told the waiting villagers that their efforts were of no use. They couldn’t stop the beast — no one could. A frightened murmur broke out through the crowd, as the villagers wondered if they would have to leave their homes to escape this plague.

Perched on a small mound nearby to the village center, Nana Miriam heard the commotion. Frowning and fingering the small bag strapped to her body, Nana Miriam considered the problem, then walked up to her father in the middle of the crowd.

“Father,” Nana Miriam said, “I think it’s time that I go see to this monster myself.”

A hush fell over the crowd.

Fara Maka clutched his daughter’s shoulders. “Nana Miriam,” he said softly, “You are strong and you are wise, for I have taught you to be so. But you cannot defeat this beast! No spear can pierce its hide; no dog can attack its legs. There’s nothing for you to do.”

Beside Fara Maka, the hunter laughed. “And you are but a girl,” the hunter said. “Listen to your father. This is no job for a girl.”

Nana Miriam smiled. “This is a job for me,” she said, and picked up her spear to go.

The crowd exclaimed in her wake, but no one made a move to follow Nana Miriam. No one made a move to help.

With sure steps and a ramrod back, Nana Miriam made her way down to the river. Where her father had crept among the reeds, Nana Miriam stood tall, easily noticed by the beast as she approached.

When the beast caught sight of Nana Miriam, it stopped eating and smiled. Its mouth was full of strong, sharp teeth, perfectly honed for killing. “I know why you are here,” the beast said. “You wish to stop me.”

“I do,” Nana Miriam said, stopping to regard her foe.

“But don’t you know?” the beast laughed. “No man can kill me. All the hunters have tried. Your father has tried. Their efforts have come to nothing. I have been kind in letting them live — do not test my kindness.”

“That may be true,” Nana Miriam said. “But I am no man.”

Growing angrier, the beast gnashed its teeth. “What makes you think you, a mere girl, can stop me?”

Nana Miriam set down her spear and unhooked her small satchel, holding it up. “I am ready if you are,” she said simply.

The beast snorted and stomped its huge foot. The grass around Nana Miriam erupted into flames, singeing the edge of her dress. Nana Miriam smiled and reached into her small bag. She pulled out a bit of powder and sprinkled it onto flames. The fire transformed into water the hiss of steam.

“You’ll have to try harder than that,” Nana Miriam said, not unkindly.

With a mighty roar, the beast reared on its hind legs and pounded its front feet into the ground. The earth shuddered and a giant iron wall sprung up between Nana Miriam and the beast. Grinning again, Nana Miriam drew into her small bag and removed a tiny hammer. With a whispered word, the hammer began to grow, larger and larger, until it was almost too big for Nana Miriam to hold. With every bit of strength, Nana Miriam drew it above her head and smashed it into the wall, which disintegrated into dust.

For the first time, the beast looked nervous.

“Come now, is that all you’ve got?” Nana Miriam called.

The beast turned from Nana Miriam, ready to run, and shifted into the shape of a river. But Nana Miriam was faster, tossing a powder onto the transformed waters to turn them back into the form of the giant hippo.

With a cry, Nana Miriam reached over and grabbed one of the beast’s back legs, lifting it over her head with a mighty heavy. She swung the beast round and round her head, three times, before tossing it over the Niger, where it landed, with a crack, against the river bed and moved no more.

Nana Miriam neatly packed her bag, retrieved her spear, and turned to go back to the village.

On her way back, Nana Miriam saw her father, who was running to help his daughter. When he caught sight of her, he fell to the ground in thanks.

“It is done, Father,” Nana Miriam said and helped him rise.

He looked at her in astonishment, then broke out into a wide smile.

Together, the two returned to the village, where they were met with feasts and dancing. From that day forward, the singers have sung of a girl named Nana Miriam, who showed all the world what the strength of a mere girl could be.

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