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The Calabash Kids

A Tale of Tanzania

Told by Aaron Shepard

Printed in an earlier version in Australia’s School Magazine, June 1996

For more treats and resources, visit Aaron Shepard at www.aaronshep.com.

Copyright © 1996, 1998 by Aaron Shepard. May not be published or posted without permission.

PREVIEW: The prayers of a lonely woman are answered when her gourds change into children.

GENRE: Folktales
CULTURE: African, Tanzanian
THEME: Name-calling
AGES: 3–9
LENGTH: 1100 words

All special features are at www.aaronshep.com/extras.

Once there was a woman named Shindo, who lived in a village at the foot of a snow-capped mountain. Her husband had died, and she had no children, so she was very lonely. And she was always tired too, for she had no one to help with the chores.

All on her own, she cleaned the hut and yard, tended the chickens, washed her clothes in the river, carried water, cut firewood, and cooked her solitary meals.

At the end of each day, Shindo gazed up at the snowy peak.

“Great Mountain Spirit!” she would pray. “My work is too hard. Send me help!”

One day, Shindo was weeding her small field by the river, where she grew vegetables and bananas and gourds. Suddenly, a noble chieftain appeared beside her.

“I am a messenger from the Great Mountain Spirit,” he told the astonished woman, and he handed her some gourd seeds. “Plant these carefully. They are the answer to your prayers.”

Then the chieftain vanished.

Shindo wondered, “What help could I get from a handful of seeds?” Still, she planted and tended them as carefully as she could.

She was amazed at how quickly they grew. In just a week, long vines trailed over the ground, and ripe gourds hung from them.

Shindo brought the gourds home, sliced off the tops, and scooped out the pulp. Then she laid the gourds on the rafters of her hut to dry. When they hardened, she could sell them at the market as calabashes, to be made into bowls and jugs.

One fine gourd Shindo set by the cook fire. This one she wanted to use herself, and she hoped it would dry faster.

The next morning, Shindo went off again to tend her field. But meanwhile, back in the hut, the gourds began to change. They sprouted heads, then arms, then legs.

Soon, they were not gourds at all. They were children!

One boy lay by the fire, where Shindo had put the fine gourd. The other children called to him from the rafters.

“Ki‑te‑te, come help us!

We’ll work for our mother.

Come help us, Ki‑te‑te,

Our favorite brother!”

Kitete helped his brothers and sisters down from the rafters. Then the children ran through the hut and yard, singing and playing.

All joined in but Kitete. Drying by the fire had made the boy slow-witted. So he just sat there, smiling widely.

After a while, the other children started on the chores. They quickly cleaned the hut and yard, fed the chickens, washed the clothes, carried water, cut firewood, and cooked a meal for Shindo to eat when she returned.

When the work was done, Kitete helped the others climb back on the rafters. Then they all turned again into gourds.

That afternoon, as Shindo returned home, the other women of the village called to her.

“Who were those children in your yard today?” they asked. “Where did they come from? Why were they doing your chores?”

“What children? Are you all making fun of me?” said Shindo, angrily.

But when she reached her hut, she was astounded. The work was done, and even her meal was ready! She could not imagine who had helped her.

The same thing happened the next day. As soon as Shindo had gone off, the gourds turned into children, and the ones on the rafters called out,

“Ki‑te‑te, come help us!

We’ll work for our mother.

Come help us, Ki‑te‑te,

Our favorite brother!”

Then they played for a while, did all the chores, climbed back to the rafters, and turned again into gourds.

Once more, Shindo was amazed to see the work all done. But this time, she decided to find out who were her helpers.

The next morning, Shindo pretended to leave, but she hid beside the door of the hut and peeked in. And so she saw the gourds turn into children, and heard the ones on the rafters call out,

“Ki‑te‑te, come help us!

We’ll work for our mother.

Come help us, Ki‑te‑te,

Our favorite brother!”

As the children rushed out the door, they nearly ran into Shindo. She was too astonished to speak, and so were the children. But after a moment, they went on with their playing, and then with their chores.

When they were done, they started to climb back to the rafters.

“No, no!” cried Shindo. “You must not change back into gourds! You will be the children I never had, and I will love you and care for you.”

So Shindo kept the children as her own. She was no longer lonely. And the children were so helpful, she soon became rich, with many fields of vegetables and bananas, and flocks of sheep and goats.

That is, all were helpful but Kitete, who stayed by the fire with his simple-minded smile.

Most of the time, Shindo didn’t mind. In fact, Kitete was really her favorite, because he was like a sweet baby. But sometimes, when she was tired or unhappy about something else, she would get annoyed at him.

“You useless child!” she would say. “Why can’t you be smart like your brothers and sisters, and work as hard as they do?”

Kitete would only grin back at her.

One day, Shindo was out in the yard, cutting vegetables for a stew. As she carried the pot from the bright sunlight into the hut, she tripped over Kitete. She fell, and the clay pot shattered. Vegetables and water streamed everywhere.

“Stupid boy!” yelled Shindo. “Haven’t I told you to stay out of my way? But what can I expect? You’re not a real child at all. You’re nothing but a calabash!”

The very next moment, she gave a scream. Kitete was no longer there, and in his place was a gourd.

“What have I done?” cried Shindo, as the children crowded into the hut. “I didn’t mean what I said! You’re not a calabash, you’re my own darling son. Oh, children, please do something!”

The children looked at each other. Then over each other they climbed, scampering up to the rafters. When the last child had been helped up by Shindo, they called out one last time,

“Ki‑te‑te, come help us!

We’ll work for our mother.

Come help us, Ki‑te‑te,

Our favorite brother!”

For a long moment, nothing happened. Then slowly, the gourd began to change. It sprouted a head, then arms, then legs. At last, it was not a gourd at all. It was—


Shindo learned her lesson. Ever after, she was very careful what she called her children.

And so they gave her comfort and happiness, all the rest of her days.

About the Story

This tale comes from the Chagga people—a collective name for a variety of Bantu peoples living on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. Though of diverse origin, they have developed a common language and culture, distinct from those of the surrounding plains.

A Chagga story about children growing from gourds is not surprising, because Chaggas are often named after gourds. For instance, two common names for females are Mambiri, which means “ripe,” and Mambishi, “not ripe.” (Kitete, however, is not such a name.)

Though some of us might feel uneasy that children should work for their mother, this is part of the traditional education called ipvunda, based on “learning by doing.” Instead of studying subjects in classrooms, children took part in the same activities they would carry on as adults. Nowadays, though, Chagga children attend regular schools, as introduced by the British colonialists and continued by the independent government.

The source for my retelling was Kilimanjaro and Its People, by Charles Dundas, Witherby, High Holburn, England, 1924. The information here on Chagga names and education came from Ladi Semali, a Chagga and an assistant professor of education at Pennsylvania State University.

How to Say the Names

Kitete ~ Kee‑TAY‑tay

Shindo ~ SHEEN‑do or SHEE‑’n‑do

All special features are at www.aaronshep.com/extras.

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