Preserving our literary heritage : Amerindian Folklore ‘Tales of Makonaima’s Children’ by Henry Josiah


To get a clearer picture of the tales it is useful to have an understanding of Makonaima family tree.

Who was Makonaima? Makonaima, according to the glossary of the book, was ‘a mythical personality, one of the visitors to Earth from whom Amerindians are descended’.
Makonaima’s twin brother was Pia. Their mother was called Roraima and their sisters were collectively called Pakaraimas. There was no mention of a father which indicated that in such a society, it was the matriarch who held sway.
A grandfather is mentioned; his name was ‘Kaie’ – full of wisdom and it was he who made the ultimate sacrifice to save his people.
Also of note, ‘Tales of Makonaima’s Children’, are ‘creation stories’ and ‘how it happened stories’ not unlike the ‘just so stories’ by Rudyard Kipling. It is quite entertaining how certain things acquired their names.
One day Makonaima and Pia were playing in their homeland called the Place of the Sun when Makonaima discovery of hole leading down into Earth which was colourful with singing birds, mountains and many waters. Earth was different from the Place of the Sun which was a place of ‘eternal brightness’.
The story goes that the boys let down a rope ladder and clambered down to Earth. After exploring and eating their fill of nuts and fruits, they discovered that the rope ladder had disappeared. They also discovered that other persons had come to Earth using ‘their’ ladder. Two of those persons were girls from their school; one named Mazaruni and the other, Cuyuni.
Time went by but their waiting for the rope ladder to be replaced was in vain. And there was no other way for them to return to the Place of the Sun. Time went by and the four were becoming wiser to the situation and older. Eventually, Makonaima married to Mazaruni while Pia married Cuyuni. Over the years there were many issues from those marriages; the children and grandchildren dispersed and populated the Earth.
While all those things were happening, the stories of the children and grandchildren unfolded.
One such story tells what happened when Makonaima grew tired of eating ‘sugary awara and buttery sawari’ and craved for food cooked by fire. Because of respect he commanded, Makonaima was able to persuade others to get for him fire from the bowl of Roraima Mountain. Eagle was first to go on this mission. Eagle failed, in the process, getting his feather singed and turning black all over. That was how ever since Eagle detested fire and cooked food. The next was the Vulture who also failed, instead getting burnt black all over and to this day is still looking for the dead eagle and is attracted to anything dead. Jumbie-bird also failed and returned to his usual ‘business of seeing the shadows of those who have passed beyond death’.
Finally a hunter named Akawaio was sent off. He discovered fire but in the process set fire to the whole of Guyana. Makonaima saved the situation by pouring rain down but fire, from a crack in the mountain, constantly came into contact with the water causing the mountain to be always shrouded in a mysterious mist.
Other examples of the tales included a love story between handsome Arapaima and ugly Perai, the great sacrifice of Kaie who threw himself over the great falls Tuk as a sacrifice to save his people who were dying of starvation and that is how come the falls became known as Kaieteur Falls.
And finally a story with a moralistic twist: In ‘[t]he day the sky fell down’ by Henry Josiah, the trees were complaining how the birds were nesting in their foliage preventing them enjoying the sun and rain. The trees complained to Makonaima asking to be relieved of the duty of holding up the sky – the solution the trees posited was to let the sky fall. Makonaima who, after long thought, decided to teach the trees a lesson by sending away the birds and allowing part of the sky to fall in on certain parts of the land, crushing the trees. That’s how Guyana got its plains and Rupununi savannahs.
The author of ‘Tales of Makonaima’s Children’ Henry Josiah in the preface to the book declared that he had taken the ‘liberty to recreate them [the stories] in such a way that the familiar and universal English language would breathe the spirit of the old….tongues…and reflect for the new generations those things of value in the old way of life now almost overrun by the new civilisation’.
Further Josiah declared that he collected the stories for other reasons. The writer wished to share his joy and findings of the old ‘Carib costumes and cookery, arts and crafts, beliefs in magic and medicine, the cool cathedral atmosphere of the forests and the freedom of the wide-open savannah lands which we inherit’ and to dig and discover and take ‘a long loving look at our roots’.
Josiah succeeded in his objectives mainly because of the way he retold the stories emphasising the conquest of good over evil. And the adventures in these tales will resonate well especially with children.
This collection of Amerindian folklore was first published in 1994 with a second edition in 2001, both by the now defunct Roraima Publishers. Illustrations were done by Kathy Thompson.

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* The Guyana Annual 2012-2013 magazine is now available at Guyenterprise Ltd and at Austin’s bookstore. This issue of the magazine is dedicated to E. R. Braithwaite. The magazine also features articles on copyright, law of intellectual property, creative industries, oral traditions of Guyana, the future of West Indian cricket and the future of books.
* Coming soon: ‘An Introduction to Guyanese Literature’ by Petamber Persaud.