“Naledi in the the Underworld: A New African Folktale,” by Janet Grace Riehl

When I lived in Botswana during the 1970s, my name in Setwana was (and is) “Naledi”–which means “star.” Although it sounds exalted, it’s not an uncommon name. Here’s how I got my name.

During the first weeks of Peace Corps language and cultural training, I asked my teachers if I could have a name in Setswana. They said, “Yes. But, that’s not something that just happens lightly. We’ll think about it. When we know you better, we’ll know your name.”

Each day I would hope for my new name and pester my teachers about it. Finally one day they came to me and said, “We’ve got your name. It’s Naledi, and it means star.”

As it turns out there are many beautiful Setswana songs about “de naledi” (the stars). When I walked through the village, children would serenade me at times with these songs.

I wrote this story “Naledi in the Underworld: A New African Folktale” in 1990 in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. I painted the mural of the story first on Apple Pie Ridge in Big Sur, California. The banner for Riehl Life is a section of this mural. I then performed the story at a festival as part of Luisah Teish’s “Full Accord Ensemble.”

In 2000 The Lullwater Review published my story along with two pieces of art associated with it. A section from the Naledi in the Underworld mural ran on the cover.

This month I’m participating in Hopeful World online course “The Story of You.” I decided that I need look no further for my story than this one that came to me over two decades ago. This afternoon I fished the Lullwater Review off my book shelf to give it a fresh read. Here’s the story.


Naledi woke when the first shafts of sunlight poked between the mud walls of her round house and the thatch roof. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Looking up, she saw a swallow building its nest in the rafters that came to a point high above her head.

“Naledi! Naledi-way! Naledi-nyana, my little star! Wake up.” Her mother’s call pierced her sleepy haze. “We need water for bathing this morning. Run to the river, Naledi, and fetch us water.”

Naledi leaped up, tucked her cloth around her, and grabbed her bucket along with the smooth white circle of cloth that cushioned her head from its metal. She wound past the thorn trees down the path to the river.

But when she got to the place where the river usually flowed, there was only a dry riverbed. Where the deepest part of the river had been, there was only mud now. Naledi hurried back to tell her mother. “Mother, Mother, there’s no water running in the river. Except for some mud where our swimming hole was, it is completely dry. What can we do?”

Her mother sighed. “I knew it would come to this one day. It is up to you, my child, to bring water back for the village. Go down the path where you collect firewood. If you go a little further than usual, you will find an old baobab tree. This is the tree where woman was born. And it is the tree where you will be born as a woman. Your days as a maiden are numbered now. When you get to the tree, ask to speak to the wise old woman who lives inside. She will guide you from there.”

Naledi took the path her mother had described. But, being still a child, she wandered off to explore and play. Finally, she saw an old baobab tree off to her right. She was sure it was the one her mother meant because it looked as if it had been there since time began. Its branches sticking in the air looked like roots. Gnarled roots arched over the ground and then plunged into the earth.

Naledi went to one of the crevices formed by the roots. “Please, ancient tree—Tree Where Woman Was Born—tree where I am to be born a woman—I need to speak to the wise old woman who lives in your trunk. My mother has sent me to receive help for my village.”

The tree groaned and creaked its answer to the young girl. “I see by your face that your name is ‘Naledi.’ Your face shines like a star. Pass here in this crevice between my roots, and you will meet the old woman you seek. She is the guardian of this tree, a temple for the Love Goddess. This woman is a venerable guide into the underworld. She will lead you to what you seek.”

Naledi thanked the tree. Then, raising her arms over her head, she leaned over and slid easily into the ground until she was inside the central root. “Hello, my child,” said a voice that sounded like the tinkling of bells mixed with creaking hinges. The wise old woman came out of the shadows. “Tell me what has brought you here. We have been waiting for you, but I must know your errand.”

“The river has run dry in our village. My mother has sent me on a journey to this tree. She said you would help me with the next steps.”

“Your mother was right, my child. You must go into the underworld to meet your demons. The central root where we now stand is the entrance to all the caves of darkness in the underworld. I will give you a gourd with some drops of sacred water. When you reach the caves where your demons live, remember to let this water help you.

“Deep in the earth, below the caves of darkness, flows the River of Life and Happiness. There you may fill your gourd and talk to the river about the secrets of life. Only one thing: do not lose courage. Do not come back until you have the water. Otherwise, when you enter your world again, you will walk as an old woman walks and will die before you reach your village.

“Time is not the same here as it is in the worlds above us. You will live many lifetimes while you are here with us. But if the river gives you the sacred water, you will come back only a few hours older, able to take the gift back to your village. Here is the gourd, with the drops of water. Use them wisely. Go well, my child. When you return, you can tell me your story and I will guide you out.”

Naledi thanked the old woman, who gently nudged her down the central root. Soon Naledi came to a fork in the root. She took the right fork, carefully holding the gourd with its precious drops of water. As she approached one of the caves of darkness, she heard a great hubbub. A bass voice ranted, raved, groaned, and growled like a madman. Naledi was frightened. But she knew it was the cave of one of her demons, so she went forward.

A massive arched door barred the cave. She looked inside the keyhole and saw a man sitting on a chair with a child across his knee. As he brought down his hand on the child’s body, he grunted. Sometimes he reached into his pile of implements, chose one, and went back to his beating with rage contorting his face.

Naledi wanted to leave at once, to go back the way she had come and run to her village. But she knew that if she did, she would die on the way. Her village would die, too, for lack of water. She stood her ground, took a deep breath and knocked on the door. “Oh, Man-Who-Beats-Children, I am coming in to speak to you.” Her voice sounded small to her ears as it echoed in the passageway.

The man laughed in anticipation of a new child for his lair. “Come ahead, then, come speak to me. Just turn the handle; the door is not locked.”

Naledi turned the handle and discovered that the door moved easily before her touch. When Naledi came into the cave, she asked, “Why do you beat these children?” She could see by the pile of bones in the corner that the beating had been going on for centuries.

“Oh, child, I beat children because when I hear those little bones creak and crack, I know I am big, strong, and powerful. When I feel beaten, I can still find something smaller to beat. I beat children because I am afraid I am not manly enough. Would you like to come sit on my lap?” He guffawed, showing sharp, yellowed teeth.

Although Naledi felt faint, she said in as strong a voice as she could muster: “No, Man-Who-Beats-Children. I want you to come to the underground river with me. I know the river can find a way to use your power.” Naledi reached into the gourd and flicked a few drops of sacred water on the heart of the Man-Who-Beats-Children. His body writhed like a snake in the air. “All right,” he said when the contortions stopped, “I will come with you.”

The man and the child went out of the cave into the passageway and crossed over into the central root where the path forked to the left. They slid down this root until they drew near another cave of darkness. As they approached, they heard sobs and wails. A fountain fed by the tears of the Woman-Who-Weeps guarded this cave. Naledi crept to the screen of water at its entrance and peeked into the cave. The man rested in the shadows.

Inside, Naledi saw a woman floating in her own tears. As they sprang from her eyes, they glimmered like jewels, throwing off rays of color in the darkness. Then they fell into the saltwater pool that surrounded her. Naledi tasted the water in the fountain. It was also salty. The woman beat her breast, lamenting: “Oh, why is it like this? Why is my grief without end?”

A great heaviness weighed on Naledi’s heart as she watched and listened to the Woman-Who-Weeps. Vines grew around her heart in a giant tangle, strangling it with every beat. Naledi struggled to keep breathing. She fell to her knees and thought of crawling back the way she had come—anything not to suffocate!

As she gasped for breath and started to sneak away on all fours, the man in the shadows spoke. “You think you can escape so easily? There is no escape. If you do not go forward, I will drag you back to my cave and become the Man-Who-Beats-Children again. Even if you escape me, remember the warning the wise old woman gave you. There is no escape here in the underworld. If you do not go forward, you will be trapped here with your demons in eternal torture. Child, I have been trapped too long. If you do not go forward, neither can I. Neither can the poor woman who weeps in this cave of darkness.”

Naledi saw the pain in his eyes. Slowly she stood and went back to the fountain at the entrance of the cave. “Woman-Who-Weeps,” she called. “Why do you weep so? For whom and for what do you weep?”

“I weep for the pain of the world and for the pain of my children in all their forms. I weep for my weakness and fear. I feel so much and can do so little. So I stay in my cave and weep, almost drowning in my sorrow.”

“Woman-Who-Weeps, come with me to the River of Life and Happiness. There is another cave dweller here in the passageway—a man who used to beat children—who is going with me. The river will know what to do with your grief and sorrow. The river will wash away and use your tears. Come with us to the river,” Naledi invited.

“Oh, my child, would that I could. But I have been here too long. I have started to corrode from the salt of my own tears. I am turning into an old ship, sinking in a sea of sadness of my own making. I cannot go with you. Outside this cave, my fear consumes me. I flood the passageways with my tears.”

Naledi reached into the gourd and flicked the remaining drops of the sacred water she carried toward the woman. They landed on her swollen eyes. The woman touched her newly dried eyes with wonder. An unaccustomed feeling of peacefulness sighed through her body, so tired from constant sobbing. Her body undulated gently. Then she looked at Naledi and said, “All right, then. I will go with you to the river.”

She swam to the entrance of her cave and emerged into the passageway. The man and woman nodded at one another and followed Naledi to the central root. They descended steeply, plunging into darkness. At the bottom of the root, they squeezed past the last fibers into a place of bright beauty. They stood on the banks of the River of Life and Happiness.

“Follow me,” Naledi called as she dove into the water. She swam freely, joining the schools of fish as they moved past. She investigated every corner of the river and learned of life and happiness from its children. She filled her body with its brightness and beauty.

The man and woman followed. As the man dove into its waters, his anger and rage dissolved. He surged forward, joining the force of the river, becoming the current.

As the woman dove into the water, she felt she had come home. The water caressed and absorbed her in its embrace. When her tear-stained face was washed clean, it shone with a radiance she had never known before. She, too, joined the water, becoming the still power of the river.

When the man and woman met in the river as current and stillness, they joined to create the Love Tree. Its sturdy trunk surged out of the river through the crust of a golden island. The Love Tree’s branches and roots reached out to the rest of creation, sending comfort and ease to all corners.

Naledi spoke with the river. “Thank you, river. I have heard you called the Love Goddess. It must be so. Your power to transform is beyond my dreams. The Old Woman of the Tree said you would be happy to refill my gourd with sacred water so I can replenish the river that used to flow by our village. Without this water, my people will die and the village will blow away to dust.”

The river soaked in Naledi’s words while she combed and braided her flowing hair. “Yes,” she laughed from her belly, “I think I could spare you a gourd of water for such a purpose. I love my children wherever they may be. I will also send a chant to teach your village. With this chant, you will be able to banish bad luck and invite good fortune to flow into your lives. When you sing the chant you will remember the River of Life and Happiness. Come and I will whisper this chant into your ear.”

Naledi knelt to catch the river’s words as she sang her chant. Then she sang in the river’s ears to make sure of the words. When Naledi mastered the chant, she dipped her gourd into the river. She thanked the River of Life and Happiness, and set off to see the Old Woman of the Tree. As Naledi went straight up the central root, sap eased her passage until she stood once more by the wise woman of the shadows.

The Old Woman smiled. “I see you have done well. I see courage shining in your face as clearly as I see the gourd of sacred water in your hand.” She reached a gnarled hand inside the gourd and anointed Naledi with a few drops. “Now that you have gone into the underworld to face and transform your demons, you have been born a woman. The Tree herself has witnessed this second birth and sends Her strength and approval with you as you return to your village with your many gifts. You are now a messenger for the Love Goddess. Go well, young woman, as you travel safely on your path.” The old woman embraced her and led her to the crevice in the roots. Naledi moved easily to the world above the ground.

When she entered the village, she called all the people to come gather by the river. Naledi knelt at the bank and tipped the contents of her gourd onto the dry riverbed. In her absence, even the mud had dried up, leaving deep cracks. The water did not sink into the earth. Instead, more water appeared—first as a trickle, then a wild rush—until a wide and deep river once more flowed strongly in its banks.

The people raised their voices in happiness and celebration. Instead of rain from heaven for which they had danced and prayed, this moisture had come from the womb of the earth. They sang praise songs to the earth for her gift.

“The Love Goddess gave me a chant to teach you,” said Naledi. “Whenever you feel in the grip of bad luck, use this chant to banish it and bring in good luck.”

The River of Life and Happiness
flows ever and ever on.
Bad luck, bad luck, bad luck—BE GONE!

The River of Life and Happiness
flows ever and ever on.
Good luck, good luck, good luck—COME HOME!

The whole village surrounded Naledi, dancing and singing the chant. Naledi picked up a lizard darting along the riverbank and flung it into the sky. The lizard star still shines today in remembrance of Naledi’s first journey into the underworld. You can see it if you look to the right of Venus and squint slightly.

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