We have all been there. We all know what it is like to get pushed a little too far. Someone says the wrong thing, damages something dear to us, or simply runs afoul of us on the wrong day, and we lose it. Our blood pressure rises, our nostrils flare and we see nothing but red. We try to resolve the situation, but the only thing that emanates from between our tense lips is a string of some of the most profane insults we can think of, far beyond the tolerance of civil society. Then, when the dust settles and the argument is over, we take the time to cool our heads and reflect. Then we regret. When we are angry we tend to say or do things that cannot be taken back, and in so doing cause damage that cannot be undone. The aftermath of these outbursts is ruined relationships, damaged property, a tarnished image, or any other number of regrettable consequences. When we feel attacked, slighted, or belittled, our automatic response is to defend ourselves, sometimes aggressively to defend our need to feel safe. What we forget at times is that others have the need, and the way we react to others determines the kind of environment we create for ourselves and others.
The traditional West African tale of the buffalo princess explores this idea through a story of love, loss, and redemption. Imagine if you will the early days of human civilization, when farming and hunting were both necessary means of survival. Imagine a time when the world was so full of magic and wonder that it left us awestruck every time we looked up at the symphony of stars in the sky above us. It is in this setting that we find a hunter who while stalking the tall grasses in search of wild game. He came up on a pool of water where there were dozens of people bathing. Not too far from the pool was a pile of the finest rawhides he had ever seen. The hunter succumbed to the temptation to steal one of the many pelts, reasoning with himself that no one would notice one out of so many pelts missing. He was wrong. As the people emerged from the water, the hunter took cover in the grass and watched in wonder as one by one they put the skins over their naked bodies and transformed into buffalo before disappearing into the adjacent jungle. Only one of their kind remained, frantically looking for her pelt. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Her skin was glistening midnight, her perfect breasts and round hips were like the ripest fruit. Her full lips and dark eyes enchanted him. The hunter fell in love. Unable to control himself he ran out of the tall grasses and threw himself at the feet of the terrified woman, begging her to take him as her husband and swearing that he will give her anything she asks, even if it takes him the rest of his life. She looked at him and saw that he was sincere. She agreed to marry him on one condition, that he must never raise his voice or his hand to her or any of their children in anger, for the people of the buffalo value kindness and quiet dignity above all else. He agreed and took her home, ecstatic with the new arrangement.
Years later, they were still married. The hunter had kept his promise, always voicing his dislikes with quiet respect and dignity; that is until they had a son together and everything changed. This child constantly tested his father’s patience. He was disobedient, and at times blatantly disrespectful. He was stubborn, and at times lazy. One day the hunter had enough. He went to speak to his son about tending the yams in the garden. The boy would not listen, piling excuses as to why he would not fetch water for them or clear the weeds, or repair the fence to keep the wild pigs out. The anger overcame him and at the top of his lungs he shouted “You are so damned stubborn, you truly are the grandson of a bull!”
When he turned around, he saw his wife, her umber cheeks wet with tears at the broken promise. She turned around and walked away, never to return. The hunter ran after her, trying to stop her and beg for her forgiveness but he could not catch her. For days he ran through the jungle, braving all of its dangers in search of her and her forgiveness. Eventually he came up on a clearing where there were many buffalo, the same he had seen when he first laid eyes on her. He located the bull he hoped was the chief, and knelt before him, begging for his wife. The bull transformed into a man, who happened to be both the chief and his wife’s father. The old man demanded that the hunter take accountability for his broken promise. The hunter did so and continued to beg to see his wife. A small cow emerged from the herd and transformed into his wife. She said that she would be willing to accept him, but he had to change. He had to become one of the buffalo people. Without hesitation he agreed and a skin was made for him. The hunter forsook the world of men, joined the buffalo people and lived happily with his wife until his final days.
The most bitter and life changing arguments that we can have in our lives are with the ones with the people closest to us. It can be hard to tell if the bitterness stems from accumulated resentment over the years, or the utter disbelief that these people whom we love would fight us. It is in those moments that we can regress into pettiness and succumb to the desire to hurt for harm’s sake. This is not because we are hateful, but because we are hurting too. Hurt people hurt people. When the buffalo princess set the condition that the hunter never raise his voice to her in anger, it was because people say and do things that they do not mean in anger, and a buffalo never says or does anything that it does not mean to say or do, even in anger. Whatever he said or did with her or her children she would take to heart. It is much the same with the disagreements that we have with others. It is hard to tell if the terrible things that the people close to us say are reflective of how they truly feel, but our immediate response is to accept it as the truth and act accordingly. We rarely ever stop and say “you don’t mean that” when someone close to us says something terrible, instead we react in kind, looking for a harmful retort to cut them deeply.
When the hunter lost his temper with his son and called out his father in law, he likely meant no disrespect to his wife’s father. He spoke out of anger at his son’s behaviour and felt the need to hurt him in some way. This reaction had the unintended consequence of nearly costing him the love of his life. It is difficult to undo the damage that we have done when we speak and act out of anger. How many times have we reacted emotionally and as a result lost something dear to us? Perhaps we lost our temper now no longer speak to relatives or old friends. Perhaps we have broken something that someone dear to us loved out of frustration. Perhaps some of us have done the unthinkable and raised a hand in anger to someone close to us. There is no coming back from the things we say and do in anger. Sometimes the resulting damage cannot be undone. However, irreversible damage does not always mean the end. We may not be able to return our relationships to the way that they used to be, but we can work towards the betterment of what relationships we can salvage.
The story of the buffalo princess teaches us about the lengths that people must go to in order to seek redemption for the wrongs they have done. The hunter chased his wife for days through the jungle in order to find her and it did not matter. He risked being trampled by the buffalo, and it did not matter. He even bowed low before the chief of the buffalo people and that did not matter either. These gestures of contrition were meaningless without the simultaneously most difficult and yet most simple thing he could do: change. When we hurt the ones we love, we can apologize, buy gifts, beg and plead, we can even destroy things that are precious to us to show that we can and will be better. However, these gestures are meaningless if we do not change as people. There is no returning to the status quo. If we want to preserve our relationships, we must become better people than we were before the conflict started. We must listen to what the people we hurt need in order to feel safe with us again and act on those requests. Likewise, if we are the ones that are hurt, we must be able to accept a person once they have changed. When the hunter became a buffalo to keep his wife, she did not constantly remind him of the broken promise. In essence she also had to accept and support his transformation in order for their relationship to work. She had to be brave enough to accept his apology and open up to him again without judgement, but only after he committed to changing himself.
All is never lost if we are willing to change. The promise of change is not enough, we must have the self-awareness to identify where we have gone wrong and change the aspects of ourselves that lead to our part in the rancour with our loved ones. If the relationship is worth our time and energy, we must be willing to trust that the person who has harmed us is not only willing to change, not only swearing to change, but actually demonstrating the personal improvement promised. Without a real commitment to not only do better but be better, we will only repeat the same cycles of hurt, anger, and resentment. We all get angry, it is a natural part of being human, but that does not mean we cannot look for better ways to manage it, and it does not mean that we cannot find lasting, peaceful resolutions when we find ourselves out of order. We just have to be willing to put on the buffalo skin and change for the better.
Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
Image Credit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/369365606911309853/
On shape shifting in mythology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shapeshifting
On animals in African Folklore: https://www.teachervision.com/folk-tales/resource/3716.html