Ngoma: A Zimbabwean Origin Story

Retold by Gerald Hausman and Seth Cohen

An origin story from the Shona people in Zimbabwe, this is also a tale about the power of the drum. The storyteller, Ephat Mujuru, told this story so that we might understand how drumming brings people together and makes one out of many, and many out of one.


Once there were three hunters.

Well, that is a good beginning. But the truth is, two of the hunters were such lazy fellows that they were not hunters at all.

So there was really only one hunter. When his bowstring sang, his arrow always hit its mark. And he always brought food back to the village.

One day the three men were in the forest when a deer they were stalking disappeared into a hole in a big hollow tree. The inside of the tree was hollowed out by the white ants that like to eat this kind of wood. It was like a cave inside. And the hunter who was really a hunter went in after the deer. He disappeared inside the tree.

Once within he could not find his way out, nor could he find the deer. Was it ever really there? It must be a spirit deer! he thought.

His friends, who were not really friends, rolled a big rock in front of the tree mouth. Then they went back to the village and told everyone that the hunter had been eaten by lions.

Inside the hollow tree the hunter found the rock held him captive. There is no way out, he thought. I am trapped. So he sat down in the darkness, and tried to think.

Inside the hollow tree there was no light, no sound. There was nothing. Even the spirit deer was not there in all of that nothingness. The hunter sat in the stillness, and darkness. And he listened to his heart. The sound of his heart quieted him. Soon he fell asleep.

Outside the tree, day turned into night. The hunter dreamed of drums that sounded like his heart. He dreamed all the way to morning.

The sun came up and along with it there came a drummer who was looking for a drum tree.

"I see a tree," he said. "This tree will give me the wood that I need to make my drum." He began to chop at the tree.

Ngo, ngo, ngo. This was the sound of the axe striking the wood of the tree. Inside, the hunter woke up.

"What is that sound I hear?" he asked.

Outside, the drummer swung his axe. Ngo, ngo, ngo.

Inside, the hunter heard the same sound, as if it were the heart beat of the tree itself— ngo, ngo, ngo.

"The tree is alive," he said.

The drummer began to feel a strange rhythm as he chopped.

"The tree is talking to me," he said. "I shall return home and tell everyone in the village that I have found a talking tree."

When the drummer told his story, everyone wanted to listen to the talking tree. So they walked into the forest— men, women and children.

Inside, the hunter felt a stirring in his heart. He got up and began to strike his palms on the wood of the tree.

Ngo, ngo, ngo.

Again and again, the hunter pounded the hollow tree.

Ngo, ngo, ngo.

In the hot sun the villagers heard the tree speak and they began singing. Their song went like this—

What is it that is making that sound?
The trunk of the tree is making that sound.

They sang this song over and over. Yet when they stopped singing, they always heard the tree talking to them: ngo, ngo, ngo.

At last the drummer who had found the talking tree said, "Let us move this rock and maybe the mystery of the talking tree will be shown to us."

So all of the villagers—men, women and children—pushed the rock with all their strength. And the rock rolled away.

There, inside, standing all by himself, was the hunter. Free at last, he was filled with joy. He was also thankful for the talking tree.

Then the drummer said to him, "The drum was the reason I came to this tree. I wanted to make a drum."

"My heart was the reason I heard drums in my dreams," said the hunter.

"It was our hands and the wood of the tree that made our hearts speak to us," said the drummer.

The people knew then that this was not a talking tree. It was a drum tree. After this they knew that when they listened to the beat of their hearts, they would not feel trapped or lost. When they spoke with their hands and beat a rhythm they would speak for all living things.

That was Ngoma’s message to the people.

The people were then known as muridzi we ngoma, people of the drum, drummers of the heart.


After that day, ngoma, drums, were always with the drummers, muridzi we ngoma. The drummers carried them everywhere they went and they talked with them. From afar, the hills rang with the words of the drums.

In the field, hoeing or planting— ngo, ngo, ngo.

On the hard earth, grinding corn— ngo, ngo, ngo.

At the river, washing clothes— ngo, ngo, ngo

And when the storyteller finishes this story he always says, “If you doubt the power of the drum, or the truth of this tale, put your hand over your heart and feel the beat.”


About the Authors...

Gerald Hausman is a storyteller and author of more than 70 adult and children's books about Native America, Animals, Mythology and West Indian culture. Some of his published works of juvenile literature include The Boy from Nine Miles: The Early Life of Bob Marley, Three Little Birds, Doctor Bird: Three Lookin' Up Tales from Jamaica, Duppy Talk, The Jacob Ladder and Time Swimmer, a young adult book published by Macmillan Caribbean. He has won 35 awards and honors from such groups as the American Folklore Society, the Bank Street College, Booklist, Parents’ Choice, the New York Public Library and the National Council of Social Studies. You can find Hausman’s work at and at He lives in Bokeelia, Florida.

Seth Cohen learned the Ngoma story in Zimbabwe where he was studying drum-making. He has a Master’s degree in Intercultural Communication from the University of New Mexico and is a PhD candidate in Conflict Analysis & Resolution at George Mason University. His academic and professional pursuits were highly influenced by his time in Jamaica as a teenager. He is now CEO and founder of InterCultural PeaceBuilders and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Share on Google Plus

About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
    Blogger Comment
    Facebook Comment


Post a Comment


This Month's Books