Lessons From the River
May 19, 2017
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Nestled on the slopes of two magnificent hills was a small village built along the banks of a great river that ran through the valley. At the every edge of the village, closest to the forest on the highest parts of the hills lived the oldest man known to the villagers. He was said to have been among the first settlers on that land and had lived there for over five generations. Many of the younger villagers could trace back their lineage to him and for this reason, everyone called him Grandfather.

The people of this village ploughed the slopes in the month April when the rains came around, and as the crop grew, they survived on nuts and berries gathered from the forest. The young men who best shot arrows would bring back wild ducks from the plains while those better at spearing would bring back dik diks from the forest. In October, when neither the sun was too hot nor the cold too biting, the villagers held a grand wedding festival when all the men and girls of age were married, blessed, and sent off to their own lands to start their families.

One clear morning, when the fog had cleared and the waters of the river rushing quietly past shimmered splendidly, the old man set off on his usual walk. On his way, he came by a youth of no more than thirty years. When they had saluted one another, the old man noticed the youth’s sullen expression.

“What troubles you my son?” He asked him. “Why are you so downcast on a morning as beautiful as this?”

The young man thought for a moment. “Is it true what legend says, that you are a seer?”

The old man laughed heartily.

“Uncertainty troubles me, Grandfather. The festival of weddings is in three weeks’ time and my father has already shown me the land on which I am to build a house for my bride to be. Yet, sleep evades me in the night time. I feel like a child still, in the body of a man grown.”

“Come with me, son. Let us walk along the banks of this great river and marvel at nature’s wonders.”

“I know that all brave men are not afraid,” started the young man, following the old man one step behind as was tradition. “And I am not afraid of the lions in the plains or the apes in the forest. I am not afraid of the caves where the dead are buried like other boys my age. When night time comes, I am not afraid of the dark or of the raiders from the west.”

“You are afraid of the future, of what you do not know is coming,” Grandfather said knowingly.

“So it is true, you are a seer!” the young man exclaimed.

“In a manner of sorts, yes. I walk along the river every morning when the moon still graces us with her faces and hike up the hill every evening when the clouds are low enough to walk through. I watch the blue sky when the sun is unrelenting and I listen to the waters move throughout the year. I hear the songs of the winds, the birds and the trees – I see and I listen. The secrets of life are hidden in the pockets of nature all around us, like little presents for us to explore, discover and be delighted in. Yes, indeed I see.”

The young man was puzzled at the old man’s response. He seemed to be speaking in parables.

“Yes Grandfather, but that’s not what I mean. Legend says that you can see the future, that you can tell me what mine holds. Tell me where the troubles lie so that I may prepare,” he urged.

The old man walked in silence for a time, his face indiscernible. When they had walked for a long time albeit slowly due to the old man’s small steps, the youth, whose blood still ran hot in his veins, began to grow impatient.

Don't count your difficulties

Don’t count your difficulties

“Does the river count how many rocks it must go over before it joins the great ocean in the south?” Grandfather asked finally.

“That’s an absurd question,” the youth thought, but remained quiet. “The river cannot count.”

“Do the many miles it has to travel discourage it from moving any further? Tell me, have you ever seen a river that has stopped?” Grandfather continued.

“Perhaps he is not a seer but a mad man,” the youth thought.

“The rocks in the mountains are hard and sturdy, and the river is soft and quiet, yet you can see the places where it bore into the rock until a path was charted for it to go on its way,” the old man said pointing to the edges of the river bank. “Do you imagine yourself any different from this river?”

The young man shrugged his shoulders, confused.

“Don’t count your difficulties. If the river stopped to count every rock it had to go over, it would never reach its destination.”

Put plainly, the young man began to understand Grandfather’s parable.

“Do not be afraid about what the future will bring to your doorstep. The same force that keeps you grounded on your feet as we speak is the same force that guides the river downstream. The river’s innate ability to find its way home exists in you also, in all of us. The trouble with us is that we spend all our time engrossed in our small meaningless activities, that we already know how to do and that can teach us nothing new – your wedding festival, followed by the harvest festival, then comes the thanksgiving festival after which the planting festival begins – we look forward to the same things year in year out, and this leads us to believe that everything in life should be certain, yet it is not.”

“But what is wrong with our seasonal festivals? Mother says they bring us together. Without community, we would not be able to thrive as we do. Our borders would fall prey to the raiders and the village would be destroyed,” the young man argued.

“Yes, that is true. Yet if we keep setting down roots in soil where nothing grows any longer, we will only harvest frustration. If you only set your mind on the festivals which have been arranged by your elders for years before you were born, you will never learn to be at home with uncertainty. When you think about venturing into the unknown lands in the east, the safety of the festivals will beckon you back. This is what I am saying. Think of yourself as this river, flowing down from the mountains, through the rocks and the plains until it reaches the ocean. Have you ever seen two rivers that follow the same path?”

“No,” the young man chuckled. “What an odd thing to think, two rivers following the same path, chatting along the way.”

“The river follows its own course, when it comes by great obstacles that threaten to split it, do you suppose it laments to its creator about where it’s going to get water to feed it?” asked the old man.

village (2)

“No, it relies upon God’s providence,” the young man answered.

“Indeed, now you are thinking like the river. In the same way, you should keep moving in your own life with this same faith and internal knowledge. When the time is right, you will meet the people you need to meet and everything you need to help you along your path will be provided for.”

“Tell me more, Grandfather. Teach me everything about the river,” the youth pleaded enthusiastically. Now that he had begun to piece together the old man’s wisdom, the troubles in his heart were slowly being quelled, and he thirsted for more teachings.

“In the same way people draw water for themselves and for their animals from the river, you will meet people, friends who will lean on you for support. They will draw only as much as they need, because they know that they will continue to lean on you from time to time. Understand your power to nourish their lives, and when you have, learn to recognize those who honor you and your path in this way.

Beware of those who seek to derail your goals for their own benefit, just as those who redirect the rivers to irrigate their lands without regard for all others who rely on the river’s life-giving water. You will meet them, those who will see that you are special even before you know it yourself. They will want to hoard your energy and light for themselves. They will isolate you from your family, friends, work and your purpose in life and strive to occupy all your time – and not just people but your own habits as well. You have been to the village brewery, haven’t you?”

“Yes Grandfather. Father warns me that he will surely disown me if word ever reaches him that I have set foot there,” the young man said laughing.

“A wise man,” Grandfather said. “Just as the river is defiled by people and their animals, you will meet poisonous people on your journey. Those are not friends, do not defend or justify them. Pain is inevitable, but it is also survivable. See them for what they are and continue on your way.”

“I was mistaken. All along I had thought that bravery is hanging a buffalo’s horns on my door and a lion’s skin on my shoulder. Today you have taught me what true bravery is – pressing on even when you know that pain and surprises lie in wait for you.”

“You are a quick study,” the old man said, slowing down his steps. “We have walked far enough. Let us turn back.”

“But, is that all?” The youth asked, disappointed that the lesson was over so soon. “Teach me one last thing. You have taught me about fear, faith, friends and pain. Teach me something that I can impress my new bride with so that she will think that I am wise and strong.”

“But you are wise and strong,” the old man said laughing.

“Not as wise as you,” the youth insisted.

“There is one more thing, my parting lesson to you.”

“Yes?” the youth said eagerly.

village (3)

“You have seen how the river breaks its banks when the rains come. In the plains, this promotion springs forth new life, but in the villages, people curse the river when their homes are swept away. You will encounter great fortunes in your life that will propel you to great heights and broaden your horizons. Some people will be happy for you, but others will curse you and wish decline upon your household.”

“What am I to do about those who curse me?”

“Ask yourself, does the river stop for these people? Should you?”

From that point on, the two men, five generations apart, walked in silent contemplation. Each of them was glad for their own reason – the old man hoped his legacy would live on in the young man, while the youth hoped to live long enough to learn even just half as much as the old man knew.





About author

Wanjiru Ndung'u

Wanjiru Ndung'u writes fiction, poetry and essays. She is an irretrievable night owl, tea-lover and cat mom. She enjoys books, alternative music, movies and streaming shows.

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