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Exploring legend
(China Daily)
Updated: 2005-05-03 07:08

IDGIKOUNDZI, Comoros: Nobody has ever seen him and lived.

Quite how the ancestors ever verified the existence of "Red Headband" - the Indian Ocean's answer to Big Foot, the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster - is thus a mystery.

What is clear is that when a volcano erupted on the largest island in the Comoros archipelago on April 17, an old story gained a new twist.

Since time began, an evil spirit which appears as a giant human wearing his eponymous red headband has stalked the crater at the summit of Mount Karthala, sometimes appearing as tall as a house, or even, deceptively, as a dwarf.

That is only when he is viewed from very far away.

"When people leave the village and they don't come back, we suspect they have seen Red Headband," said Ibrahim Ali, 60, a farmer from the mountain village of Idgikoundzi, where night fell early and rain turned black during the eruption.

"Some people say they have seen him, and he looks like a giant," he said, sitting with other elders in the cotton robes common in the Comoros, introduced to Islam by Arab traders seeking the essential oil ylang ylang and vanilla in centuries past.

Few in the village of corrugated iron huts, bleating goats and pecking chickens - including those telling the story - give much credence to the legend nowadays, but they do remember the tale of the spirit's most famous victims.

"A very long time ago, seven hunters went looking for deer near the summit," said Ali. "Only their skeletons were found. Local people covered them over with rocks."

Poison gas seeping from the bowels of Karthala killed 17 people a century ago, and many fear a repeat performance today by a volcano that dominates the Grande Comore island off east Africa and has erupted periodically in past decades.

The ancestors, however, would not accept such a pedestrian explanation for the deaths of their brothers on a summit that overshadows the capital Moroni and whose ash nourishes the tropical spices flowering on its flanks.

"If they died up in that place, they must have been killed by Red Headband," said Ali, perched on the ledge of rock with a view up to the cloud-ringed summit, and over crusted rivers of ancient lava tumbling into the sea below.

Such lore is as common as the volcanoes spat out in the geological convulsions that tore the north-south crack in Africa known as the Great Rift Valley more than 30 million years ago, but perhaps only the Comoros can boast of adding a footnote to its story that is still in living memory.

Spirits in Congo, God in Tanzania

While every eruption takes just a nanosecond in geological time, the slow-motion groans and shivers of tectonic plates rarely give humans a chance to embellish tribal culture that takes generations to refine.

Elders in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo blamed an eruption in January 2002 that razed much of the city of Goma with lava on malignant ancestral spirits living in the Nyiragongo volcano, saying they sometimes floated over the peak in the form of white figures.

That explanation was just a rehash of old fireside tales and traditional African ancestor worship, even if they attributed the latest bout of ghostly wrath to years of civil war then raging in the former Zaire.

The red-cloaked Masai of Kenya and Tanzania, who tend cattle wandering between volcanoes steaming on the Rift Valley floor, also have little new to add to their myths.

Masai legend has it that the Ngong hills outside the capital Nairobi were created when a giant wandering across the plains tripped, gouging the knuckle-shaped range out of the ground with his fist as he broke his fall. That was many generations ago indeed, and the mountains are unchanged.

The still active Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano in the north of neighbouring Tanzania is venerated by Masai as the home of God, and always has been. There is nothing new there.

Unlike other countries with geographies shaped by the white hot crush of rock and magma, the Comoros have been granted the rare chance for a volcano myth update.

And the graves of the seven hunters may be no more.

Karthala's first eruption for a decade not only forced 10,000 people to flee, but may also have destroyed the warriors' resting place as chunks of the crater walls collapsed into a cauldron of lava, providing a cataclysmic epilogue for their deaths so many centuries ago.

"We're wondering whether they may have been entombed by the last eruption," Ali said. Unsmiling, the other elders just nodded.

(China Daily 05/03/2005 page6)

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