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Colourful Stories

Jerome Masamaka – Totem Bird

Jerome Masamaka shares how as a young boy in Ghana he accidentally killed his clan’s sacred totem bird – the sparrow. The guilt and anxiety that plagued Jerome kept him up at night and would eventually influence the writer he would one day become.


Funded by City of Joondalup and produced by Centre for Stories, Colourful Stories is a collection of experiences set to the theme of ‘Better Together’ and showcased at the Joondalup Festival 2024. These stories came from residents living in Joondalup and the surrounding suburbs who shared a belief in the power of connection and community, reminding us of the strength and value we gain when we overcome individual desires, ego and biases to value unexpected people and places around us.

This story was shared by Jerome Masamaka. Jerome shares how as a young boy in Ghana he accidentally killed his clan’s sacred totem bird – the sparrow. The guilt and anxiety that plagued Jerome kept him up at night and would eventually influence the writer he would one day become.

Jerome also wrote a poem about this same experience, which can be read in his debut poetry collection Under the Tattered Roof.

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Copyright © 2024 Jerome Masamaka

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories and City of Joondalup by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories or City of Joondalup.

Photo by Aaron Claringbold. Story published 21 March 2024.

View Story Transcript

INTRO: Hi there. In today’s episode, we bring you a special live recording of Colourful Stories featuring community voices from Joondalup and the surrounding suburbs, made possible with funding from the City of Joondalup and training by Centre for Stories. These experiences come from local residents who had never shared their stories in front of a live audience before, but stepped up to the challenge for one special evening to share their belief in the power of connection and community. Set to the theme of ‘Better Together,’ their stories remind us of the strength and value we gain when we overcome individual desires, ego and biases to value unexpected people and places around us. Recorded in the City of Joondalup in March 2024, this next story comes from Jerome Masamaka. Enjoy. 

JM: When I was a 9-year-old boy growing up in Ghana, I had an incident with a little bird that would stay with me for a very long time. I loved birds probably because we lived in a wetland ecology with so many water bodies, just like here, so many water bodies and so many varieties of birds, of all coloUrs. So I loved birds, watching them. If I had a chance to play with them, I cherished it. So one day I saw these little birds fly into its nest in a bush behind our family kitchen. And so it had laid, it had created its nest in the bush on the twig that was low enough for me to reach. So I was excited. I went to the nest, attempted to catch it. Of course it saw me and flew out, but I was determined to catch that little bird. 

So for so many days, I would go creep quietly behind the nest before I get to it, it would just fly off. One day however, I came when it was really dark, this dark. So I crept quietly behind the nest, got closer and reached for the entrance of the nest as it wanted to fly out. It flew straight into my palms and I grabbed it. So I was excited, picked its little blue eggs and ran home. I went to the house. It was evening, so I went to hide under a guava tree in the dark alone. And I wanted to admire my little friend alone. Our family house was really big. My grandmother had built her house and her senior brother built his, her junior brother also built it. And so it was a cluster of three big houses of the same family, about 28 of us living in that cluster of family houses, close to a a lake. 

And so, so many young cousins, so many aunties and uncles with parents. So yeah, it was a big family. So I went to hide in a corner to admire my little bird. I opened my palm and I saw that it was still, it wouldn’t move. I give it a nudge. It did not move. So I threw it up to see if it would fly. Instead, it just fell freely and landed on the floor with a thud. So I was surprised. I picked it up, looked at it, and I saw that the bird had died. I probably squeezed it too tight. So what would I do? I pick it up and with its eggs, I went back into the bush and threw it away, and I thought that was it. I’m done with that bird. Nothing serious. I didn’t know that wasn’t the end. 

So I went back to the kitchen and that was it. A few days later, I was in the family farm with an older cousin, and we were playing games, of course, with birds. We threw stones at them and the rabbits, excited. Then a particular bird flew in and my bigger cousin looked at it, pointed it out. Yes, there it comes. That is the sparrow. That is our clan totem. We are not supposed to touch that one. We don’t play with it. That is our sacred bird. So I looked at it closely and ask, is that a sparrow? He said, yes. I looked at it and said, yes, that is the bird we’re not supposed to do any harm to. So I was a bit confused, and I asked again, so what happens if somebody kills it? And then he shook me, knocked my head and said, don’t be stupid. 

Nobody will try that. So I was confused. What would I see? Should I tell him? What would he see? What would people see? And what would happen to me? I knew we had a totemic animal. I knew it was the sparrow, but at nine, I didn’t know the differences between the smaller birds, which was the sparrow, which was the swallow, wren. I didn’t really know. And so I was confused. Should I tell? What would they see? Tomism was a serious thing for my people. I belong to the [unintellegible] people of southeastern Ghana. My, my tribe had migrated from the ancient kingdom of Oyo in the 16th century and settled in present day Ghana. So the tribe is divided into 15 clans, subdivided into 15 clans. So each clan has an animal totem, sacred animal that is supposed to be protected. Some have the buffalo as the totem, some the leopard. 

My clan has two, two terms, the alligator and the sparrow. These animals are supposed to be sacred and apart from the totemic affiliation with animals, we also have animals in our stories. Our stories are replete with anthropomorphised animals behaving like humans. And we loved storytelling. Like what we are doing this evening. We love to gather in the evening and listen to stories. And most of our stories were about animals. The buffalo, the lion, and the leopard doing all kinds of mischief. But I was a curious boy, I observed that most of those animals we heard about in our stories did not really live in our area. So one day I asked my grandfather, where are these animals? The lion, the buffalo, leopard. We don’t see them around. Where are they? We have them in our stories, but we don’t see them. So he explained to me that before our forefathers migrated and settled in our present location, those animals lived in abundance. 

But when our people settled, they of course started clearing their habitats, hunting them. And in no time, some of the bigger animals vanished. And so the elders were alarmed and they wanted to rectify the situation. So they put in place totemic prohibitions to kind of protect the endangered animals before they also vanished. And those that had already vanished, the totemic prohibitions kind of memorialize them so that we knew that the ones existed. So totalism was seriously enforced. So when I killed that bird, inadvertently, I had transgressed a serious communal taboo, and I knew it. So I was determined to keep it a secret, not to tell anybody, but I was plagued with anxiety. What would happen to me? So I wanted to be clever. So I would approach people, usually normally the older people, and ask them, well, so what happens if somebody kills a secret animal? 

I wasn’t getting the answer I wanted. They would be like, ah, but who would ever do that? Who would kill a sacred animal? I wasn’t getting the answer. I will go to the next person. What happens if somebody kills a totem bird or totem animal? Someone will look at me with suspicion. Are you thinking about doing some mischief to our sacred animals? I would say, no, no, no, no. I’m not thinking about that. So I kept that a secret for a very long time. And the guilt and the anxiety plagued me. And because I didn’t tell anybody and I didn’t know what would happen to me, I had that anxiety and nightmares for a long time. But I grew out of it and realized that it wasn’t so much about the consequence of what would happen to you. We were not supposed to do it in the first place. 

You’re not supposed to kill any sacred animal. We were meant to appreciate that we were supposed to live with them. We’re better off living in harmony with them, so we’re not supposed to kill them in the first place. So instead of worrying over what happens to me, I decided to rather advocate for animals, for ecology, for nature. So when I started writing poetry, one of my first poems was to confess my inequity in one of my points. I didn’t tell anybody to date. Nobody in my country knew that I had killed a sacred animal. I wrote about it in my poem. If they figure it out, that is all good. But so I it, in my poem, I killed a totem bird. But the most important thing is that I got a lesson to advocate for these animals. We are not supposed to kill them. And I stopped worrying. I now advocate for birds. Thank you very much. 

OUTRO: Thank you for listening to our courageous, brilliant storyteller. The stories we’ve shared today are what drive our organization. Center for Stories is a small, not-for-profit, relying in part on your support. If you liked these stories today, please let us know by emailing us your thoughts or any feedback you have to or by making a donation at our website center for, big or small, all donations help us to keep sharing these important experiences from our community and support our mission of changing the world through building empathy and connection one story at a time. Thank you. 



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