Swahili Tales/The Story of the Washerman's Donkey

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Swahili Tales by Edward Steere
The Story of the Washerman's Donkey

See the original Swahili text: Kisa cha punda wa dobi; or both texts in parallel


There was once a monkey which made friends with a shark. There was a great tree, of the sort called mkuyu, which grew near the deep water; half its branches were over the town and half over the sea. The monkey used to go every day and eat the kuyu fruit, and his friend the shark was there under the tree. He used to say, "Throw me some food, my friend;" and he used to throw to him, many days and many months.

Till one day the shark said to the monkey, "You have done me many kindnesses, I should like for us to go to my home, that I may repay you for your kindness." The monkey answered him, "How shall I go? We don't go into the water, we beasts of the land." And he said, "I will carry you; not a drop of water shall get to you." And he said, "Let us go."

They went half the way. And the shark said, "You are my friend, I will tell you the truth." He said, "Tell me." He said, "There, at home, where we are going, our Sultan is very ill, and we have been told that the medicine for him is a monkey's heart." The monkey replied to him, "You did not do well not to tell me there on the spot." The shark said, "How so?"

The monkey considered, and felt, "My life is gone already; now I will tell him a lie, perhaps that may serve me."

The shark asked him, "You have become silent; don't you speak?" He said, "I have nothing to say, because of your not telling me there on the spot, and I might have brought my heart." The shark asked, "Have you your heart here?"

"Don't you know about us? When we go out we leave our hearts in the trees, and we go about with only our bodies; but you won't believe me, you will tell me I am afraid; let us go on now to your home there, and kill me if you find my heart."

The shark believed it, and said to the monkey, "Let us go back now, and you get your heart." The monkey said, "I don't agree to that, but let us go to your place." And he said, "Let us go back first and take your heart, that we may go on."

The monkey considered—I had better consent to him as far as to the tree, I know what to do when I have got there. They went and returned to the tree, and the monkey climbed up, and said, "Wait for me here, shark, I am going to get my heart, that we may be off."

He climbed into the tree and sat down quite still. The shark called him. He held his tongue. He called him again and said, "Let us be going." The monkey answered him, "Let us go where?" He said, "Let us go to our home." He said, "Are you mad?" The shark said, "How so?" The monkey said to him, "Do you take me for a washerman's donkey?" The shark asked the monkey, "What about a washerman's donkey?" He said, "That's what has neither heart nor ears. "The shark said, "What is the story of the washerman's donkey? Tell me, my friend, that I may know what it means."

And he said, "A washerman had a donkey, and its owner was very fond of it. And the donkey ran away and went into the forest many days, till its owner the washerman forgot it. And it got very fat there in the forest.

And the hare went by and saw the donkey, and foam coming from its mouth, and he said, 'This beast is fat.' And he went and told the lion. Now the lion was recovering from an illness; he was very weakly. The hare said to him, 'I will bring you some meat to-morrow, that we may come and eat.' The lion said, 'Very good.'

"The hare arose and went into the forest, and found the donkey; now that donkey was a she. And he said to her, 'I am sent to come and ask you in marriage.' 'By whom?' she asked. And he said, 'By the lion.' And the donkey consented, and was very glad. And she said, 'Let us go, that will do.'

"And they went, till they arrived at the lion's. And the lion invited them in, and they sat down. The hare gave the lion a sign with his eyebrow, telling him, 'This is your meat, it has come with me already; I am going out,' And he said to the donkey, 'I am going on private business, converse here with your husband.'

"The lion sprang upon her, and they fought: the lion was kicked very hard, and he struck hard with his claws. And the donkey threw the lion down and ran away, and went off into the forest. The hare came and said, 'Hullo! lion, have you got it?' He said, 'I have not got it; she kicked me and went off, though I have made her many sore places, because I am not strong.' The hare said to the lion, 'Don't put yourself out of the way.'

"They stayed many days, till the donkey was well of her wounds, and the lion had got very strong. And the hare went to the lion and said, 'What do you think now, shall I bring you your meat?' He said, 'Bring it me, I will tear it into two pieces.'

"The hare went into the forest; the donkey welcomed the hare, and asked the news. He said, 'You are invited by your lover.' The donkey said, 'That day you took me, he scratched me very much, and now I am afraid.' And he said, 'That is nothing, it is only the lion's way of conversing.' She said, 'Let us go, then.'

"They went till they arrived. The lion, when he had only caught sight of her, sprang upon her and tore her in two pieces.

"When the hare came, he said to him, 'Take this meat and roast it; but myself I want nothing except the donkey's heart and ears.' The hare said, 'Thanks.' And he went and roasted the meat in a place apart, where the lion did not see him. And the hare took the heart and ears, and went on eating himself, till he had had enough. And the rest of the meat he put away.

"And the lion came and said, 'Bring me the heart and ears.' He said, 'Where are they?' The lion asked him, 'What does this mean?' He said, 'This was a washerman's donkey, did not you know?' And he said, 'What about there being no heart and ears?' He said, 'You lion, a grown-up person, and is it not clear to you? If this animal had had heart and ears, would it have come here a second time? For the first time it came, it saw it would be killed, and ran away; and yet it came again the second time. Now, if it had any heart, would it have come?' The lion said, 'There is truth in what you say.'"

So the monkey said to the shark, "And you want to make a washerman's donkey of me. Take your way and be off home, you are not going to get me again, and our friendship is ended. Good-bye."