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Whither, our good old fables?

By October 3, 2011June 6th, 2023No Comments

When I quoted an expression that I’d picked from someone, I was challenged to explain it and to quote an equivalent in Kinyarwanda. I wouldn’t hazard an equivalent, though there must be many, but I can confess that I was quoting Mr John Nagenda, (still?) advisor to President Museveni of Uganda. I picked the expression “bell the cat” from an interview he did with ‘The Monitor’.

The expression came from a fable that rang a bell when I read it in Nagenda’s interview, which meant I’d encountered it somewhere before, although it’d gone clean out of my mind. For having read it, though, I easily understood the situation he was describing.

It goes something like this. A grocer saw that his clients were starting to avoid his shop because there were too many rats in his shop. So, he bought a cat which started to eat them. Seeing they were threatened with genocide, the rats met to find a solution. But however hard they tried, they couldn’t think of one.

Then one morning, when their number was dwindling fast, one rat came up with a bright idea. Why not get a bell and hang it around Cat’s neck when he was sleeping? That way, they’d hear him whenever he came near and go into hiding. They could even get time to gang up together and thump him.

Or get a weapon and ambush him and somehow disable him! They bought a bell and one of them who had a steady hand held the bell, making sure to firmly hold the hammer onto the cast-iron so that it didn’t ring. After that, they went back to their hole to wait for the cat to sleep. When he had gorged himself enough, Cat slept.

Now it was now safe for the rats.  However, when Scout-Rat who’d checked that Cat had slept asked Steady-Hand-Rat to take the bell and do the necessary, Steady-Hand-Rat furiously shook his head. To the rest of his relatives, too, Scout-Rat received no answer to his question: “Who will bell the cat?”

No one was ready and, after a week, they were history.

There are many moral lessons you can draw from such a fable: disadvantages of not being brave, not combining efforts; lacking wisdom or lacking the courage to simply ‘stand on oneself’ (kwihagararaho!), to believe in oneself and dare to confront the enemy.

When you’ve read that fable, you quickly grasp the situation when the above question is evoked.

There are many equally useful fables in Kinyarwanda but, unfortunately, there is no such written literature for Rwandans, especially the youth, to educate them. Yet I know in the 1950s there used to be a rich repertoire of them, such as Muhashyi, Ngunda, Semuhanuka, Maguruyasarwaya and others.

I remember one. Once upon a time, there was a man called Bagabobarabona who lived alone with his young wife. When his wife got pregnant, she got a burning urge to taste the meat of an animal called ‘ikibilima’. Barabona (for short) and his hound went off to hunt but could not get that particular animal. He set a trap but when next he checked, his trap had only caught a rat. The rat pleaded with him to rescue it from the scorching sun.

Barabona obliged and went in search of his animal, while Rat went home. Again, Barabona’s hunt was fruitless and he dejectedly went home, passing by his trap, only to find it had caught the animal. Accompanied by his dog, he carried it home. On their way, however, it started raining and they sought shelter in a cave.

You can imagine Hyena’s excitement when she entered her house to find delicious supper waiting, for that was her cave. She was hungry, having found nothing during her day-long hunt. Without delay, then, she addressed Barabona: “Gentleman, tell your dog to eat that kibilima, then you’ll eat the dog so that in eating you, I’ll have eaten the three of you.”

But, door-less as the cave was, Leopard made his entrance and gave the same order: to eat the four of them by eating Hyena. Then entered Lion, who saw a chance to eat the five of them. Hardly had Lion pronounced the last word, however, than who enters? Rat, and he asked: “What was all that noise about?”

When he was told what was going on, Rat suggested that the order continue, because he intended to eat the six of them! When Leopard stepped forward to crush small Rat under his paw, Rat sounded the alarm and other rats rushed in.

King-of-the-jungle Lion saw the number of rats and decided he didn’t want the embarrassment of being eaten by this multitude of rats and went away. Seeing this chance, Leopard also left, in case Lion ever returned. One by one, all the animals thus left, leaving Rat alone with Barabona and his dog together with their prey. Said Rat, triumphantly: “Gentleman, a good turn deserves another. You are free now!”

Moral? Courage, size not mattering, bluffing one’s way out….. Whatever, the word “Barabona” evokes this whole scenario.

Where are our written fables?

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