Oral Literature: the three questions

There was once a chief whose mind was troubled. He was troubled because he wanted to know the answers to three questions. The first question was this: when is the most important time? The second was: who is the most important man? The third was: what is a man’s most important action?

The chief thought that if he knew the answers to these three questions, he would succeed in anything he chose to do. Moreover, he knew that if he had the answers to these three questions, he would also be respected by his people for his great wisdom.

The chief called many people to him, many learned men, but not one of them could answer any of the three questions to his satisfaction. Then at last the chief heard of a certain hermit who lived in the forest. This hermit was very famous for his wisdom.

The chief therefore called for his horse, and he rode alone into the forest in search of the hermit. When he reached the hermit’s home he saw a very old man digging holes and hoeing the ground.

The hermit was so feeble that he could only just manage to dig and hoe and he looked very tired. The chief jumped off his horse and greeted the old man.  “I have come to ask you three questions,” said the chief, having finished his greetings, and he asked the hermit the three questions.

The hermit listened but made no answer, all the time continuing with his work.  “You are tired,” said the chief. “Let me help you. I will dig while you rest.”

The chief dug for some time, then he repeated his questions, but instead of giving answers the hermit got up from where he was resting and said he would continue with his digging.  However, the chief would not allow that, and went on digging for the hermit. Then suddenly the chief saw a bearded man coming toward him, with blood flowing from wounds on his face.

The chief stopped the man with kind words, and washed his face with water from a nearby stream. Then he wrapped a cloth around the wounds. When the bearded man asked for water to drink the chief brought it to him, after which he took the man into a hut where he could rest. The chief also lay down to rest, for by that time night had come.

The next morning the chief went once more to the hermit. The hermit was planting seeds in the holes that had been dug the day before. “Oh, wise hermit,” said the chief. “I beg you to answer my three questions.” “Your questions have already been answered,” replied the hermit. “I have heard no answers,” said the chief. “You had pity for me because of my weakness and my age,” the hermit explained. “You stayed with me to help. If you had not done so and had gone on your way that bearded man would have killed you.”

The chief listened without saying a word while the hermit continued speaking. “The most important time was when you were digging for me. lt was I who was the most important man at the time and helping me was your most important action. When the wounded man came near us he was then the most important man and what you were doing for him was your most important action.”

The chief began to understand what the hermit’s words should mean to him. “Remember,” said the hermit, “there is only one time that is important, and that time is the present. Remember, the most important man is the man whom you are with at any moment, for you never know whether he may be the last person on earth with whom you meet. Remember, the most important action for you to do is to treat well and with justice the man you are with, because it is for that purpose alone that you were sent into this life.”

Then the hermit began to sow his seeds again, and the chief mounted his horse and rode back to his palace. Never did he forget what he had learnt from the hermit, and the fame of the chief’s goodness and wisdom spread throughout the land.

(A Hausa Story from Northern Nigeria)

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