Oral literature: who is the wisest?

Long ago, the hyena and the chimpanzee were good friends. They visited each other often and spent hours in pleasant conversation. But one day the talk turned to the subject of wisdom and then as to which of the two was the wiser. This conversation was inconclusive.

They decided to ask man to decide between them. So off they went to his house. Along they went, both in high spirits, because each of them knew that he would be the winner.

They were received cordially. The man gave them a bucket of fresh milk each. While they were drinking, the monkey made a sign to the man to step outside. He looked around carefully to see that nobody was nearby. Even so, he leaned and whispered into the man’s ear.

This is what he said: “Man, my friend, I want to thank you for the hospitality and the milk. Now, here is the reason why we came: myself and my friend the hyena have debated for ages to decide which of us is the wiser. And we have decided to bring the matter to you. Now, listen carefully, and remember: if you say the hyena is wiser, I shall come back with all the other chimps. I needn’t tell you what we will do in your well. You won’t drink the water again; nor will your cattle. So, you’d better see that I win.”

Strangely enough, the hyena called the man aside a bit later. And what did he say? “O man, thank you for your hospitality and your delicious milk. I apologise if I have not yet told you our reason for coming here. You see, myself and my friend the chimpanzee have spent hours discussing which of us is wiser. Since we couldn’t agree, we decided to ask you. When you give your answer, please remember that if you say the ape is wiser, you had better prepare for trouble. I shall come at night with my friends, and only God can tell what will happen to you and to your cattle. So, try to say that I am the wiser, please.”

The man thought: “I’m in a trap.” He had to decide between the enmity of all the chimpanzees and that of all the hyenas. He began to rack his brains in search of some solution.

The fatal moment came. The chimpanzee and the hyena stood in front of the man and said: “We have come to ask you to resolve a dispute, to know which of us is the wiser. You are our judge. Speak.”

The man spoke solemnly: “Come here, both of you, and sit next to me: one on the right and one on the left. The one I touch on the shoulder is the wiser. But you must both run straight home afterwards without another word to anyone.”

They did as they were told, and the man made them close their eyes for good measure. Then he touched them both on the shoulder at once. And they, foolish beasts, rushed off home, each convinced that he was the wiser. And the man had saved his well and his cattle.

So, it’s clear that man is the wisest of all: he’s able to find a way out of the tightest corner.

(Folktale from Borana People. Kenya)

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