Oral Literature: The Lion, the Hare and the Hyena

A lion once lived alone in a cave. In his younger days the solitude had not worried him, but not long before this tale begins, he had hurt his leg so badly that he had been unable to provide food for himself, and he had begun to realise that companionship had its advantages.

Things would have gone very badly for the lion, had Sunguru the hare not happened to be passing his cave one day and look inside. Realising that Simba was starving, Sunguru at once set about caring for the sick lion and seeing to his comfort.

Under the hare’s careful nursing, Simba gradually regained his strength until finally, he was well enough to catch a small game for the two of them to eat. It was not long before quite a large pile of bones began to accumulate outside the entrance to the lion’s cave.

One day old Nyangau the hyena, while sniffing around in the hopes of scrounging something for his supper, caught the appetising scent of marrowbones. His nose led him to Simba’s cave, but the bones were too visible from the inside for him to safely steal. He decided, being a cowardly fellow, like the rest of his kind, that the only means of gaining possession of such tasty morsels for his dinner, would be to make friends with Simba. He therefore crept up to the entrance of the cave and coughed.

“Who makes the evening hideous with his dreadful croaking?” demanded the lion, rising to his feet and preparing to investigate the noise. “It is I, your friend Nyangau,” said the hyena, feeling what little courage he possessed begin to dwindle. “I have come to tell you how sadly you have been missed by the people of the forest, and how greatly we are looking forward to your early return to good health!”

“Well, get out!” The lion growled, “for it seems to me that a friend would have enquired with regard to my health long before this, instead of waiting until I can be of use to him once more. Get out, I say!” The hyena shuffled off with alacrity, his scruffy tail well between his bandy legs, followed by the insulting giggles of the hare. But he could not forget the pile of tempting bones outside the entrance to the lion’s cave.

“I will try again,” said the thick-skinned creature a few days later, and this time he made a point of visiting while the hare was away fetching water for the evening meal. He found the lion dozing at the entrance to his cave. “Friend,” simpered Nyangau, “I am led to believe that the wound upon your leg is making but poor progress, thanks to the underhand treatment that you are receiving from your so-called friend Sunguru.”

“What do you mean?” snarled the lion malevolently. “I have to thank Sunguru that I did not starve to death during the worst of my illness, while you and your companions were conspicuous by your absence!” “Nevertheless, what I have told you is true, oh Great One,” confided the hyena. “It is well known throughout the countryside that Sunguru is purposely giving the wrong treatment to your wound, to prevent your recovery–for when you are well, he will lose his position as your housekeeper. A very comfortable living for him, to be sure! Let me warn you, good friend, that Mr. Sunguru is up to no good!”

At that moment, the hare returned from the river with his gourd full of water. “Well,” he said, addressing the hyena as he put down his load, “I did not expect to see you here, after your hasty and inglorious exit the other day. Tell me, what do you want this time?”

Simba turned to the hare; “I have been listening,” he said, “to Nyangau’s tales about you. He tells me that you are renowned throughout the countryside for your skill and cunning as a doctor. He also tells me that the medicines you prescribe are without rival, but he insists that you could have cured the wound upon my leg a long time ago, had it been in your interests to do so. Is this true?”

Sunguru thought for a moment. He must handle this situation with care, for he had a strong suspicion that Nyangau was trying to trick him. “Well,” he answered with hesitation, “yes, and no. You see, I am only a very small person, and sometimes the medicines that I require are very big, and I am unable to procure them, as for instance, in your case, good Simba.”

“What do you mean?” spluttered the lion, sitting up and at once showing interest. “Just this,” replied the hare. “I need the skin off the back of a full-grown hyena to place upon your wound before it can be completely healed.”

The lion sprang upon Nyangau before the surprised creature had time to get away and, tearing a strip of skin off the foolish fellow’s back from his head to his tail, and put it at once upon the wound on his leg. As the skin came away from the hyena’s back, the hairs that remained firmly embedded in his flesh not only stretched but stood on end as well.

Thus, it is, that to this day, Nyangau and his kind have long, coarse hairs sticking up upon the crest of their misshapen bodies. Sunguru’s fame as a doctor spread far and wide after this episode, for the wound upon Simba’s leg healed without further trouble, although it was very many weeks before the hyena had the courage to show himself again in public.

(From Kikuyu people – Kenya)


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