This fable was inspired by my puzzling out a few Congolese fables published in 1966 in Lingala, I think as a grammar school primer, by Pere Paul Lepoutre. The originals were rather cryptic authentic oral tradition folktales and bear almost no resemblance to my stories. My stories were written for an American audience, and the writing is entirely mine. However I did fall in love with the delightful anthropomorphic animal characters in those tales. The good father deserves a mention, as do the anonymous Congolese story tellers who kept their folktales and culture alive. Special thanks to Susannah Glover Black for her illustration.
Before the Sahara Desert was fully formed, when there were still vast grasslands and even a few rivers and lakes in what is now almost all desert, along the borderland between the jungle in the center of Africa and those grassy plains, lived two unusual friends, an elephant and a songbird. They were unusual friends because most animals, including people who are just another kind of animal, prefer the company of those who look and act like they do. That way they don’t have to learn new ways of thinking and behaving. Learning how to get along with and appreciate others who are different takes some effort, but it is always worth it.
Big and strong with a voice of thunder or a thousand trumpets all sounding at once, the elephant was a dull gray color, except when he covered himself with brown mud or red dust, which he liked to do when the sun was hot or now and again just for the fun of it. The songbird was mostly green up top, and mostly yellow on the bottom, and really quite pretty. So tiny compared to his friend, the songbird could crawl into the elephant’s trunk and tickle it with his feathers, which caused the elephant to sneeze him up high in the air. The songbird thought that was great fun, and the fall back down didn’t hurt at all, because of course the he could fly. The elephant loved listening to his friend sing. It put him in such a good mood that he didn’t mind the sneezing, at least until his trunk became red and sore, which happened sometimes if they played the game too long. This elephant had four wives, because that is the way of elephants, while the songbird had just one wife. The elephant’s wives got along well. He was careful to treat them all the same. Making a lady elephant angry can be downright dangerous, even for another elephant.
Everyday the two friends searched for food together. Although he was too small to fly high or far, the little bird could fly to the tops of trees and spot ripe berries and other fruit. Then the elephant would butt the trees to shake down fruit or rake berries with his long trunk. Above all the elephant loved the cinnamon flavored bark of certain thorn trees, a species of acacia tree. Whenever they found the right kind of acacias that were just the right size, the elephant would slice the bark with his tusks and peel it off with his trunk. Usually butting trees and raking vines didn’t hurt them, but peeling the bark killed the acacias. The bark from the older larger trees didn’t taste nearly as good to the elephant, so he left them alone. Therefore there were always seeds falling and new trees sprouting, but it took at least ten years for the trees to reach the size the elephant liked best. He ate them much faster than they grew. Soon acacias of the right size were very hard to find. The elephant could have saved some of them to eat later. That is called conservation. Elephants don’t know how to do that. Neither do some people.
They ate other things too. Their wives made foofoo for them everyday. Foofoo has many names and is made from different grains or roots in different places. It usually looks like a mound of soft jiggly bread. You eat it by tearing off a small piece with your fingers (after washing your hands) and dipping it into the stew. Our two friends didn’t have hands, but a handy trunk and tiny beak worked just fine. Regardless of what it is made from, it takes time and hard work to make foofoo. African wives clean roots and grain thoroughly. Some root pieces have to be soaked several times to remove harmful toxins (things that would make you sick). Then they spread them out to dry, watching to make sure no animals steal them. Then the wives use big sticks (pestles) and large wooden bowls (mortars) to pound the grain or roots into a fine flour. The wives often work together, pounding the sticks in turn, clapping their hands to keep time like a jump rope chant. When the flour is ready they slowly add water until they get the consistency they want. Then they cook it slowly in pots. The foofoo was always delicious, as well as the sauces and stews the wives made.
However, since they had it everyday, the two friends didn’t really appreciate it. One starry evening they ate their supper under a knobby old tree. As usual the foofoo and sauce were perfect, but there was no cinnamon flavored bark for the elephant’s dessert. The elephant turned to his little friend: “Tomorrow we’ll go to a far place on the edge of the grassy plain. Not many big trees grow there. It’s a perfect place to find acacias. “Fine,” replied the songbird, “but let’s take our wives so that they can make foofoo.” “No,” trumpeted the elephant, as he stomped around causing leaves and small branches to shake down from the tree. “I’m tired of bothering with wives! I need a vacation! We’ll have bark and berries and fruit. We can do without foofoo for a few days.” When the two friends had an argument, which wasn’t very often, the elephant usually got his way because he could shout so loud and stomp the ground so hard.
So the next morning they started off and walked all day until they reached a lovely spot with plenty of fruit and acacia trees of just the right size. Soon they gathered all they could eat. The fruit and acacia bark was tasty, but it would have tasted even better if they had had some foofoo too and maybe a nice sauce. The next day the fruit and bark didn’t taste quite as good. It was exactly the same as the day before. Their wives made many different sauces and stews. Also they missed their foofoo. They’d eaten foofoo all their lives, at every meal, and supper didn’t seem right without it. For us it would be like eating a sandwich without bread. Yuk! By the third day they were so tired of food without foofoo, they hardly ate anything. That night they dreamed about platters of foofoo.
In the morning the elephant decided to call their wives. He stomped around and bellowed as loud as he could, “Wives, oh wives!!! Come to us and bring some foofoo!” They waited all day, but the wives never came. The village was too far away even for the elephant’s great voice to reach. That night they nibbled on some fruit, but they went to bed hungry for foofoo.
The next morning the songbird announced, “Today I’ll call our wives.” The elephant laughed, “If our wives can’t hear me, how can they possibly hear you?” “Nevertheless,” replied the little bird in his gentle way, “I have a right to try too.” “Oh go ahead,” said the elephant. “But don’t blame me if we go hungry again tonight.” They went a bit deeper into the forest until they found a very tall tree. The songbird flew to the first branch, then the next and the next, until he couldn’t see his friend or even the ground. When he finally reached the very top, he perched on a branch and sang his sweetest song.
Two African fish eagles, which closely resemble bald eagles, were flying by. With their keen hearing and even keener eyes, they heard and saw the little bird. This pair had mated recently and were carrying twigs to build a nest. The female eagle dropped down to the tree, and the male eagle followed her. The male thought that they should be on about their business, but they were newlyweds, and if his mate wanted to listen to a songbird, well he would go along, at least for a little while. Because the eagles were carrying twigs for a nest, the songbird sang about how much he missed his wife and their comfortable nest, which he hoped would soon be full of tiny blue eggs. When he finished, the female eagle had tears in her eyes. Then the songbird asked her to use her powerful wings to fly to their little village and ask their wives to come at once, bringing everything they needed to make foofoo. Of course the lady eagle agreed to help. We can only guess what the male eagle thought, but seeing the mist in his mate’s eyes, he wisely decided to keep his mouth shut. It was full of twigs anyway.
The songbird fluttered down and rejoined his friend. They waited all day. The elephant was certain that their wives couldn’t have heard his tiny friend. The elephant had barely heard something, not even enough to make out the words, and he’d been standing right at the bottom of the big tree. Just at sunset the wives arrived. The elephant’s jaw dropped open in amazement. They had even brought some foofoo wrapped in big banana leaves. It wasn’t as fresh as usual, but it still tasted great to the songbird and the elephant. They praised their wives and told them how much they missed them.
Later they sat out under the stars rubbing their full bellies from time to time. Finally the elephant said, “I still don’t understand how our wives heard you and not me.” The little bird laughed, “My friend you have legs like tree trunks and a voice of thunder, but I can sing, and I . . . I have wings!”