Art by Brian Lies (Copyright Brian Lies)
NOTHING stirred on the African plains. The sun glared down and Hare crept inside the cool hollow of a baobab tree for his afternoon nap.
Suddenly he was wide awake. There was a boom, boom, booming in his ears. And it was getting closer. Hare peeped out from the tree nervously. Across the clearing the bushes snapped and parted, and out loomed a huge gray shape.
“Oh it’s you!” said Hare. “How can a fellow sleep with all your racket?” The rhinoceros squinted down at him short-sightedly.
“Greeee-tings,” he bellowed in his slow way. “Tembo the elephant has sent me to fetch you to the water-hole. He’s going to tell us who our new king will be. All the animals have voted.”
“Oh fiddlesticks!” cried Hare. “What do I want with a new king? He’ll bully us from morning till night and make our lives miserable.”
“Don’t you want to see who’s been chosen? asked Rhino.
“I know already,” snapped Hare. “It will be that sly old lion, Kali. He has bribed all the other animals and promised not to eat their children if only they will vote for him.”
Rhino didn’t seem to believe Hare, and in the end Hare said, “Oh very well, I’ll come. But you’ll see I’m right.”
The sun was setting as Hare and Rhino reached the water-hole. All the animals had gathered there – giraffes, hippos, antelope, buffalo, warthogs, zebras, aardvarks, hyenas, mongooses, storks and weaver birds. When Tembo the elephant saw that everyone was there, he threw up his trunk and trumpeted.
“Animals of the plains, I am proud to tell you that Kali the lion will be our new king. It is a wise choice, my friends.”
The animals cheered. But Hare only sighed. “They’ll soon see what a horrible mistake they’ve made.”
Out on a rocky ledge above the water-hole strode Kali. He stared down at all his subjects and there was a wicked glint in his eye.
“You’ve made me your king,” he growled, “and so now you’ll serve me.” And then he roared until the animals trembled…
This extract is from a story first published in Spider Magazine in February 1999. It is based on a story once told by the Akamba, a Bantu farming people who live in a semi-arid region south of Nairobi in Kenya, East Africa. At the time of writing I was living in Nairobi and the country was struggling to establish multi-party democracy after years of one-party rule. This situation coloured my retelling of the original tale. It is basically about bullying of one sort or another.
In the past, communities without writing relied on storytelling to pass on wisdom and clan history. This is true the world over. Most traditional East African stories were only written down in the twentieth century, often collected by European colonial officers who were interested in local customs. In more recent times they have been recorded by native speakers, but the recorded stories probably only represent a small fraction of the stories that were once told.
In the old days, too, a story might change with every telling, and each storyteller would have their own version. Often a narrative would be part of a cycle of stories that involved songs and choruses, sometimes of epic length and great complexity. The stories were meant for everyone, and would not have been specifically aimed at children, although in some communities a story could not be told unless children were present.
In 2010 The Hare Who Would Not Be King inspired the creation of the children’s opera, Rain Dance, for W11 Opera for Young People, libretto by Donald Sturrock, composer Stuart Hancock. In March 2014 Rain Dance will be performed by the North Cambridge Family Opera Company. Rain Dance sets the story in South Africa rather than East Africa, and also introduces the theme of climate change to the main story of an animal election. This is a good example how one story can lead to another, just as they always have.
Art by Brian Lies Children’s Book Author and Illustrator http://www.brianlies.com/
Text © 2013 Tish Farrell