Friday, June 18, 2010

An African Folk Tale

This old Bantu folk tale is about a great hunger a long, long time ago in Africa. A drought had left the land dry and fallow and no food could easily be found for the animals. One day, all the animals, except the lion, decided to leave the jungle to scour the landscape in search of something to eat. The lion, who was king of the jungle, chose to remain behind and rule over his kingdom. And so, the elephants, the giraffe, the rabbit, the tortoise, the monkey, the zebra, and the gazelle set out together to scour the landscape for food to eat. They crossed the great river, and walked and walked across the flat land for many days, not knowing where their journey would take them.

After some time, as they approached the edge of the plain, the animals began to make out the figure of what appeared to be a tall tree, the only one that stood for miles around. And as their journey drew them closer to this tree they saw that it was laden with the most luscious fruit they had ever seen! Fruit as red as pomegranates, and orange as mangoes, as yellow as bananas, as purple as plums, and as fragrant as all the fruits of the world.

But, for all its beauty and promise, the tree left the animals crying in frustration and despair. For it was so tall and its branches so high off the ground that even the neck of the giant giraffe was not long enough to reach even the bottom-most fruit. And the trunk of the tree was so smooth that even the agile monkey could not climb it.

The famished animals collapsed on the ground beneath the tree. “What are we going to do?” they lamented. An old tortoise spoke: “My great-great-grandmother once told me about a tree such as this one, with beautiful and delicious fruit. But only those who knew the name of the tree could reach the fruit.”

“How can we find the name of the tree?” the animals asked in unison.

The old tortoise answered, “The lion knows the name. Someone must travel back to the jungle to ask him.”

It was decided that the gazelle, who was the fastest runner of all, should go. The gazelle, proud of his swiftness, raced to the jungle and to the place near the river that the lion king called home. “What do you want?” questioned the lion when the gazelle arrived.

“Great King,” said the gazelle, “all the animals are so very hungry. We have been searching for days for something to eat. We have finally found the most beautiful tree, filled with wondrous, colourful fruit. But until we find the name of the tree, the fruit will remain out of our reach, and all the animals will continue to starve.”
The lion thought quietly for a moment and then said, “I will tell you what you need to know. I do not wish to see the animals of my kingdom suffer amy more. But I will only tell you once, for I do not wish to repeat myself or to tell anyone else this special name. You must listen carefully and remember. The name of the tree is Ungalli.”

“Ungalli,” said the gazelle. He thanked the lion and ran through the jungle and then back across the flat land thinking about how clever the other animals were to send an animal as swift as he and how happy and grateful they would be when he returned with the name of the tree. Lost in his thoughts, he did not see the rabbit hole that was near to where the animals lay waiting. He stepped in the hole and flipped head over hoof through the air until he landed with a thud at the foot of the tree.
The animals gathered around him. “What is the name of the tree?” they shouted with great hope and expectation.

But the gazelle just stared at the animals with a dazed look in his eyes. “What is the name of the tree?” the desperate animals shouted again and again.

“I cant remember,” he uttered, in a voice barely above a whisper. “I cant remember.”

The animals moaned. “We have no choice. We will just have to send someone else, someone who will remember no matter what,” they said.

It was decided that the elephant should go since it was well known that she did not forget anything. And so the elephant strode off across the flat, empty plain, feeling quite proud of her excellent memory. When the elephant arrived at the place near the river where the lion king lived, the lion growled, “What do you want?”
“Oh, king,” said the elephant, “the animals are all so hungry and I ... ”
“I know, I know,” said the lion impatiently. “I will tell you the name of the tree with the wonderful fruit, but don’t you forget because I absolutely will not tell anyone else. The name of the tree is Ungalli.”

“I will not forget,” said the elephant with arrogance, “I never forget anything.”

She made her way out of the jungle and across the plain thinking to herself, “How could I forget! I can remember the names of all the trees in this jungle.” And she began to name them. Quite impressed with her memory, she began naming all the trees in Africa and then began to recall the names of all the trees in the world. Lost in her thoughts, she carelessly stepped in the same hole in the ground that had spoiled the gazelle’s journey just the day before. But unlike the gazelle, the elephant’s foot was so big and fit so tightly in to the hole that she could not so easily get it out.

The elephant pulled and tugged but her foot wouldn’t budge. Those animals who were not too weak from hunger ran toward the elephant shouting, “What is the name of the tree?”

Angrily, she pulled and tugged at her foot again and again until at last she was able to free it from the hole. “What is the name of the tree?” the animals shouted again.

“I cant remember,” she said crossly, as she rubbed her sore foot, “and I don’t care.”
The animals were too tired and too hungry to complain. Some began to cry. They didn’t know what to do. Then a very young tortoise said, “I will go and find the name of the tree.”

“You are too young, too small, and too slow,” replied the animals.

“Yes,” said the very young tortoise, “but my great-great-great-grandmother, the one who knew about the tree, taught me how to remember.”

Without waiting for the animals to respond, the little tortoise headed out slowly across the great plain. Step by step she made her way to the place near the river in the jungle where the lion king lived.

The king was not at all pleased to see the tortoise and roared, “If you have come for the name of the tree, forget it! I’ve told it twice before. And I warned the gazelle and the elephant that I would not tell anyone else the name of the tree is Ungalli so I will not tell you.”

The young tortoise politely thanked the lion for his time. As she walked out of the jungle she repeated to herself over and over, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.” She crossed the great plain, saying over and over, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli. Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.”

Even when feeling tired and thirsty, the young tortoise never stopped saying, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli,” because great-great-great-grandmother has said this was what one should do to remember. Falling to the bottom the same rabbit hole that had tripped the gazelle and trapped the elephant, the young tortoise just climbed out saying, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.”

None of the animals noticed as the young tortoise approached them. They were lying under the tree preoccupied with their great misfortune when she walked straight up to them and announced in a loud voice, ” Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli.”

The startled animals looked up. They saw the branches of the tree bend down so low that they could reach the wonderful fruit that was as red as pomegranates, and orange as mangoes, as yellow as bananas, as purple as plums, and as fragrant as all the fruits of the world.

The animals ate until their bellies were full. With great joy and merriment, they lifted the very young tortoise high up in the air. They paraded around and around the tree singing and chanting, over and over, “Ungalli, Ungalli, the name of the tree is Ungalli” because they did not want to forget. And they never did.
Transcribed from Anita Johnston’s book on eating disorders, Eating in the Light of the Moon.

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