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Who owns the elephant? A folktale from my village offers life’s lesson for all

By David C. Butty

There is an African proverb that says, “One finger cannot pick a louse.” One may derive different interpretations from this proverb, but the Grebos of Liberia believe it can be interpreted as meaning that we all need each other’s assistance at some point in time. This proverb has given many meanings to the concept of working together in a traditional village setting in Africa for centuries. Even today in their communities, African people work together for the common good of everyone.

People not only work together; they share the fruits of their labor. Farmers, hunters and fishermen or women all share their rewards with their community. Palm wine tappers share their wine when they return from the wine tree. This kind of caring and sharing has been passed on from one generation to another. While each profession is considered important, hunters are highly respected. It is because their trade is considered the key to the survival of the people as meat is an important part of the people’s everyday diet. Whenever a hunter kills an animal, he brings it first to the town for everyone to see before it is butchered and shared.

Therefore when hunters gather to boast, the kind of praise a hunter receives depends on the type of animal he has killed. Those who kill large animals receive the most praise and respect. This is a way of encouraging hunters. There was a hunter whose name was Saylee Ju who wanted everyone to see the animal he had killed. When he returned from his hunting adventure, he went first to the high priest to inform this man of wisdom of his success, and the type of animal he had killed. When he arrived at the high priest’s house, Saylee Ju greeted the high priest formally and waited outside until he was invited into the prelate’s home.

After the high priest greeted Saylee Ju and invited him into the house, the high priest asked about Saylee Ju’s health, the health of his family and his children. The prelate recounted all the animals Saylee Ju had killed in the past. He also praised Saylee Ju as a man who never held back any of his meat from the townspeople. Saylee Ju felt flattered because he did not count himself among the great hunters of the village. He was pleased that the high priest had recognized him for his trade. Saylee Ju said his family was well and thanked the high priest for his usual concern.

“What brings you here at this time of day?” the high priest asked. “Oh! I see. You have mud on your feet, and you’re still carrying your rifle,” the high priest noted. Before Saylee Ju could answer, the high priest raised his staff to call for silence, as he asked his wife to fetch the palm wine from behind the water pot.

“Don’t forget to bring the kola nuts, too,” he told her.

When the kola nuts and palm wine were brought, the high priest selected a choice kola nut from the box and broke it in two halves. He then broke the two halves into two more halves. The four pieces of kola nut stood for manhood. The high priest placed the four kola nut pieces in a plate and added water for purity. He poured two cups of palm wine, giving one to Saylee Ju and carefully placing his own cup between his feet. The high priest selected a piece of kola nut from the water and dipped it into seasoned hot pepper. The high priest held up the kola nut and said, “Let us break kola nut together. As our ancestors said, it is after eating kola nut that visitors are asked to reveal their mission,” he said to the hunter.

Saylee Ju waited until the man of wisdom had poured libation to the protectors before placing his own piece of kola nut into his mouth. The two men drank the palm wine. The high priest belched, and then asked the gods to excuse his manners. When the two men were satisfied, the high priest then asked Saylee Ju to state the reason for his visit.

“To visit the home of the high priest means that the visitor has come to share good or bad news with the man of honor. What good or bad tiding do you bring that you want me to tell our people, now that I’ve washed the mud off your feet?” he asked Saylee Ju.

The eating of kola nut is symbolic and a common ritual for welcoming visitors. Strangers are considered a part of a town or household after partaking in the kola nut-eating ceremony. If a visitor refuses a kola nut, he or she will not be included in the conversation. Saylee Ju sat his cup on the floor, looked around the house and took in its contents. The house was clean. He admired the dwelling of the high priest and was pleased that the townspeople had chosen a man of his caliber to lead them. As he surveyed the house, his eyes rested on his own hunting rifle.

The sight of the gun reminded him of his mission. There was an amulet tied around the butt of the gun. Saylee Ju looked at his left arm, and noticed a replica of the talisman. He was glad that the talisman had always brought him good luck in his hunt. Saylee Ju cleared his throat.

“I don’t know how to begin,” he told the high priest. “Start from the beginning,” the prelate said. “Our ancestors said that ‘the road leading to the next village starts from one’s own village.’ Remember, too, the words of the frog, ‘Unless the war is nearer to your town, it is useless engaging in the fight,’” the prelate added.

Saylee Ju did not press the man of wisdom to elaborate. Instead, he said, “I think I’ve killed an elephant.”

“What is it?” the priest asked, as he looked Saylee Ju straight in the eyes. “Either you’ve kill an elephant or you haven’t. What do you want me to tell the people? That you think you’ve killed an elephant?”

“Tell them that I’ve killed an elephant and ask them to bring the animal into the town for everyone to see,” the hunter said.

“So be it,” the prelate said, adding, “Does your father know about the kill?”

“No.”

“Your wife?”

“No.”

“Then they will hear of the good news when I inform the townspeople.”

The news of Saylee Ju killing an elephant did not come from the high priest directly, but from the kon-kon of the big drum in the meeting house in the town center. The drum was used only to announce important news. When all were gathered, the high priest walked to the center of the crowd with Saylee Ju beside him. The high priest didn’t have to speak. Everyone knew it was Saylee Ju who had killed a large animal.

“It’s an elephant,” Saylee Ju told the cheering crowd. They clapped and danced for joy. Some people danced with Saylee Ju as others reached for his hands and spat in his palms, a sign of blessing for another successful hunt. The men were asked to accompany Saylee Ju to bring the elephant into the town. Saylee Ju led the way. The horn blowers and drummers followed, playing and singing the praises of Saylee Ju. The tempo of the music increased when the people saw the elephant. It was large, indeed. The dead animal lay on its side like a giant fallen log. The tusks stuck out of its mouth like a bicycle pedal. The men built a huge platform and pushed sticks under the animal to roll it onto the platform. When everything was in place, the carriers lifted the huge animal on their heads, with Saylee Ju leading the way. The men were singing on their way to the town.

Hunter: “I killed my elephant. I’m going to eat my elephant.

Me, my wife and children will eat our elephant.”

The carriers’ lyrics were different. Their song went like this:

Carriers: “We killed our elephant.

We are carrying our elephant

To the town for us to eat.”

The carriers noticed the difference in the song and said to Saylee Ju, “Since you said the elephant is yours alone, we will leave it here, and you can carry it all by yourself.” The hunter acknowledged the carriers’ concern. The song was about the elephant, but the lyrics were not the same. He apologized saying that happiness had carried him away. He promised to join the song as the carriers sang it.

“This elephant is for all of us,” Saylee Ju told the carriers. “Remember what our forefathers said, ‘One finger cannot pick a louse,’” Saylee Ju reminded the carriers. “I killed the elephant, but I can’t carry it to the town all by myself.”

Saylee Ju joined in the singing. The lesson from this story, according to the Grebos, is that everybody needs the help of somebody, sometime when a task is at hand. As the saying goes, there is never an “I” in team.

David C. Butty, a native of Liberia, West Africa, is executive dean for International Programs at Wayne County Community College District. His column appears monthly in the Michigan Citizen.

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