A Wise Woman, A tale from Guinea, West Africa
It was a beautiful African morning. Children were playing happily in the village streets. The women were washing clothes in the river and singing songs about lazy husbands. The great chief listened to the two men sitting in front of him. ‘Great chief, the man next to me is a thief,’ said the older man. ‘Is that really so?’ replied the great chief. ‘Then tell me: what did he steal from you?’
‘One of my sheep,’ answered the old man. ‘And what is your answer to that?’ the great chief asked the younger man. ‘Why steal sheep, great chief?’ replied the young man. ‘I have lots of them. If I need more sheep, I buy them. I don’t steal them from other people. He’s the thief, not me.’
The great chief looked at the far mountains and smiled. Then he looked at both men. Was the young one lying? He wasn’t sure. But the old man didn’t have the look of a thief. This was a difficult problem. He wasn’t going to find the answer in just a few minutes. But the great chief liked problems like this more than any other. It took some time to find the answer. People came to him from very far away to ask him to be the judge of their problems. The great chief liked this also. ‘I have a question for both of you,’ said the great chief. ‘The person who finds the solution will keep the sheep. Go home and think about this question, and come back only when you know the answer. What’s the fastest thing in the world? Don’t come back until you have the solution.’
The two men left the great chief’s house. The old man was sad. How could he find the answer to such a difficult question? When he got home he told the question to his daughter, Zia. She was a beautiful, happy woman who liked helping others. She was young, but she was also very wise.
‘I know the answer, Father,’ she said. ‘It’s “time”.’
The old man went back to the great chief’s house. The great chief was surprised. ‘You’re back again! Not even one hour has passed and you already have an answer to my question?’
‘Yes, great chief,’ replied the old man, ‘it wasn’t so difficult.’ ‘So tell me, what is the fastest thing in the world?’
‘Time,’ answered the old man. ‘It always goes too fast. There’s never enough time for all the things that we want to do. And when we want more time to do something, it goes faster.’ The great chief was surprised. The old man’s answer was even better than his solution.
‘Who helped you to find the answer? Who gave you these words?’ asked the great chief.
‘They’re my words,’ said the old man. ‘No one helped me.’
‘If that’s not true, I’ll punish you,’ said the great chief. The old man was too afraid to go on with his story. ‘It was my daughter, Zia. She’s a very wise young woman and she gave me the words,’ he said. ‘She must be very wise!’ thought the great chief.
‘Very well,’ he said. ‘You have found the answer and so you shall keep the sheep. And now that this is all finished, I think that I’d like to meet your daughter.’
The next day the old man brought his daughter Zia to meet the great chief. They sat at the great chief’s table and had a big lunch chicken, rice, fruit and a drink made from palm juice. During lunch they talked about the young man who stole the sheep, and about how difficult it was to be a good judge. The great chief enjoyed the lunch very much. While he talked about this and that with Zia, he felt so happy that he wanted to sing and dance. Was it the palm juice drink, or the wise and beautiful young woman looking into his eyes? But time always passes too fast, and soon it was time for them to leave. The great chief saw Zia every day, and his love for her grew and grew.
‘You’re a wise and beautiful woman. I’d really like to marry you,’ he said.
‘Me too,’ replied Zia, laughing.
And so they married. The great chief was very happy, but he was also worried about having a wise wife. He didn’t want her to help him with the problems that people brought him. He liked being the great chief who was a wise judge. He didn’t want people to start talking about the great chief’s very wise wife. ‘Everything in my house belongs to you,’ he said to her the day after they were married. ‘But I ask only one thing from you. Never try to help with the problems that people bring me. If you do, you’ll stop being my wife. I’m saying this to you only once.’ Zia listened without looking at the great chief. When he finished, she smiled.
Zia and her husband were happy and life went well for a time. The great chief listened to people’s problems as before. Zia was busy with the house and the animals. In the evenings he told her about the problems of the day and she usually agreed with his answers. But one day two little boys went to see the great chief about a cow. Each boy said that it was his cow. The great chief gave them a very difficult question to answer. Zia knew which boy was telling the truth, because she often saw him in the fields with the family’s cow. When he walked past her that afternoon, he was crying. Zia spoke to him.
‘Tell me, little boy, what’s the matter?’ she asked him.
‘The great chief gave us a question that I can never answer,’ he said sadly. ‘What did he ask you?’
‘His question was: what’s the biggest thing in the world?’
Zia knew that she mustn’t help the boy. But the answer was easy for her and very difficult for him. And he was telling the truth about the cow. ‘Go back to the great chief now,’ said Zia. ‘Tell him the answer in these words: “It is air. Air is all around us. When we walk, in front of us there is only air and more air. When we look up at the sky, there is air as far as we can see.”’ The little boy went to see the great chief. He said the same words that Zia told him. This time the great chief wasn’t surprised, he was very angry. ‘Who helped you find this answer?’ he shouted. ‘These words are too wise for a young boy. Who gave them to you?’ ‘They’re my words, great chief,’ said the boy. ‘No one helped me to find the answer.’
‘If this isn’t the truth, I’ll punish you,’ said the great chief. The boy was afraid. ‘It was your wife, Zia,’ he said in the end.
The great chief was very angry with his wife. That evening he spoke to her. ‘Didn’t I tell you that everything which I have belongs to you? You have done the one thing, the only thing that I asked you not to do. Now, take what belongs to you and go back to your father’s home.’
‘Before I go, can I make you one last meal?’ asked the woman. ‘Then I’ll take what belongs to me and go.’
‘Yes,’ answered the great chief. ‘Make what you want to eat. Take what you want to take. Just be sure that you’re not still here tomorrow!’
Zia cooked the great chief’s favourite meal: chicken with rice and vegetables. While he ate, she gave him a strong drink made from palm juice. She gave him many cups of it. At the end of the meal, the great chief lay down and slept. With her family’s help, Zia carried the great chief to her father’s home. They put him on a bed, and he stayed in a deep sleep all night. In the morning a great voice woke everyone in the house.
‘Where am I? What am I doing here?’ shouted the great chief. Zia ran into the room, laughing.
‘You said that I could take anything that I wanted from your house. I wanted you and so I took you.’
‘You are truly wise,’ smiled the great chief. ‘Come, let’s go back to our home together. Only a stupid man would send away so wise a woman.’
‘And you, my great chief, are not a stupid man,’ said his clever wife.[/sociallocker]