Gusii - Fables and Legends

Both these tales are from William R. Ochieng's "Kenya's People: People of the South-Western Highlands - Gusii" (1986: Evans Brothers, PO Box 44536 Nairobi).
In this page:
The Cock and the Ostrich
Why Man must Die

The Cock and the Ostrich

A long time ago the Cock and the Ostrich were rivals. They both built large homesteads because they owned many cows, and they each had many wives and children who lived in separate houses. But, despite their riches, the two birds were extremely jealous of each other, and each feared that their wives were in love with the other.

The long-necked Ostrich one day decided to pay the Cock a casual visit, during which he would see how he could cause trouble, and perhaps steal one of the Cock's beautiful wives, When the Ostrich entered the Cock's compound he saw that the Cock was asleep in the shade, with his head and neck neatly tucked under his wing. In his amazement at this spectacle he cried out in alarm, 'Cock, Cock, where is your head?'

The Cock did not move, but replied in a muffled voice, 'Oh, must you disturb my rest by asking such a strange question? If you must know, I instructed one of my wives to cut off my head place it high on a pole in the middle of the homestead. Then, even though I should go to look after my cattle, or go to sleep, I can still watch all my wives at once, and be satisfied that they have not run off with a sneaking fellow like you!'

The gullible Ostrich was immensely impressed by the Cock's cleverness, and decided to do the same thing himself. He hurried back to his homestead and shouted, 'Junior Wife, where are you?' And he instructed her to take a sharp knife and cut off his head. 'After cutting it put it on a high pole in the middle of my compound so that I may keep closer watch on my wives,' he said.

The junior wife thought the Ostrich was making one of his usual bad jokes, so she laughed, but the Ostrich hit her on the head with a stick, and ordered her to obey his wishes. So the frightened wife cut off the Ostrich's head and fastened it to a long pole in the middle of the homestead. When the other wives returned from the fields and learnt what had happened they wailed bitterly over the body of their husband.

When the Cock heard of the Ostrich's death he paid a visit to the wives, and generously offered to take them all, with their children, into his own homestead. To this they agreed, for he was young and handsome and rich. That night the Cock was very merry indeed, for he had acquired beautiful and long-necked wives. He chuckled at his own cleverness and good fortune. He advised his son and heir: 'My son, never ever lose your head over a woman; some are bound to stray, but if you are a clever fellow, others will lose their heads and you will be richer as a result'.

Why Man Must Die

Engoro (God) was tired of the constant wailings of men, so one day he sent a trusted servant to earth with the message: 'Send me an offering of fresh, untainted fat and I will remove death from the earth.' The fat, he said, was to be as clean and sparkling as the moon on a clear cloudless night. So the people slaughtered the fattest goat, removed the pure white fat, and placed it in a clean clay dish overspread with fine, fresh water lily leaves.

Then they summoned the Chameleon, regarding him as the most careful of animals, and ordered him to take their offering to Engoro. To help him they erected a long pole which reached up to heaven where Engoro dwells in his splendid glory.

But the Chameleon accidentally soiled the fat with his clumsy feet and on his arrival before Engoro he presented a dirty and unsightly offering.
   Engoro was furious and rejected the dirty fat, shouting, 'Who do they think I am? Tell the people of earth that because of this insult they must continue to die, just as their ancestors have done!'

The Chameleon descended the pole with a heavy heart, delivered Engoro's message, and handed over the soiled fat to the furious people. Ever since then death has continued to visit mankind. For his clumsiness the Chameleon was cursed by the people. Now he must always walk on all fours, and his steps must be hesitant and slow. That is why you always see him carrying one leg raised from the ground as he tries to decide exactly where to tread.


Traditional Music & Cultures of Kenya
Copyright Jens Finke, 2000-2003

also by Jens Finke
Chasing the Lizard's Tail - across the Sahara by bicycle - fine art photography