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Oral Literature – If the king demands the impossible …

then – say the Baganda of Uganda – you can only hope that God may make you run into a madman. His folly would save you.

Long, long time ago, there lived a man called Walukaga. In all the country there was no one better than him in the art of melting and forging iron. He was so good that the king had made him chief of the court’s blacksmiths.

The objects he made were not only very robust, but also extremely beautiful to see. Farmers raced to him to buy hoes and cutlasses. Warriors boasted of having arrows forged by him. And the woodcutters would swear that the axes Walukaga made could fell a tree in only three blows. But where the art of Walukaga reached its highest degree was in forging iron statues for the king.

One day, a king’s messenger arrived at Walukaga’s workshop and told him: “The  king wants to see you immediately, for he has an urgent order for you”. Walukaga obeyed promptly. After putting on the tunic of the great occasions, he ran to the royal palace and was soon ushered into the king’s presence. He took few steps along the big hall towards the throne, always keeping his head bowed, then stopped, knelt down, prostrated himself in an act of submission, and waited for the king to tell him he could stand up.

“Walukaga,” said the king, “you are certainly the best of my blacksmiths. Nobody else can make iron statues and figurines as perfect as yours. Today, however, I entrust you with a commitment that will put your ability to the test. I am perfectly aware that I am asking of you something extremely difficult, but I also know that, if in the whole world there is someone able to do it, that person is you”.

No sooner had the king clapped his hands twice than his servants entered the big hall carrying an enormous quantity of iron. The king continued: “Walukaga, take all this metal to your workshop and forge it into a human figure. But be careful! This time  I am not asking for another statue to embellish my palace, neither am I looking for a figurine of one of my ancestors. This time I want a real man: a man of iron  who can walk and talk, who has blood in his veins, wisdom in his head and feelings in his heart”.

Walukaga was totally dismayed by the king’s request, but did not utter a single word. He prostrated himself once again, took the iron and went home. He knew perfectly well how absolute the will of the king was. For hours he could not take his mind off the long list of people who, after finding themselves unable to carry out an absurd command of the king, had resorted to taking poison together with their whole families.
For many a day, Walukaga sat under a tree, holding his head in his hands, prey to despair. His heart had lost its peace and his mind was paralysed. The only thing he was able to do was to prepare some poison.

But one day he said to himself: “Maybe there is someone who can help me”. And so, he decided to visit all the blacksmiths of the kingdom, hoping to get from them some suggestions on how to carry out the preposterous command of the king. Moved to pity, they all tried to give him some advice. “You might make a kind of iron shell in the form of a man, and then ask a person to enter into it to make it move and talk,” suggested one. Who, however, hurried to add: “But this is not exactly what the king is looking for, is it?”.
Most of his friends advised him to flee to a far away country where the king’s warriors could not reach him, saying: “You are an excellent blacksmith, and it should not be difficult for you to make a new start”. But that would entail abandoning relatives and friends, upon whom the king would not be long to vent his wrath.

One day, while roaming about disconsolate, Walukaga ran into an old friend who, after going crazy, was living all alone in the savannah. They sat next to an anthill and began to talk about the many things that had happened since they had met the last time.

“But now, how are things with you?” asked the madman. Walukaga sighed, shook his head sadly, and answered: “Now I find myself in great trouble. Actually, I am desperate”. The madman looked at him with deep concern and said: “Come on, old friend! Do not hold back anything from me. Tell me what is worrying you”. Walukaga hesitated at first. “What is the use of wasting my time with a madman?”, he said to himself. But since he needed to pour out his feelings to someone, he found himself telling the madman the entire story of the absurd wish of the king.

The madman listened with close attention and in absolute silence to Walukaga’s story. But when the blacksmith asked him: “What do you advise me to do?”, his inquisitive sparkling eyes began to smile, then, all of a sudden, he let out a shriek of laughter and said: “Well, if the king demands the impossible, you must do exactly the same thing. Go to him and tell him that, if he really wants a man of iron who walks and talks, who has blood in his veins, wisdom in his head and feelings in his heart, then it is indispensable that he provides you not only with enough iron, but also with special charcoal to make the fire to melt the iron, and with particular water to temper the material when you remove it from the furnace. Tell him that he has to order all men and women and children of the Kingdom to have their heads shaved and burn their hair to make enough fuel to fill one thousand bags. As for the water, everybody in the kingdom will have to weep and weep and weep, till they have filled with their tears one hundred big goatskins”.

Walukaga thanked the friend for his advice and went to the royal palace, where he asked to be received by the king. Escorted to the hall of the throne, he prostrated himself, waited for the king to give him permission to speak, and said: “My king, if you really want me to do what you ordered me, you must provide me with special coal and special water”.
Anxious as he was to have a man of iron, the king promptly agreed: “Just tell me what type of coal and water you need, and you will have them”. “My Lord,” continued Walukaga, “you must order all your subjects to shave their heads and burn their hair till they have one thousand bags of coal. Then, command them to fill one hundred big goatskins with their tears, which I may use to temper the iron when I remove it from the furnace. You see, my king: common coal and common water would be of no use to forge a man of iron”.

The King sent messengers to every corner of his kingdom to order everybody to do exactly as Walukaga had asked.
Profoundly disconcerted but conscious that they would be killed if they failed to carry out the king’s order, men, women and children shaved off their hair and wept all the tears they had in their bodies. At the end, however, they were not able to get more than  two tins of ashes out of all their burnt hair, and to fill two goatskins with their tears.

The elders and the sages of the kingdom went to the king and informed him of the result of the enterprise. At first, the king seemed to fly into a rage. Then, he calmed down, became pensive for few seconds, and finally sent one of his messengers to call Walukaga.
The blacksmith ran to the royal palace. His heart was throbbing, and he was shaking. He stood at a distance and would not even raise his face to the king. But the king said to him: “Walukaga, I order you to stop making a man of iron for me. In fact, I am not in a position to provide you with the special coal and special water you asked of me”.

Walukaga lay stretched out flat on the ground, thanked the king, and said: “My supreme sovereign, when I asked you to provide me with these two things, I knew that you would not be able to give them to me. You, too, however, had asked me the impossible by ordering me to forge for you a man of iron who could walk and talk, and with blood in his veins, wisdom in his head and feelings in his heart”.

All the courtiers heard the words of Walukaga, breathed a sigh of relief, and said: “Walukaga has spoken the truth”. Since the blacksmith was still with his face downwards, neither the king nor the courtiers noticed the cheerful grin – part smile, part sneer – that was in his eyes. As a matter of fact, Walukaga was thanking in his heart the madman who had got him out of the awkwardly mortal situation in which the foolish wish of the king had put him.

(Edited by Paula Ithua)

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