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Friday, February 23, 2024

The King and the Guewel: A Ramadan fairytale

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It is said by the guewel, the carriers of our oral history, that this kingdom was so wondrous in its treasures, its king so wise and just, that men came from all over the world to behold its treasures and learn from him. It is said that the people of the kingdom were happy under his rule, and commerce flourished as it never had before, and all was sumptuous as in a golden age.

But the king had one fault, and it was this: when he was hungry he became unpleasant and disagreeable, and developed a nasty habit of beheading people. Since it was only at Ramadan that the king became hungry (for Allah is the only King who can make other kings go hungry), his courtiers looked to the coming of Ramadan each year with great apprehension.

Now there was at that time a guewel who was of the court of the king, and whose skill with a kora was well-known and admired throughout the kingdom and beyond. He was known as Alpha Omar, and he it was who began and ended all the notable naming ceremonies and other festivities of the kingdom, for he knew the origin and lineage of everyone, down to the least night-watchman, such was his talent as a historian.

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One hot Ramadan afternoon, the king was passing into the palace, flanked by his guards and men of state, when he came upon Alpha practising within a shaded enclave at the palace gates. Hungry and feeling irritated by the repetitive sound of the kora, he ordered his guards to seize the guewel, and bring him inside to be beheaded.

“This infernal noise must stop!” the king said in a voice of thunder, stroking his beard and curling his lips. Alpha pleaded, reminding the King of how noble his grandparents had been, but to no avail.

But Alpha knew the king, and knew he could not resist a good story.

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“Very well, my Burr”, he said, giving a sigh pretending to be resigned, “As you wish. But it is a pity that I will not be able to tell you the story that I had prepared specially for you tonight”.

The king sat up.

“What story?” he asked, still frowning, though there was a glimmer in his eyes.

“Alas – it is too long, and I would not want to waste the time of the beheaders… it will soon be time to break the fast, after all…” The king gestured impatiently, cutting him short and waved the beheaders away.

“Tell it to us”, he said, “we are listening”.

And so settling down on the ground before the throne and folding his legs, Alpha began to tell him a story.


The story of Mbahal

Once on the shores of this very river which runs through our Kingdom there lived an old woman. She was hunchbacked by age and often sick, and almost completely blind but, as often happens in such circumstances, she had two beautiful daughters who lived with her. Their names were Awa and Asanatou, and their father had died when they were still but infants. They loved their mother dearly, and fed and bathed her, and ran about attending to her every want. In this way they lived in some measure of happiness, despite their extreme poverty.

One day, an evil king (for the king of the land was at that time a tyrant, hated by his people, the very opposite of you, my Burr) came back from hunting, and decided to take a path which led past the rickety hut of the old woman and her daughters. The girls were outside pounding coos, and when he saw them the old king was so struck by their beauty and the grace with which they worked at the mortar and pestle he determined immediately to have them for himself. For though he was old and grown fat and wrinkled, and slobbered when he spoke so all were in truth repelled by him, still he had retained the habit of his youth: that all that was pretty within the land could and would belong only to him. His palace was full of hundreds of women he had seized from their parents and husbands, taking them away to forcefully wed them. (This being different from you, my king, whose very proposal of marriage is the highest honor a woman within these lands can hope for, and which has led to so many young and beautiful women in your palace). The old king sent his guewel, who approached the girls and told them of the king’s intentions. The girls, who were as wise as they were beautiful, knew there would be no point resisting, for it would lead only to trouble. And so they assured the guewel that they could think of no higher honor, but that they had their old mother, and would wish that the king extended the invitation to her also, for she was infirm and in their care, and would fain survive alone out in the forest.

The king upon hearing this asked for all three to be brought before his presence. But so greatly displeased was he by the ugliness of the mother that he declared that no such creature could ever enter his palace, where everything was beautiful and a pleasure to the eyes. The daughters wept sorrowfully as they were seized by the king’s guards and taken away, thinking indeed that their mother would perish, out here alone. She stood and watched them go, and did not say a word, but only looked at the retreating back of the old king who had wronged her so. And when they had disappeared she went back into her hut and sat down alone in the dark.

That night, she went to bed hungry. She was a strong woman, who had raised her children alone after their father had died and before they had learnt to fend for themselves. When she woke in the morning she decided to make something to eat. She hobbled to the corner of the hut, where the few cooking implements and ingredients were kept. She groped about, feeling for things. She found an empty bowl. Then she found some rice, and threw it in. Then she found something soft and mushy, that smelt sharply when she brought it up to her nose. It was netetu – she threw it in. Then she found some pepper, and half a bonga fish from the day before. She added salt, and feeling her way to the water container outside filled the bowl with water. Putting it down, she went to the back, where a fire was left burning at all times. It was not out, and she added logs from the firewood placed at its side. Then going back to the front she brought back the bowl with her mix in it, and set it atop the blazing fire. Then she sat waiting for it to cook.

Now it so happened that the king had a son, a handsome young prince recently reached adulthood, who was as fair as the king was unjust, who was wise beyond his years, and much loved by his people. He had gone for a walk that day in the forest, his mind heavy with the knowledge of the increasing tyranny of his father. Lately he had been thinking more and more about abandoning his title to the throne, and going off to another land to join a monastery there, or perhaps achieve another form of honest living. He was thinking these thoughts when he suddenly smelled something very nice coming from the bend to his right. Hmmm what food is that, I wonder, he thought. It must be foreign, for I have never smelt anything like that around here. He took the path, the smell growing stronger as he walked it, and by and by he came to the old woman’s hut. She was sitting outside, and when she heard him approach she scrambled to her feet, thinking it to be the king and his men returned.

“Who is there?”, she asked, her voice crackling.

“Only I, old mother”, the courteous prince replied, “pray do not be afraid”.

After he had soothed her in this way the old woman invited the prince to sit with him, and since her food was now cooked she bade him eat with her. The prince had been hoping for just such an invitation, and he took the bowl he was given with much excitement. They ate in silence, the only sounds the satisfied sighs that issued from one or the other of them as they emptied their bowls. Halfway through the old woman looked up at the Prince.

“This”, she told him, “would benefit greatly from some diw-tirr”. She sent him into the hut to get the bottle of diw-tirr, and when he came back with it they poured liberal amounts on top of the rice, and where before it had been merely good now it was the best food the prince had ever tasted. When he had finished at last he sat back and looked at the old woman in wonder.

“What is this, old mother?”, he asked, breathless, “for I have never tasted its kind in the kingdom”.

“Oh it is only a collection of things I threw together”, she told him, “from ingredients I had in the house. My daughters are not here, you see, and I had to make do”. And here she trailed off, looking sadly at the ground. The prince, sensing her sadness, asked:

“Where have yur daughters gone?”.

The old woman, who thought him just a kind man who had been passing through the forest, told him the story of her daughters, and how they had been wrongfully seized by the king. As she progressed the prince grew more and more incensed. He had had enough! This could not be allowed to continue. How could he abandon his people to the tyranny of this man? Excusing himself and thanking the lady for her kindness, he departed swiftly from that place, returning to the palace.

There he found the king, his father, sitting in the throne room, surrounded by the beautiful women of the land, their eyes red with unshed tears, forced smiles on their faces. He was making some amongst them dance, and some sing, and others to perform various tricks for his lecherous entertainment.


“Ah – my son has returned”, he said, upon seeing the Prince, “come – choose which of these women you would bed tonight, and I would make you of her a present”.


The prince walked up to the throne, withdrew his sword, and without a word – swish swish – separated the head of the king from his shoulders. There was a silence in the courtyard as all looked upon the deed. Then a great cheer rang up, that was taken and echoed all across the city, and then all across the lands of the kingdom.

The prince was crowned amidst great fanfare, and became a wise and just ruler of his people for many years, undoing the wrongs his father had perpetuated. The old woman was re-united with her daughters, and so pleased was the new king with the dish that had inspired him that he declared it to be the national dish, and that all women would learn how to cook it as part of their education. It was named mbahal in honor of its humble origins. The old woman was invited to live in the palace with her daughters, and never more did they desire for anything in their lives that they were not supplied with.

This was how mbahal was born.

When Alpha had finished the king opened his eyes and looked at him.

“That was a good story”, he said, “It has put me in mind of the dish: tonight we shall eat mbahal”. And he clapped his hands twice, and the chief cook ran into the kitchen to see that the king’s wishes were carried out.

A sound came from outside. It was the muezzin, calling the end of the fast for that day. Alpha gave a sigh of relief. Once the king had eaten all talk of beheading would be forgotten. He had made it through the day. He smiled as he thought about the mbahal he was about to eat, covered with diw-tirr…


By Amran Gaye


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