The Shrewd Ewe: a Sudanese folktale

Here is the first of several folktales that I hope to publish on this blog.

The Shrewd Ewe

by Muna Zaki

“Sheep?” said the young man incredulously. “I’ve heard of a clever camel, a crafty fox and even an intelligent elephant but never a shrewd sheep!”
Before him, sitting on a thin strip of matting, was a poor wandering dervish who had arrived in the village just before sunset. The stranger gave the young man a long intense look before replying, “You will notice from the patchwork on my old jibba that not all pieces of cloth are alike. So it is with animals, and I know a story from the days of long ago that will confirm to you what I have said.”
At the prospect of a story, more youngsters gathered around the dervish. A lamp was lit and when the dervish saw that his audience was ready and waiting, he began his tale.


There was once a donkey who grew tired of his life of drudgery, and of the dull confines of the zariiba (animal enclosure) in which he spent his few hours of rest. As he went back and forth all day carrying his owner, he often caught sight of a verdant forest in the wadi (valley). He longed to while away a few hours there under the shade of the trees free from the harsh blows and demands that filled his day.
Now the donkey’s closest companions in the zariiba were a horse, a rooster and a ewe. One evening he asked them to assemble in one corner of the enclosure where he quietly confided in them his plans to visit the forest. They agreed that the forest would indeed be an excellent spot for an excursion being full as it was of green grass and delectable plants that they rarely had the chance to eat.
The horse, however, voiced his reservations about accompanying the donkey to the wadi. “At night hyenas come to scavenge around the village huts. I have even heard their disgusting grunts and guffaws around our own zariiba. I’m sure that the hyenas must occasionally go down to the wadi to drink from the pools there,” warned the horse in graves tones.
“The forest is so thick that the hyenas wouldn’t find us even if they came,” replied the donkey frisking his tail in annoyance. He suspected that the horse was jealous of his brilliant idea and was about to tell the horse just this when the ewe interrupted him.
“You do have this unfortunate asinine habit of braying loudly whenever you are hungry or overexcited,” she told the donkey bluntly. “The noise of your voice will be carried to the hyenas and in no time at all they will be chasing our heels…”
“Why yes, I’ve often been disturbed by the braying you make after you’ve finished a meal!” added the rooster who had conveniently forgotten that he made more noise than all the other animals put together.
The discussion continued back and forth until the donkey solemnly promised that he would resist the temptation to give even a single eeyore until they were all safely back in the zariiba.
Now it happened that a few days later the farmer’s young son forgot to fasten the gate of the enclosure. The four animals quickly seized their chance to escape. They made straight for the lush wadi, the rooster riding on the donkey’s back. Once in the forest they found all the green grass and leaves that the donkey had described. After eating their fill, they frolicked about under the branches delighting in their newfound freedom. Now the donkey had eaten well and he had certainly been excited by the games. Whether it was for one of these reasons or from force of habit will never be known. What is certain is that the donkey suddenly lifted back his head and started to bray at the top of his voice.
The other animals did their best to shush him up but the damage had already been done. In no time at all a pack of ferocious hyenas rushed into the forest and began to encircle the braying donkey. Within a few moments, they had sunk their teeth into the poor donkey and were tearing him to pieces. While the hyenas were busy devouring their kill, the other animals seized their chance to escape. The roaster flapped clumsily up onto a branch of the nearest tree. The horse raced like the wind to save his life. The poor ewe ran desperately after the horse but her friend had soon disappeared in a cloud of dust.
While she was running, she started a chant to steady her nerves,
“The cockerel climbed up the tree
The horse chased the wind to flee
The donkey’s body is no longer free
And Umm dabjuun God is for thee
Umm dabjuun God is for her rescue.”
By chance, one of the hyenas glanced up in the direction of the fleeing ewe. The taste of mutton is very delicious to hyenas as well as men. So the hyena immediately left the flesh of the donkey to his sisters and brothers and started to chase after the ewe shouting to her, “Umm dabjuun, stop I want to eat you today.”
The ewe, without looking round, called out her answer, “I will stop but you must first go down to the pool and fill your mouth as my fleece is full of thorns.”
The hyena in his excitement did as the ewe had bid. He rushed to the nearby pool and took a great gulp of water and then turned to resume his pursuit of the ewe. After a few paces, he opened his mouth to shout for the sheep to stop. Of course, all the water poured out before he could even utter a grunt. So once again the hyena stepped back to the pool and took another gulp of water. In the meantime, the ewe took full advantage of the delay. She continued running and repeating her chant.
“The cockerel climbed up the tree
The horse chased the wind to flee
The donkey’s body is no longer free
And Umm dabjuun God is for thee
Umm dabjuun God is for her rescue.”
By this time, the men of the village had heard her loud plaintive bleating. They came charging down to the wadi on horseback carrying their sharp spears. At the sound of their cries and the sudden thunder of the horses’ hooves, the hyenas retreated. From a short distance they watched the rooster, horse and the quick-witted ewe being brought safely back to the zariiba. Nothing could be done, however, for the hapless donkey who had been unable to keep his promise.
(Thanks to Edmund Wyatt for helping with the editing)

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2 thoughts on “The Shrewd Ewe: a Sudanese folktale

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