Back | Next


I guess it’s fitting, in an ironic way, that the shortest story in this volume is another one about Pomphis. Like “The Blacksmith and the Bambuti,” this tale takes place in the time before Pomphis met Imaro. Still in his role as the mjimja of the Sha’a of Azania, Pomphis does a star turn in this adaptation of an East African folktale. The story first appeared under the title “The Pygmy and the Poor Man” in Anthos, a magazine that celebrated arts and literature in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. And, yes, Pomphis is still known by the unfortunate name he acquired in Azania

A ragged, nondescript figure sat beneath the fiery orange blooms of a mkolole tree outside the city of Mavindi. Except for a scrawny goat tethered to the bole of the mkolole, the man was alone. He paid no attention to the spectacular flowers of the tree or the bleating of the goat, for he was assiduously engaged in the act of weeping. Thus, he did not hear the footsteps that approached him.

“What is troubling you, my good man?” a friendly voice inquired.

Startled to discover that he was no longer alone, he ragged man raised his black, tear-stained face. His eyes widened. Before him, dressed in spotless white, stood a Bambuti – a pygmy from the forests of the Ituri Kubwa. The man knew there was but one Bambuti in all Mavindi – Pomphis, the mjimja, or jester, to the Sha’a, the ruler of Azania. The man stuttered, half in deference, half in disbelief.

“Don’t hesitate,” Pomphis prompted. “I’d really like to know what it is that could cause such sadness in the midst of beauty.”

The story was quickly told. The ragged man, whose name was Kakanja, indeed was poor – so poor that his only possessions were the clothes on his back and a single goat, whose milk was the source of his living. One day, Kakanja had found himself near the sprawling estate of Ogwambi Nuru, the wealthiest man in Mavindi next to the Sha’a himself. Having only a bagful of nzao seeds to eat, Kakanja had contrived to sit near the window of Ogwambi Nuru’s kitchen. He savored the smell of the sumptuous supper Ogwambi Nuru’s wives were cooking even as he munched on the tasteless nzaos.

Much to Kakanja’s misfortune, however, Ogwambi Nuru had happened upon him sitting outside the kitchen, and demanded an explanation for the poor man’s presence. Kakanja had told him the truth.

Now, it was well-known that if Ogwambi Nuru was not the richest man in Mavindi, he was the stingiest. And, to Kakanja’s dismay, the rich man had him hauled into court. The charge: stealing the smell of Ogwambi Nuru’s food. To Kakanja’s further dismay, the judge – a friend and debtor of Ogwambi Nuru’s – found him guilty and make restitution in the form of his sole asset: the goat.

“And now, I must deliver my goat to Ogwambi Nuru,” Kakanja said. “And without my goat, I’ll have to sell myself into slavery …”

“Do not weep,” said Pomphis. “I think I can help you.”

The poor man’s incredulity showed in his watery eyes.

“Listen, I do not like Ogwambi Nuru,” the Bambuti continued. “He doesn’t laugh at my jokes in the Sha’a’s throne room. And the Sha’a doesn’t like him, either. Now, listen to me …”


Unannounced, Pomphis entered the most private of the Sha’a’s personal chambers. The monarch of Azania lay on a pile of fur-covered cushions. His royal form was unclad, as were those of the ten women who shared the cushions with him. The Sha’a looked up, spotted his mjimja, and scowled.

“Pomphis!” he bellowed. “I left explicit orders not to be disturbed! I’ll …”

“O Mighty Sha’a,” the Bambuti interjected. “How would you like to put a handful of fire-ants into the crotch of Ogwambi Nuru?”

Immediately, the Sha’a became more attentive.


The court square was ablaze with excitement. Never in the memory of anyone in Mavindi had the Sha’a exercised his right to hear an appeal of a judge’s decision in a case of so lowly a subject as Kakanja. The poor man stood humbly, his goat at his side. Visibly fuming, the resplendently clad Ogwambi Nuru crouched in the bamboo-barred witness cage while Pomphis paced somberly and silently before him. The pygmy wore the monkey-tail regalia of a sheria – a lawyer, a station to which the Sha’a had appointed him for the day, much to the disgust of the other sherias.

“Let’s get on with it, then,” snapped Ogwambi Nuru.

Whirling, Pomphis thrust his head forward and said: “Do you agree that the smell of your food is not the same as its substance?”

“Well, uh, I don’t …” the rich man stammered. “What is the point of your question?”

“I only want to confirm that you don’t see, hear, touch, or taste a smell,” Pomphis said. “You only smell it. Therefore, the smell of an object, which utilizes that sense only, is not the whole substance of said object. Agreed?”

“Well, er … yes,” said Ogwambi Nuru.

“And furthermore, do you concur that you accused Kakanja of stealing only the smell of your food, not its substance?”

“Yes,” Ogwambi Nuru agreed. Then he caught himself, and turned to the Sha’a, who was acting as judge.

“What is the point of all this?” the rich man sputtered. “Are you going to allow this – jester – to make a mockery of …”

At that point, Pomphis nodded to Kakanja, who proceeded to plant a hard kick into the ribs of his goat. Immediately, the startled beast let out a bleat of pain.

“Did you hear that, Ogwambi Nuru?” cried Pomphis.

“Yes, but …”

“Then you must accept the sound of the goat’s bleat as payment for the smell of your food!”

Amid the ensuing, stunned silence, the Sha’a intoned: “I think he has you, Ogwambi Nuru. Kakanja, you may keep your goat.”

Overjoyed, Kakanja flung his arms around the neck of his goat, which was by now thoroughly confused. The crowd in the court square burst into laughter and applause, for Ogwambi Nuru was not a popular man.

And, as the chagrined rich man clambered out of the witness cage, Pomphis said to him: “I trust you now realize that even though I am small in size, I do have influence in high places.”

Back | Next