Two boys were born on the very same day in an African tribe, and they grew up to be firm friends. Ndemi was the rich one. Jinjo was poor. They looked so alike that nobody could tell the one from the other.
After spending his youth in the usual tribal pursuits – grass cutting, hunting of hares, mice and rats, and later bigger game – Ndemi had a yearning to see something of the world outside. It was only natural that he should ask his poor friend to go along with him.
When they reached the next village, Ndemi was so dazzled by the beauty of a most lovely girl called Malama that he immediately asked her to marry him, adding, “I would be prepared to give a hundred cattle for such loveliness.”
“My father is Chief of the village,” she replied, “and it is his wish that I should marry a man capable of doing superhuman things. He sets a task for my suitors, such a difficult one that I fear I shall grow old without ever being married.”
To the Chief the young man said, “Sir, I wish to marry your daughter, surely the most beautiful woman in the whole of Africa. Tell me what to do and it shall be done. Where others have failed, I shall succeed, because my love for your daughter is boundless.”
But the young man became despondent when the Chief told him what his task would be. Guarded by an old woman, he would have to spend six days and six nights in a hut – without any food or water to sustain him. And if he did not succeed, if he cried for food or water before the time was up, he would be killed. So consumed with love was he that he accepted the conditions.
They put him in a prison-like hut that had no windows. And in the long and narrow doorway, the old woman slept on her mat like a human watchdog. Ndemi put his bed-mat against the wall that faced the street, and so the first long day crawled slowly from sunrise to sunset.
When the night was dark and the villagers asleep, Ndemi’s prearranged plan came into operation. After wetting the wall, Jinjo made a small hole in it with his knife, and through this hole he quietly pushed a hollow reed, dipping its end into the calabash of water. On the other end, Ndemi was able to drink the sweet, life-giving liquid without even rising from his mat, and when the calabash was drained, Jinjo removed the reed, plastered the wall with mud to hide the hole, and quietly stole off into the darkness.
Every night he did this, while the old woman became more and more suspicious, for no previous suitor had lasted more than three days before crying for food and water. On the fifth night she commanded Ndemi to sleep against the other wall of the hut while she lay down on his bed-mat. For the first time in his life the young man knew fear.
While the village was sleeping and the bullfrogs croaked down at the river, the old woman heard a soft scraping noise and after a few minutes a hollow reed poked through and she drank the water from Jinjo’s calabash. In triumph she shouted, ‘So that’s how you’ve sustained yourself these past five days – by cheating! The Chief will hear of this in the morning, my own calabash filled with water will be the evidence that will end your life.’
Jinjo heard this as he withdrew the reed with trembling fingers. He also heard his friend weeping with sorrow, and he knew a mingling of sadness and fear. Stealing back into the darkness, he wondered how he could help the friend who was to him as a brother.
Suddenly a voice came squeaking out of the darkness: “Young man, you are worried. Can I be of assistance?” Jinjo looked hard in all directions but could not see anybody. “Look down,” squeaked the voice, “I am Davyaga, the rat. Tell me your problem and I will try to find a solution.”
When Jinjo had told his tale, Davyaga said, “Leave it to me. You sleep well tonight. Your friend is no longer in danger.” And he was gone, rustling through the dry grass. Reaching the old woman’s hut, Davyaga gnawed a hole through the wall, and while the old woman went on sleeping, a horrible leer of triumph creasing her face, he pushed the calabash through the hole where his friends, the white ants, stood waiting in rows, drawn up like soldiers on a parade-ground. When they had finished eating the calabash, not even the smallest chip remained.
The sun came up and the old woman found that she had no evidence, and as nobody would believe her fantastic story, Ndemi was able to marry Malama and take her back to his village with him. There his father built a house for them, and a house for the poor Jinjo. To Ndemi and Jinjo, he gave magic knives, made by the giants in the far-off mountains and so alike that nobody could possibly tell the difference between them. “One day you will need the magic of the knives,” he said to them.
After some months Jinjo the poor one, announced that he had a desire to travel to a faraway village and find a wife for himself so that he could be as radiantly happy as Malama and Ndemi. But first he planted a silk-cotton tree, and said that he would leave when it was as high as his knee.
When the tree had grown and he was about to set off on his travels, he said to Ndemi, “See how it flowers, this cotton-seed tree of mine that I planted in a hole cut out by magic knife given me by your father. If these leaves become withered and dry, it will be a sign that I am either dead or in the most desperate trouble. Good-bye, and may your happiness grow during my absence.”
For days he traveled across plains until he could see in the distance a village. Approaching, he heard the sound of weeping and wailing, a vast sad sound coming from the throats of hundreds of people. And just ahead of him he could see a lonely girl sitting in the dry riverbed. She was as beautiful as Malama, and he was in love with her before he even came close to ask her what was causing the misery in the village.
“The River God is cruel and demanding. So the river flows only when a young girl is sacrificed. One by one, all the young maidens have been devoured by the River God, and now it is my turn, I, Kalima, the daughter of the chief, for I am the last one left, and my people will die without the water that only my sacrifice will bring them. So go away and leave me, before the River God comes at sunset to devour me.
But Jinjo refused to go, for what man will leave the woman he loves when she is in danger? All day he sat with her, telling her of his love for her, and how he would take her back to his village as his wife after he dealt with the cruel River God.
As the sun sank, there was a rumbling in the sand near them, and out of the earth came the biggest snake Jinjo had ever seen. It was as thick as the mighty baobab tree, and the young man was filled with fear, but he dashed forward and with a sweep of his magic knife he cut off the monster’s head. Water came gushing out of the huge headless snake, and even as it tried to slither back into its hole Jinjo was cutting it into pieces. Out of each piece the water flowed unceasingly. Laughing with joy and relief, Jinjo and Kalima ran out of the river-bed as it filled with the sweet life-giving water until the river was flowing through the village and the thirsty villagers were drinking greedily.
Of course, Kalima and Jinjo married immediately, but because she had – according to tribal law – already been sacrificed to the River God and therefore no longer really living – they had to build their hut some distance from the village. This did not worry them, as they were able to entertain their friends in their hut, and many grateful villagers came to pass the time of day with them.
A few weeks after the marriage there was an astonishing happening. Every piece of meat in the village – chops, steaks, even sausage sizzling in the pan – suddenly jumped up and ran towards the distant hill. The young man could not believe his eyes. Never before had he seen meat actually running.
“This happens quite often,” Kalima explained to him. “The meat runs to that distant hill. It swallows the meat, and will do the same, it is said, to anybody who goes near the mighty rock at its foot. This has never happened, for all are afraid of that rock and never go close enough to be engulfed.”
A few days later Jinjo went hunting with ten young men from the village. Seeing an antelope, they gave chase, and in their excitement kept running even when the animal passed the dreaded rock, which opened its stony mouth wide and swallowed them all.
At that very moment, many miles away, Ndemi happened to be standing at the cotton-seed tree planted by Jinjo and now as high as his chest. Even as he looked, the leaves withered and dried up, and he knew that his friend was either dead or in great danger. He set out immediately.
Three days later he reached the hut where Kalima and Jinjo lived. He looked so much so much like Jinjo that Kalima thought her husband had returned from the hunt.
“Three days you have been gone,” she cried. “You must have hunted many animals for the pots of the villagers.” “Yes,” he replied, pretending to be Jinjo so that she would not be alarmed. “It was a splendid hunt and we were very successful, but I must go away again immediately, for a great herd of buffalo is moving across the plain and we need all the meat we can get before the winter comes on.”
And in spite of her pleadings, he ran to the village and spoke with the chief who said sadly to him, “Of course, we haven’t told Kalima what happened, but ten young men and Jinjo have disappeared. They haven’t been seen for three days and it is believed that they were swallowed up by the rock on the sacred hill.”
“Jinjo is my dearest friend,” said Ndemi. “I must rescue him. Let some young men guide me to this abominable rock and I shall see what I can do.” They tried to dissuade him, but he was persistent, and ten young hunters led him to the rock. “There it is,” they said. “We admire your bravery, but we ourselves are too afraid to go any farther.”
Ndemi strode up to the rock, and the watchers saw it bending over to swallow him. But he stabbed at it with his magic knife, and the watchers cheered as the rock broke into two halves, and the ten lost hunters and Jinjo marched out, singing, laughing, happy to be back with their friends in the sunlight again.
“Which one is my husband?” cried Kalima as the two young men, looking exactly alike, stood before her.
“I am your husband,” said Jinjo, “and this is my dear friend Ndemi who saved us all.” And he told her of their friendship and adventures together, and how Ndemi had come to help him when the cotton-seed tree’s leaves withered and dried up.
“Such likeness!” she cried. “Such friendship and devotion! How truly wonderful it is and how proud I am of both of you.”
They went back home with Ndemi, built a house near his, and the two young men and Malama and Kalima remained dear friends for the rest of their long lives.