Oral Literature. Chameleon Wins a Wife

One day ‘Frog’ swam to the surface of a little pond and glanced around him for a place to rest: “The water is cold today”, he complained, “it would do me good to bask in the sun for a little while.” And so, he left the water and crouched on a warm, flat stone at the edge of the pond.

After some time, a beautiful young girl from the local village named Ngema came to the pond to fetch some water. The Frog remained seated on the stone without moving a muscle so that the young woman eventually began to stare at him, asking herself aloud whether or not he might be ill.

“No, I am not ill”, Frog called to her irritably, “why do you imagine such a thing? Can’t you see how strong I am?” “Other frogs usually leap back into the water as soon as they see the villagers approach”, replied the girl, but you don’t seem at all frightened and that is why I thought perhaps you must be sick.”

The Frog turned his two big eyes towards Ngema, rose up on his hind legs, and stretched himself impressively towards the sky. “Underneath this body, I am really a fine young man, I have enough cattle and goats to buy any number of beautiful girls like yourself, but a curse rest on me and I must remain here until it is lifted.”

The Flog continues: “When my father lay on his death bed, he said to me: ‘My son, you will spend most of your time by the water until the day comes when you meet a girl there and ask her to marry you. If she accepts, it will mean happiness for you both, but if she refuses, she will die.’ So, I ask you to marry me here and now, and it is entirely up to you whether you live or die.”

The girl sat down on the grass and began thinking hard. After a while she stood up again and answered the Frog worriedly: “If that curse rests on you, then it rests on me as well. I have seen you and you have asked me to be your wife. I will not refuse you now, for I have no wish to die just yet.”

So Ngema reluctantly agreed to marry the Frog and led him home to her parents’ hut on the outskirts of the village.

In the courtyard at the front of her parent’s house, there stood a very beautiful palm tree. Among its broad, leafy branches sat a Chameleon watching the approach of the young girl and the Frog.

Ngema escorted her companion indoors and left him there to discuss the wedding arrangements with her father while she sat down at the base of the tree to grind some corn for the midday meal.

The Chameleon now moved cautiously towards her, descending from branch to branch slowly and carefully, his eyes darting suspiciously from side to side, until at last, he stood within a few feet of her. But before he had the opportunity to address the girl, she suddenly turned towards him: “I have been watching you all this time, I can scarcely believe how long it took you to move such a short distance. Do you know that it has taken you over an hour to reach this spot?”

“I won’t apologize for that”, answered the Chameleon. “I am a stranger to you, and had I rushed upon you, you would have been frightened and called out to your people. But in this way, I haven’t alarmed you and now we will be able to talk quietly without anyone disturbing us.”

“I have been so anxious to meet you but wanted to choose my moment carefully. I came here early this morning to tell you I love you and my greatest wish is for you to become my wife.”

The young girl set aside her bowl of corn and fell silent for several moments. At length, she raised her head and answered the Chameleon rather indifferently: “You are too late with your request, and besides, I could never marry anyone who moves as slowly as you do. People would laugh to see us together.”

“Our elders say that empty gourds make a great noise, but it amounts to very little in the end”, replied the Chameleon. “Think again before you reject, me.”

Ngema sighed deeply as she pondered these words. “Well”, she said finally, “Frog is inside the house asking my father’s permission to marry me. Whichever of you can satisfy him will earn the right to become my husband.”

So, Chameleon waited for Frog to emerge and then entered the house to see if he could reason with the young girl’s father. Their conversation was not half so difficult as Chameleon had expected and before long, he reappeared smiling to himself, having agreed with the old man that he would return to claim his bride within a few days.

As soon as he had put all his affairs in order, Chameleon returned as promised to the girl’s home, anxious to get on with the wedding ceremony. But to his disgust, he found Frog still pleading for Ngema’s hand, insisting that he was by far the richer of the two and that he would make a much more suitable husband.

Chameleon stormed into the room and interrupted Frog in midstream: “You call me a slow and worthless creature”, he yelled furiously, “but I call you a slippery, boneless, hideous carbuncle.” And the two continued to hurl abuse at each other for some time, each of them determined to prove their worth before the young girl’s family.

At last, the old man called for them both to stop and when they were ready to listen he offered them the following solution: “I will fix a bride price, which must be delivered before the end of six days. The first of you to arrive here with everything I demand will win my daughter’s hand in marriage.”

Then the old man listed out the various goods he desired from each of them and without further discussion Frog and Chameleon went their separate ways, eager to assemble their respective cargoes as hastily as possible.

The Frog enlisted a great number of his friends to help him and overnight he had prepared a vast quantity of beer and food of every kind, including sweet potatoes, corn, dove peas, shea-nuts and bananas, which he piled onto an enormous caravan ready to take to the girl’s house.

Early the next morning, a long line of frogs began hopping down the road, travelling at great speed in order to ensure that they would reach their destination before the Chameleon. But as they moved along, they began to attract the sniggers of the roadside workers, for they failed to notice that at every hop, the beer spilt from the gourds, the bananas dropped from the baskets, and the food crumbled to pieces in the open bags and fell to the ground.

When the company approached Ngema’s house, they received a very warm welcome from the large crowd who set off to meet them. Songs of praise were sung by the women of the village and a loud chorus of cheering could be heard for miles around. But when, later that same evening, the villagers eventually came to unfasten the loads, they were horrified to see that all the sacks were completely empty and not a drop of beer remained in the gourds.

The villagers called the father of the girl and reported to him their discovery: “Come and examine the gifts Frog has brought you”, they told him, “he has arrived here with empty sacks and dry bowls.”

The old man looked at the Frog sternly and raised his voice in anger: “Why have you come here to mock us? Do you think I would exchange my precious child for such worthless cargo? Go and seek a wife elsewhere, for I have no time for a son-in-law who would attempt to trick me like this.”

The Frog did not pause to argue his case, for he knew that his impatience and arrogance had cost him his bride and that now the curse would never be reversed. He hung his head in shame and silently slunk away, hopping despondently down the road with the rest of his companions.

Three more days passed by and most of the villagers had abandoned all hope that Chameleon would ever show his face among them. But then, from the opposite direction on the fifth morning, the people spotted a caravan of carriers making very slow progress toward the village. It was mid-afternoon by the time it reached the outskirts, and as before, the villagers went forward to welcome their guests.

But this time, the women of the village were very anxious to inspect the loads before disturbing the father of the bride. They approached the caravan warily, but their fears were quickly laid to rest, for as soon as they began to unwrap the cargo, they found the sacks overflowing with food and the gourds full to the brim with beer.

Ngema smiled as she moved forward to greet the Chameleon, remembering how he had once described to her the hollow sound of an empty gourd. The celebrations now began in earnest and the satisfied father gave his daughter to the victorious Chameleon who took her for his wife the very next day. (Folktale from Kikuyu people, Kenya)


Subscribe to our mailing list!

Recent Posts