[From Where Animals Talk: West African Folklore Tales by Robert Nassau, 1912. See item #147 in the Bibliography.]

At the town of King Ra-Mborakinda, where the king lived with his wives and his children and his glory, this occurred.

The king had a beloved daughter, by name Ilambe. He loved her much, and sought to please her in many ways, and gave her many servants to serve her. When she grew up to womanhood, she said that she did not wish anyone to come to ask her in marriage; she herself would choose a husband. “Moreover, I will never marry any man who has any blotch on his skin, not even so much as a little bit.”

Her father did not like her to speak in that way; nevertheless, he did not forbid her.

When men began to come to the father and say, “I desire your daughter Ilambe for a wife,” he would say, “Go, and ask her yourself.” Then when the man went to Ilambe’s house and would say, “I have come to ask you in marriage,” her only reply was a question, “Have you a clear skin and no blotches on your body?” If he answered, “Yes,” Ilambe would say, “But I must see for myself; come into my room.” There she required the man to take off all his clothing. And if, on examination, she saw the slightest pimple or scar, she would point toward it and say, “That! I do not want you.” Then perhaps he would begin to plead, “All my skin is right, except — .” But she would interrupt him, “No! For even that little mark I do not want you.”

So it went on with all who came, she finding fault with even a small pimple or scar. And all suitors were rejected. The news spread abroad that Ra-Mborakinda had a beautiful daughter, but that no one was able to obtain her because of what she said about diseases of the skin. Still, many tried to obtain her. Even animals changed themselves to human form and sought her, in vain.

At last, the leopard said, “Ah, this beautiful woman! I hear about her beauty and that no one is able to get her. I think I better take my turn and try. But first I will go to Marange the magic-doctor.” He went to that magic-doctor and told his story about the king’s fine daughter, and how no man could get her because of her fastidiousness about skins. Marange told him, “I am too old. I do not now do those things about medicines. Go to Ogula the sorcerer.”

So, the leopard went to Ogula. The sorcerer jumped into his fire and, coming out with power, he directed the leopard to tell what he wanted. So the leopard told the whole story again and asked how he should obtain the clean body of a man. The sorcerer prepared for him a great medicine by which to give him a human body that was tall, graceful, strong, and clean. The leopard then went back to his town, told his people his plans, and prepared their bodies also for a change if needed. Having taken also the sorcerer’s name as his own human name, Ogula, he then went to King Ra-Mborakinda, saying, “I, Ogula, wish your daughter Ilambe for wife.”

On his arrival, the people admired the stranger and felt sure that Ilambe would accept this suitor, exclaiming, “This fine-looking man! His face! And his gait! And his body!” When he had made his request of the king, he was told, as usual, to go to Ilambe and see whether she would like him. When he went to her house, he looked so handsome that Ilambe was at once pleased with him. He told her, “I love you, and I come to marry you. You have refused many. I know the reason why, but I think you will be satisfied with me.” She replied, “I think you have heard from others the reason for which I refuse men. I will see whether you have what I want.” And she added, “Let us go into the room, and let me see your skin.”

They entered the room, and Ogula removed his fine clothing. Ilambe examined him with close scrutiny from his head to his feet. She found not the slightest scratch or mark; his skin was like a babe’s. Then she said, “Yes! This is my man, truly! I love you, and I will marry you!” She was so pleased with her acquisition that she remained in the room enjoying again a minute examination of her husband’s beautiful skin. Then she went out and ordered her servants to cook food and prepare water for him, and he did not go out of the house nor have a longing to go back to his town, for he found that he was loved.

On the third day, he went to tell her father the king that he was ready to take his wife off to his town. King Ra-Mborakinda consented. All that day, they prepared food for the marriage-feast. But, all the while that this man-beast, Ogula the leopard, was there, Ra-Mborakinda by his magic fetish knew that some evil would come out of this marriage. However, as Ilambe had insisted on choosing her own way, he did not interfere.

After the marriage was over and the feast eaten, Ra-Mborakinda called his daughter and said, “Ilambe mine, now you are going off on your journey.” She said, “Yes, for I love my husband.” The father asked, “Do you love him truly?” She answered, “Yes.” Then he told her, “As you are married now, you need a present from me as your bridal gift.” So, he gave her a few presents and told her, “Go to that house,” indicating a certain house in the town, and he gave her the key of the house and told her to go and open the door. That was the house where he kept all his charms for war and fetishes of all kinds. He told her, “When you go in, you will see two horses standing side by side. The one that will look a little dull, with its eyes directed to the ground, take it, and leave the brighter-looking one. When you are coming with it, you will see that it walks a little lame. Nevertheless, take it.” She objected, “But, father, why do you not give me the finer one, and not the weak one?” But he said, “No!” and he made a knowing smile as he repeated, “Go, and take the one I tell you.” He had reason for giving this one. The finer-looking one had only fine looks, but this other one would someday save her by its intelligence.

She went and took the horse and returned to her father, and the journey was prepared. The father sent with her servants to carry the baggage and to remain with and work for her at the town of her marriage. She and her husband arranged all their things, and said good-bye, and off they went, both of them sitting on the horse’s back.

They journeyed and they journeyed. On the way, the leopard, though changed as to his form and skin, possessed all his old tastes. Having been so many days without tasting blood or uncooked meats, as they passed through the forest of wild beasts the longing came on him. They emerged onto a great prairie and journeyed across it toward another forest. Before they had entirely crossed the prairie, the longing for his prey so overcame him that he said, “Wife, you, with your horse and the servants, stay here while I go rapidly ahead, and wait for me until I come again.” So he went off, entered the forest, and changed himself back to the leopard. He hunted for prey, caught a small animal, and ate it, and another, and ate it. After being satisfied, he washed his hands and mouth in a brook and, changing again to human form, he returned on the prairie to his wife.

She observed him closely and saw a hard, strange look on his face. She said, “But all this while, what have you been doing?” He made an excuse. They went on.

And the next day, it was the same, he leaving her and telling her to wait till he returned, and hunting and eating as the leopard. All this that was going on, Ilambe was ignorant of. But the horse knew. He would speak after a while, but he was not ready yet.

So it went on, until they came to Ogula’s town. Before they reached it, by the preparations he had first made he had changed his mother into a human form in which to welcome his wife. Also the few people of the town, all with human forms, welcomed her. But they did not sit much with her. They stayed in their own houses, and Ogula and his wife stayed in theirs. For a few days, Ogula tried to be pleasant, deceiving his wife. But his taste for blood was still in his heart. He began to say, “I am going to another town; I have business there.” And off he would go, hunting as a leopard; when he returned, it would be late in the day. So he did on other days.

After a time, Ilambe wished to make a food-plantation, and she sent her men-servants to clear the ground. The leopard would go around in the forest on the edge of the plantation and, as he caught one of the men, there would return that day one servant less.

One by one, all the men-servants were thus missing, and it was not known what became of them, except that Ogula’s people knew. One night the leopard was out and, after he met one of the female servants, she too was reported missing.

Sometimes, when Ogula was away, Ilambe, feeling lonesome, would go and pet the horse. After the loss of this maid-servant, he thought it was time to warn Ilambe of what was going on. While she was petting him, he said, “Eh! Ilambe! You do not see the trouble that is coming to you!” She asked, “What trouble?” He exclaimed, “What trouble? If your father had not sent me with you, what would have become of you? Where are all your servants that you brought with you? You do not know where they go to, but I know. Do you think that they disappear without a reason? I will tell you where they go. It is your man Ogula who eats them; it is he who wastes them!” She could not believe it and argued, “Why should Ogula destroy them?” The horse replied, “If you doubt it, wait for the day when your last remaining servant is gone.”

Two days after that, at night, another maid-servant disappeared. Another day passed. On the next day, Ogula the leopard went off to hunt beasts with the intention that, if he failed to get any, at night he would eat his wife.

When he had gone, Ilambe, in her loneliness, went to pet the horse. He said to her, “Did I not tell you? The last maid is gone. You yourself will be the next one. I will give you counsel. When you have opportunity this night, prepare yourself ready to run away. Get yourself a large gourd and fill it with peanuts, another with gourd-seeds, and another with water.” He told her to bring these things to him, and he would know the best time to start.

While they were talking, the leopard’s mother was out in the street, and she heard the two voices. She said to herself, “Ilambe, wife of my son, does she talk with the horse as if it was a person?” But she said nothing to Ilambe, nor asked her about it.

Night came on, and Ogula returned. He said nothing, but his face looked hard and bad. Ilambe was troubled and somewhat frightened at his ugly looks. So, at night, on retiring, she began to ask him, “But why, Ogula my husband? Has anything displeased you?” He answered, “No, I am not troubled about anything. Why do you ask questions?” “Because I see it in your face that your countenance is not pleasant.” “No, there’s nothing the matter. Everything is right. Only about my business, I think I must start very early.” Ogula the leopard had begun to think, “Now she is suspecting me. I think I will not eat her this night but will put it off until next night.”

That night, Ilambe did not sleep. In the morning, Ogula said that he would go to his business but would come back soon. When he was gone away to his hunting work, Ilambe felt lonesome and went to the horse. He, thinking this a good time to run away, they started at once, without letting anyone in the village know and taking with them the three gourds. He said that they must go quickly, for the leopard, when he discovered them gone, would rapidly pursue. So they went fast and faster, the horse looking back from time to time to see whether the leopard was pursuing.

After they had been gone quite a while, Ogula returned from his business to his village, went into his house, and did not see Ilambe. He called to his mother, “Where is Ilambe?” His mother answered, “I saw Ilambe with her horse, talking together; they have been at it for two days.” The leopard began to search and, seeing the hoofprints, he exclaimed, “Alas! Ilambe has run away. I and she shall meet today!”

Ogula instantly turned from his human form back to that of the leopard and went out, and pursued, and pursued, and pursued. But it took some time before he came in sight of the fugitives. As the horse turned to watch, he saw the leopard, his body stretched low and long in rapid leaps. He said to Ilambe, “Did I not tell you? There he is, coming!” The horse hastened, with foam dropping from his lips. When he saw that the leopard was gaining on them, he told Ilambe to take the gourd of peanuts from his back and scatter them along behind on the ground. Leopards like peanuts, and when he came to these nuts, he stopped to eat them. While he was eating, the horse gained time to get ahead. As soon as the leopard had finished the nuts, he started on in pursuit again and soon began to overtake them. When he approached, the horse told Ilambe to throw out the gourd-seeds. She did so. The leopard delayed to eat these seeds also. This gave the horse time to again get ahead. Thus they went on.

Having finished the gourd-seeds, the leopard again went leaping in pursuit and, for the third time, came near. The horse told Ilambe to throw the gourd of water behind, forcefully, so that it might crash and break on the ground. As soon as she had done so, the water was turned to a stream of a deep, wide river between them and the leopard. Then the leopard was at a loss. So he shouted, “Ah! Ilambe! Alas! If I only had a chance to catch you!” and he had to turn back.

Then the horse said, “We do not know what he may do yet; perhaps he may go around and across ahead of us. As there is a town which I know near here, we had better stay there a day or two while he may be searching for us.” He added to her, “Mind! This town where we are going, no woman is allowed to be there, only men. So, I will change your face and dress like a man’s. Be very careful how you behave when you take your bath, lest you die.” Ilambe promised, and the horse changed her appearance. So, a fine-looking young man was seen riding into the street of the village. There were exclamations in the street, “This is a stranger! Hail, stranger! Hail! Who showed you the way to come here?” This young man answered, “Myself! I was out riding; I saw an open path, and I came in.” He entered a house and was welcomed, and they told him their times of eating and of play.

But on the second day, as this young man went out privately, one of the men noticed and said to the other, “He acts like a woman!” The others asked, “Really! You think so?” He asserted, “Yes! I am sure!” So, that day Ilambe was to meet with some trouble for, to prove her, the men had said to her, “Tomorrow we all go bathing in the river, and you shall go with us.” She went to ask the horse what she should do. He rebuked her, “I warned you, and you have not been careful. But do not be troubled; I will change you into a man.”

That night, Ilambe went to the horse, and he changed her. He also told her, “I warn you again. Tomorrow you go to bathe with the others, and you may take off your clothes for you are now a man. But it is only for a short time because we stay here only a day and a night more, and then we must go.”

The next morning all the town went to play and, after that, to bathe. When they went into the water, the other men were all expecting to see a woman revealed, but they saw that their visitor was a man. They admired his wonderfully fine physique. On emerging from the water, the men said to the one who had informed on Ilambe, “Did you not tell us that this was a woman? See how great a man he is!” As soon as they said that, the young man Ilambe was vexed with him and began to berate him, saying, “Eh! You said I was a woman?” And she chased him and struck him. Then they all went back to the town.

In the evening, the horse told Ilambe, “I tell you what to do tomorrow. In the morning, you take your gun and shoot me dead. After you have shot me, these men will find fault with you, saying ‘Ah! You shoot your horse, and did not care for it?’ But do not say anything in reply. Cut me in pieces and burn the pieces in the fire. After this, carefully gather all the black ashes and, very early in the following morning, in the dark before anyone is up, go out of the village gateway, scatter the ashes, and you will see what will happen.”

The young man did all this. On scattering the ashes, he instantly found himself changed again to a woman and sitting on the horse’s back, and they were running rapidly away.

That same day, in the afternoon, they came to the town of Ilambe’s father, King Ra-Mborakinda. On their arrival there, they — but especially the horse — told their whole story. Ilambe was somewhat ashamed of herself for she had brought these troubles on herself by insisting on having a husband with a perfectly fine skin. So her father said, “Ilambe, my child, you see the trouble you have brought on yourself. For you, a woman, to make such a demand was too much. Had I not sent the horse with you, what would have become of you?”

The people gave Ilambe a glad welcome. And she went to her house and said nothing more about fine skins.


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A Reader's Guide to African Folktales at the Internet Archive Copyright © 2022 by Laura Gibbs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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