A Story From: Uganda
Read Time: 6 to 10 mins.
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
Early one morning, as Walukaga was beginning work, a messenger from the king’s court arrived.
“His Majesty says you are to go and see him immediately. He has a job for you to do,” said the messenger.
Walukaga was delighted. Hastily putting on his best white robes he hurried off to the palace, wondering what the king wanted him to do. He passed many of his friends about their early-morning tasks in the dusty roads, and to all of them he shouted happily, “The king has sent for me! He has some work for me to do. Wish me luck!”
Walukaga reached the palace and was shown into a little room by the gate, where he waited some time until the king was ready to receive him. Then he was ushered into the inner courtyard. There sat the king on a stool carved from a single piece of tree trunk.
The blacksmith bowed low to the ground. When he rose, the king said, “I have sent for you, the most skillful blacksmith in the entire land, because I have a very special task to give you.” He clapped his hands and several servants appeared with their arms full of odd-shaped pieces of iron, which they placed at the king’s feet.
“You are to take this metal and change it into a man,” said the king. “Not just a statue, but a living man of iron who can walk and talk and think, and who has blood in his veins.”
Walukaga was flabbergasted. He searched the king’s face to see whether perhaps this was a joke, but the king’s dark eyes showed that he was quite serious. Everyone in the country knew that the king had the power of life and death over his subjects and that if anyone failed to carry out an order, he would be put to death at once.
“Yes, your Majesty,” replied Walukaga, bowing low once more.
The king’s servants helped the blacksmith carry the iron back to his smith shop, and Walukaga followed them slowly, his eyes to the ground, scarcely returning the greetings of his friends in the town, who wondered what had gone wrong. Later in the day they came to see him and when he told them what the king had commanded, they too fell silent.
So poor Walukaga began to think his days were numbered. All day and all night he sat with his head in his hands, wondering how to find a solution to his problem. Of course, a number of people made suggestions. Could he not make an iron shell of a man and persuade somebody to get inside it and speak and walk? Should he run away to a far country and begin life afresh where nobody knew him? Someone even suggested he pay the palace cook to put poison in the king’s food, since Walukaga himself would surely die within a few days unless the king died first.
Poor Walukaga! None of these suggestions would do at all. He became ill and thin, since he could not eat or sleep, and began roaming the bush alone, speaking his thoughts aloud as he tried to think of a plan to save himself from death.
One evening, as he walked through a deserted stretch of bush, he heard weird singing. Going closer to investigate, he discovered a boyhood friend of his who had now, alas, become mad and lived alone in the wild country outside of town.
“Greetings, Walukaga,” called the madman, who had no difficulty in remembering the blacksmith, even though his mind was so often muddled about other things. “How kind of you to visit me here. Come, sit down and share my supper.”
The madman was harmless enough, and Walukaga had nothing else to do, so he sat on a rock beside him. Together they ate ripe berries and some honey which his old boyhood friend had collected from the wild bees. Walukaga suddenly realized that this was the first food he had eaten for several days, and felt better for it, so he decided to humor his old friend and tell him the story of the king’s demand. To his surprise, the other fellow sat quite still and listened to the end without interrupting.
“Well,” concluded Walukaga, “that is my story; and if you can tell me what I am to do, you will be a better friend than any other, for they cannot help me.”
The madman will solve Walukaga’s problem.
How will he do it? How would you do it?
“I know what you must do,” said the hermit almost immediately. “Go to the king and tell him that in order to make the kind of man he requires, you must have very special kinds of ingredients. You will need a special kind of charcoal and you will need a very special kind of water. Ask him to make all his subjects shave their heads and bring their hair to be burnt into charcoal and when you have one thousand loads of such charcoal, then that will be enough. Then tell the king that you must have one hundred pots of water made up from the tears of the king’s people, since only such water may be used to keep your fire burning at exactly the right temperature.”
When the madman had said this, he laughed uproariously for some time. The blacksmith tried in vain to thank him for such good advice and then hurried off to the king’s palace, in spite of the lateness of the hour.
He bowed low before the king and explained what he must have before he could begin work on the iron man. The king was quite agreeable. He sent messages to all his subjects the next morning, commanding them all to shave their heads and to deliver their hair to the castle to be burned for charcoal and also to weep into their water-pots.
The people did their best, wondering why they must follow this strange request, but not daring to disobey their powerful king, everyone shaved their heads and wept as much as they could into their water-pots. But try as they might, it was impossible to collect more than two pots of tears or even one load of charcoal.
When these results were brought to the king, he sighed.
“Alas! I can see that we shall never be able to collect all the charcoal and the water that Walukaga needs. Send for him to come here at once.”
With shaking legs Walukaga approached the king. As he looked up, he was relieved to see a smile on the king’s face.
“Walukaga,” he said. “You have asked something impossible. I see now that my people can never grow enough hair to produce one thousand loads of charcoal, nor weep enough tears to fill one hundred water-pots. I therefore free you from your task.”
“Your Majesty,” replied Walukaga. “I am indeed grateful to you, for you too, asked something impossible of me. I could never have made a living man from iron, try as I would.”
Then all the people laughed realized how cleverly Walukaga had gotten out of his fix, and the king allowed him to go home and to continue his work at the blacksmith shop. But Walukaga never forgot that it was his friend’s advice which had saved him, and saw to it that the madman never went hungry or thirsty to the end of his days.
The Blacksmith's Dilemma, from African Myths and Legends, retold by Kathleen Arnott (Henry Z. Walck, Inc.: New York, 1962) pp. 119-123.
Minor adaptations by Elaine Lindy. ©1996. All rights reserved.