Oral Literature: Why Zebras have Striped Skins

Long ago before people started taming any other animal apart from the dog, it was said that donkeys could also be tamed. One man who went to the bush to hunt told this rumour.

After killing the animal he had hunted he found that it was very heavy for him to carry alone. So he decided to find a way by which he could carry his prey. And as he was thinking, he saw a donkey pass nearby in the bush.

All of a sudden an idea came into his head. He thought that if he took his prey and put it on the back of the donkey, it would help him carry his load. So he went after the donkey. He put the load on its back easily, for it did not attack him or run away.

He led the way until they reached his compound. After unloading the donkey he gave it food and it ate with appreciation. From this time on, this man kept the donkey.

This story went round that somebody had tamed a donkey. Soon the donkey was famous for its hard work throughout the village and the surrounding area. People wanted to satisfy their curiosity, and they soon set out to hunt for donkeys and use them to carry heavy loads.

Donkeys did not know what was going on up to this time. They came to understand only after most of their friends had been taken away. They started to hide deep in the bushes. But all was in vain! People had realised that donkeys were very useful animals. So they made special efforts to hunt them down, wherever donkeys could be found.

This problem really worried the donkeys. Many of their kind had been captured. The rumours they heard were horrifying. Rumour had it that those donkeys, which had been captured, were working too much and they were given only food enough to keep them going.

This was indeed frightening. The rest of the donkeys decided to act quickly, lest they become victims of circumstance like their unfortunate friends.

They therefore held an impromptu meeting. Here they discussed what should be done about the whole problem. One donkey suggested that they should seek help from Hare since he was known to be cunning and clever. All agreed that Hare should be asked for advice.

The next morning the donkey representative went to see Hare, who was only too willing to help. Hare asked him to tell all his friends to come to his compound early the next morning. This they did, and when they arrived they found Hare with whitewash in a huge can, ready to act.

As the donkeys were not fast enough in thinking, they wondered how whitewash could have anything to do with their problem. Hare tried to explain but they seemed rather stubborn. Nobody was willing to be the first one to be experimented on.

Finally, one donkey volunteered and stepped forward. Immediately, Hare set to work. He started painting stripes of whitewash on the donkey’s skin. Soon the donkey had black-and-white stripes instead of being plain black or grey.

As the first donkey was painted over, the other donkeys admired him. They all started wishing they could look like their friend. The moment that followed was full of struggle and scrambling over that should reach the paint first. The warning from Hare that they should be careful went unheeded. Hence, the struggling and fighting continued.

It happened that after a number of donkeys had been painted, one donkey pushed to the front with such force that he stepped in the bucket that contained the whitewash. The whole bucket overturned pouring out all the paint. This was the end of everything. The remaining donkeys were helpless because they were the unfortunate ones.

Hare told them that he could not help them any more because the fault had been theirs. And so, although the aggressive donkey was cursed for this bad act, nothing was done for their betterment, for the spilt paint could not be recovered.

Hence, those donkeys that had been painted were safe from people’s reach. They were the lucky ones and changed their name from donkeys to zebras. This name set them apart from the unfortunate donkeys that after this were all captured by men, and taken away to work for them. They were less fortunate and that is why they continue to be known as donkeys. (Story from Luhya people, Kenya)