Oral Literature: The Ungrateful Cobra

One day a cobra fell down a deep crack in the ground and couldn’t get out. A man passed by, and heard a strangled voice calling: “Help! Save me!”

The man peered down the crack, and immediately jumped back in alarm. The cobra is man’s great enemy. The cobra said: “Please, pull me out!” Still quaking, the man answered: “I won’t. You’d bite me.” “No,” the cobra pleaded. “Could I bite the hand that saves me?”

The man thought a while. Then, slowly, he lowered himself into the crack. Close to the cobra, he drew back again; but the snake wrapped itself gently around his waist. When they were both out, the man said: “Now you can get down; you’re safe.”

With a scowl the cobra replied: “Should I give up a meal that luck has thrown my way? Never!” The man couldn’t do a thing; the cobra was still wrapped round his waist.

He considered a moment. All he could think of was to say to the cobra: “All right. So, you’ll eat me. But first I’d like to ask some animals what I have done wrong to deserve it. If I have done wrong, then you will eat me.”

The cobra agreed. First, they went to the camel’s house. Standing at the door, the man said: “Listen. While I was walking along the road, I saw this cobra down a crack in the ground, and saved him. Now he wants to bite me; have I done wrong, perhaps?” “Of course,” replied the camel, keeping well out of the way, “of course you’ve done wrong.”

The answer saddened the man, but the cobra grinned. Then the man went slowly along to the baobab to ask the same question: “Listen,” he said to the tree. “While going along the road I saw this cobra in a deep crack; I saved him, and now he wants to bite me. Have I done wrong, by any chance?”  “Yes,” came the reply. “Something very wrong indeed.”

Sadder than ever, the man went off with the cobra (who wasn’t sad at all) to the squirrel’s house. “Listen, friend. While on a journey. I saved this cobra from a deep crack in the ground. Now he wants to bite me and kill me. Have I done something wrong?”

The squirrel reflected for quite a while, then said: “It doesn’t seem possible that you could have done such a thing.” Then he turned to the cobra: “Friend cobra, why don’t you get down and tell me the truth of the matter?”

The cobra slipped down at once. But while he was getting into a position to speak, the squirrel yelled: “Quick, hit him on the head with your stick!” The man didn’t wait to be told twice; thus, the squirrel saved his life.

Ever since that day we have had a saying: Keep your enemy at a distance, because he has two words.

(Folktale from Borana People. Kenya)