One afternoon, I found myself sitting in Soledi´s kitchen, watching her boil green bananas for breakfast the next day. We were waiting for the rain to stop so we could continue work on her latrine. We had nailed together the wood and placed the frame on top of the concrete floor just as the rain started. Almost an hour later, having exhausted many conversation topics, we sat staring out between the palm boards at the pouring rain.
“Soledi, do you know any old stories?” I asked the old woman who was warming herself next to the fire. Anything but more rain, I thought. She turned and glared at me. I thought I had said something wrong, demanding too much. But her mind was churning, and her face began to soften.
“Once there was an unhappy man who married an unhappy woman,” she began, and smiled as I leaned back in my chair and gathered my arms in my lap. “When the woman got pregnant, the man decided to go to look for work so they could provide
for the child. He walked into town and asked an old man, “Do you have any work for me?” The old man looked at the young man and replied, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t have any work for you.” But he felt sorry for the young man and told him, “Take this road until you reach the king. He will have work for you.”
The young man thanked him and went to find the king. When he arrived, he asked the king for work, and the king said, “Yes, I have work for you, but I cannot pay you until you complete 20 years.” The young man sighed. He did not want to wait 20 years, but there was no other work to be found.
“OK,” said the young man, “I will work for you.” The next day the young man woke up and went to the king. The king told him to eat breakfast with him first, and then he would show the man his work. They ate and talked. The young man told the king about his young, pregnant wife and his village far away. After a while the king brought the man out to his fields and instructed him to take a horse and keep watch over his land.
In the evenings, the king invited the young man to dine with him, and after many years they became good friends. The young man realized that he was the king’s closest companion, and wondered what would happen after 20 years.
Eventually the day arrived. The man, no longer young, woke up, packed his bags and joined the king for breakfast. After a while, the man finally said to the king, “My king, today I complete my 20 years.” The king looked at him surprised. “Do you really plan to go back to your wife and child after 20 years?”
“My king, I promised I would return,” he replied. The king stood up and walked to the next room. When he returned, he said, “Then here is the payment for 20 years that I promised.” But he hesitated. “Now you can take this and go on your way, or you can take my four pieces of advice.” The man sighed. He did not want to refuse the money, but he had learned much over the years, and finally said, “OK, my king, I will take the four pieces of advice.”
The king sat down and said to him: “The first piece of advice is, never hang your hammock over a place where there once ran water. The second is, never involve yourself in what you don’t know anything about. The third is, always take the real path. The last is, never believe the first thing you hear.” The man listened carefully to the king, and when he was done he nodded, thanked the king, and gathered his things. The king stood and said, “If you find your wife and child living and well, give them this loaf of bread.” The man took the bread and left for his home.