THIS is the story of a fisherman. It is one of the many stories my father told my siblings and I many years ago. Each time dinner was late, daddy kept us awake with interesting folktales. Each had a different song, a different moral. The songs meant we had to clap and sometimes dance. It gave mummy time to finish cooking and daddy time to teach us something apart from what the teachers taught us in school. Those were the good old days when fathers helped mothers and taught real moral, not those by rented ‘lesson’ teachers after school hours. Those were the days when entertainment was pure and simple, unlike now when it is about watching a dozen half naked, mentally under-developed adults sitting around, in front of cameras for 90 days, doing nothing but waiting to win millions of naira. You know what I’m talking about? Anyhow, today’s topic is not about the wasted generation and the corporate organizations cashing in on our gambling youth. That, and the National Orientation Agency, is a matter for another day.
So, let’s go back to the fisherman’s story, which I must confess I did not remember in full until my friend started singing the accompanying song during a phone conversation last Tuesday. It is an old, but evergreen, Yoruba folk tale. Here we go.
A long, long time ago, there lived a fisherman who was poor. He was so poor that he had only one kaftan and a pair of trousers. His wife also had only one blouse and a wrapper. So each time their clothes were dirty, they stayed in their little hut while they waited for their washed clothes to dry. The roof of their hut also leaked and when it rained, they got soaked to the skin. They ate only when the fisherman caught anything big enough to sell. Many nights they went to bed on empty stomach. But they kept hoping that one day, something good would happen to them. The day soon came.
One morning, this fisherman went to the river as usual and threw his net, hoping to get some fishes to sell at the market so he could give his wife some cowries to buy food stuffs. When he started pulling in the net, he found that it was unusually heavy. His heart jumped in excitement. This must be a really big fish, he said under his breath as he pulled harder. Lo and behold, it was truly a big fish. But before the fisherman could start singing to the gods for sending the big catch, the fat fish struggling for air, started pleading for her life to be spared. The fisherman almost took to his heels.
The fat fish begged the fisherman to let her go and that if he did, she (the fish) would grant any wish he made that day and any other day he wanted anything. The fisherman looked at the pitiful thing struggling in his net and struggled between disbelief and laughter; a fish granting any wish? Ah. But the fish kept begging. Then the fisherman said he would release the fish if she would turn his hut into a beautiful house, full of all the comforts the rich enjoy plus good clothes for him and his wife. The fish told him his wish was granted. The fisherman let the fish go and made his way back home, to his hut, wondering how he was going to explain his foolishness to his hungry wife.
Then he saw the miracle. His hut had turned into a big house. His wife was beautifully decked in top-of-the-range ‘aso-oke’ and coral beads. There was food in his pot, new mats, neatly folded flowing gowns, caps…
The fisherman and his wife were astonished, flabbergasted, overwhelmed. They sang and danced and sang and danced some more. If one wish could turn their lives around so quickly, what if he made another wish, a bigger one? The fisherman thought to himself. He would return to the river and ask the fat fish for something bigger.
As soon as he got to the river, he started singing
I, the fisherman, have come again
It’s me, the fisherman who caught you but spared your life.
You promised to grant me any wish
Big fish, I have come again.
True to her promise, the fish swam to the bank and asked what the fisherman wanted. He said he wanted to be made king and he wanted a palace that was more beautiful than all the ones in the neighbouring villages. The fish blinked and told him his wish was granted.
By the time the fisherman got to the village, he was met with drummers and dancers. They had been waiting for their new king. His wife was already dressed like a queen. The fisherman felt like he was dreaming. He who wore only rags now wore a beaded crown, shoes with gold threads, with servants at his beck and call. He no longer had to wonder were his next meal would come from. He was finally free from the clutches of poverty.
Thus, for a while, the fisherman let the fat fish be. He seemed to have all he wanted. Until one morning. As a king, he slept late and the palace servants knew better than to wake him. But that day, the early morning sunshine did. Rays of sunlight sneaked in through the window of the king’s chambers and made straight for the king’s face, rudely rousing him from sleep. The king was not amused. He promptly grabbed his robes without telling anybody and went to the river. He sang the usual song, calling out the fat fish. The fish swam out and asked what else the king wanted.
Still angry, the king told the fish about the rudeness of the sun that morning. He then demanded for powers to determine when the sun would rise and when it should go down. The fish was stunned. It told the king the story of his life, of how she had given him all he asked, promoted him from a hut to the palace.
‘Do you now want to be God?’ The magical fish asked.
The king repeated that all he wanted was power over the sun.
The fish shook her head and told him that that day; the king would reap the reward of greed. She told him to go back home and dived back into the river. The king returned home but it was his hut that was waiting for him. His royal robes vanished and the rags returned. He found his wife weeping in front of his hut. Shocked to his marrows, the king-turned-fisherman again ran back to the river. He sang and sang. He pleaded until he became hoarse. He wept until his tear ducts dried but the fish never came back. The king lost his crown and palace. He lost all to greed.
If the fisherman had known his limits, he would have died in luxury, not penury.
It is in the nature of man to always aspire for a better place, to have more than he has in his hands. There are those who affect others’ lives as they progress and are blessed. There are those who want more just for their insatiable lusts. But I am yet to see a man who sleeps in two beds at a time. You are allowed to build a dozen houses but you can only inhabit one at a time. Except for patients who have to be moved from one ward to the other or rushed from regular hospital wards to intensive care units and oxygen tents, nobody sleeps in two rooms in one night. Oh, sorry, and polygamous men observing the ‘sleeping roaster’, if you understand those interesting things.
So, what is there to learn from this fisherman and the benevolent magical fish? Look around you and see the rich among us. Check out those who started from the scratch. Look at our politicians who started small and now live in palatial homes. They are in charge of so much and have such powers that they can alter destinies of millions. But what do they do with the much they already have? They use their present wealth and wherewithal to look for more money, more powers. They have acquired enough to last three generations but they want more. Wanting more is not the sin, it is destroying things, lives, trampling on little people to acquire more money and clout.
Let’s just dedicate this story to men and women who have ruled us since we can remember and still want to continue, in spite of the fact that we have little or nothing to show for their hands on our destinies. They want to determine who rule us. They want to decide when the sun rises and sets on Nigeria. One day, their fisherman will go to the river a king and return as a pauper because greed has a final reward.