BIRUNGI

BIRUNGI
Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, there was a girl. She had no sisters, no brothers and no cousins. She had
only her mother for comfort, and only her father for a companion. Her name was Birungi.
Birungi was no ordinary girl. She was a pride of her family, no matter how small, and a
whisper in every home on the village. You see, Birungi was so good at conversation she
could make a baby speak in tongues. Her mother was proud of her; her father never hesitated
to show off to his friends how intelligent she was. Every time they organised beer parties on
Friday evenings, Birungi told them stories that she had learnt from her mother. Sometimes
her father thought she exaggerated them, and he laughed at how many jokes she could tell in
one night.
Birungi was always sent on errands and she returned well without injuries. She fetched water,
collected grass for the kitchen floor, and did all things a child could do, being an only child.
One day, she was sent to fetch firewood in a faraway forest, the rains having fallen for a long
time and firewood being a hard thing to come by. Her father was worried about her going
alone and suggested that she goes with some friends from the village. But their parents said it
was too far and her friends themselves were afraid of the great Mabira forest. Birungi
therefore decided to go alone, and assured her parents that if she got into any trouble, she
would run straight back home, as soon as possible. Her father hung a small horn around her
neck, so she could blow it if she saw anything suspicious. And with that, Birungi ran off.
Mabira was a vast and wild forest. It had strange sounds and unknown insects and thick
undergrowth. It had one big river called Kagera, with a single log, and as Birungi tiptoed her
way across the river on it, she felt a fear creep into her throat. But she walked on swiftly, and
told herself she had to keep moving, as there was no firewood left at home. If her father came
back from hunting with a fat antelope, what would they cook it with? If her mother came
back from the gardens with a large pumpkin, what would they cook it with?
As Birungi moved, she noticed the grass along the path on her left moving too. Or was it
something in the grass? She pretended not to see it, but as her feet struggled to race along the
brown path, the green bushes seemed to struggle with her too. At some point she thought she
saw glitters as the rays of the sun stole their way through the leaves, highlighting a few but
significant patches of the grass. She heard a little "hiss! hiss!" now and again and her face
went pale with panic. She tried looking un-scared like she always did during the night so
monsters would see how brave she was, but her heart raced. She kept looking around but saw
nothing. Except the green grass moving. Or was it something in the grass?
Birungi did not see the root of the tree crossing the path as she looked around. She fumbled
for her horn as her foot hit the root and she fell. The goat’s skin wrapper she was wearing
flew up in the air and a slow breeze went through its opening on the side. She gritted her teeth
in pain.
A green snake with a wide smile, as wide as its moth could stretch, and a red tongue hanging
out of its mouth, hovered above her figure as she tried to look up. She screamed so loud and
the snake frowned at her.
"Hello there!" the snake greeted. It was greener than grass, with glittery emerald stripes along
its back. Birungi found herself thinking how beautiful it looked. "You should watch where
you're going."
"How is it you can talk?" Birungi asked, still unable to gather herself from the ground after
the fall, and the shock of hearing a snake talk.
"How is it you ask the most obvious question a human can ask? For a second I thought you
were different." The snake said, squinting its eyes to not look as Birungi gathered her
goatskin around herself.
She got up and looked down at the coiled bottom of the snake. "Why do you coil your bottom
like that?"
"It's not a bottom. Why are human beings obsessed with bottoms?"
"Is it a tail, then?" Birungi continued, but the snake ignored her and started climbing up a
nearby tree.
Birungi looked around and picked a branch. She looked around for more branches but could
not see any. The snake lowered its head and smiled.
“That’s a wet branch. If you’re looking for firewood, you need to climb to the top of the trees
to find dry branches. It’s been raining heavily you can’t find firewood on the ground.” The
snake said, coiling its tail around another branch.
“But these trees are so tall.” Birungi said, with a worried look on her face.
“I could do it for you, if you treat me well”
“How do you treat a snake well?” Birungi asked, poking the snake on the neck. The snake
crept away, climbing higher up the tree.
“First,” the snake said, its voice now distant as it went higher up the tree. “Let’s start by you
stopping to call me snake.” It broke a dry branch and threw it down. Birungi darted away as
the branch almost fell on her head.
“You need to warn me before you throw a branch, Mr. don’t-call-me-snake!” she sat on a
rock near a shrub.
The snake moved from one tree to another, climbing high above, breaking branches small and
big, and throwing them down. Birungi first tried to follow it but it was too fast and she could
not keep up with it. The snake danced around trees, and when it was satisfied that the
firewood was enough, it went around picking it. When it piled it all up, Birungi was amazed
how quick it had managed to gather all that firewood. She just stood there open-mouthed, and
the snake enjoyed astonishing her.
“You are fast!” she exclaimed. “But this is too much firewood. How will I manage to carry it
from here up to my home?”
“First,” the snake said, coiling around a knot of grass near Birungi’s feet, “we need to tie it
up”. It pulled the grass and tied it together, forming a long rope that it used to hold the
firewood together.
The snake coiled its tail around the bundle of firewood, raised it in the air and looked at
Birungi.
“What are you doing?” she said her mouth still unable to close as she marveled at what the
snake was doing.
“I am taking you home. This firewood is quite heavy, and I happen to be free right now.”
Birungi started moving, and the snake followed her. It told her of stories strange and wild, of
villages old and young, of things she had never heard of. It took her across hills and valleys,
and helped her cross ditches small and big, and the great river Kagera. When they finally
crossed the river, it balanced the bundle of firewood on her head and bid her goodbye.
“Will I see you again? You are very kind.” Birungi said, as she watched her new friend cross
the river back into the forest. The snake looked up, looking sad and exhausted.
“It’s really an honor to lend a helping hand. But now that you ask, what will you give me in
return for my service?” it said, almost jokingly but Birungi wanted to pay it back for all its
help that she smiled and thought of an idea.
“I can invite you to my home.” She said. “My dad’s wine will be ready by Friday next week
and you can come for a gourd of some specially brewed wine.”
The snake agreed, and it watched Birungi as she slowly headed towards her home. It was
very happy, and the sad face it was wearing slowly faded into a broad smile, a grin in fact.
On a warm Friday
evening, as the sun lowered its magic below the hills, the snake made its way to Birungi’s
village. It had prepared for a whole day, in fact all week, for this moment. it was so excited it
forgot it was a snake and started dancing above the grass. But since it was now in a village,
and not a forest, there were people everywhere that saw it and screamed. They called to each
other and shouted; “look, there is a snake! Bring some sticks to kill it”. The snake was too
happy to be bothered, but worried that it might be killed before meeting Birungi again, so it
sang:

Please don’t kill me,
Don't let me flee.
Please don’t beat me up,
Or break me like a cup.
I am harmless,
And though I appear heartless,
Green as a snake,
Your children I wouldn't take.
I was a child once
And given chance
I could prove
That I'm on the move
Responding to a friendly call
From a human like you all.
Birungi is her name,
And though it started like a game,
She promised me a gourd of wine,
This Friday evening it will be mine.

When the people saw it sing, its emerald glitters sparkling in the sunset, they threw away
their sticks and marveled at how lovely it looked. They all directed it to Birungi’s home and
wished it a safe journey.
On arriving at her home, Birungi and her family were waiting for the snake. She introduced it
as the amazing, kind snake that “helped me gather firewood in a wet forest, tied it up for me,
carried it for me across hills and valleys, and helped me cross bridges and rivers”. Her family
was very happy, but still they kept their distance and the guests whispered to each other about
how strange the special visitor was.
After celebrations, a special gourd of wine was handed to the snake. It had already drunk
enough with the rest of the guests, and it was time to go to bed. Birungi’s mother begged it to
stay overnight, for it was rude to let a kind person go home late. Even if it was a snake, it
would be given the same kindness that humans received. It was given a bed with warm
sheets, and there was a fireplace at the Center of the hut to keep it warm in the rainy season.
The snake refused to stay there alone, claiming those skeptical guests would kill it in the
night, and Birungi was asked to keep her guest company for the night.
When Birungi woke up the next morning, she could still remember the dreams she had about
the snake suddenly becoming angry and biting her, about the village killing it as she wept.
But when she looked next to her there was no snake. She checked her ankle where the snake
had bit her in the dream but there was no bite. She turned the sheets upside down and found
no snake. Instead, she found a man lying on the floor, under the bed. She screamed and woke
everybody up, including the man himself. Birungi’s parents rushed to the door, followed by
the guests who had slept around. They all came in when they saw the man. The man himself
was looking at himself, shocked as everybody else, smiling.
“Who are you? And what are you doing under my bed?” Birungi shouted.
“What do you mean who am I? We went to bed together.” The man said, still shocked by his
own body.
“That voice is familiar.” Birungi said, trying to remember where she heard it before.
“It’s me, Birungi. It’s me.” The man said, jumping up and down. “See, this is my gourd of
wine. I helped you gather firewood, I tied it for you, and I took you across hills and valleys
and helped you cross the bridge. It’s me.” He walked towards her. Everybody was shouting
what a miracle it was, how a snake had turned into a human being. And how he looked so
handsome!
“But that was a snake!” Birungi said, still unsure about the whole turning thing.
“I wasn’t always a snake, Birungi. I was once a prince.”
“THE prince? The prince whose stepmother turned into a snake? That’s an old story, you are
playing with me.”
“He is not.” Birungi’s mother said. “it is said in the same story, that only kindness would save
him from the spell. Poor child, you have moved all this long without a single ounce of
kindness offered to you.”
“But you offered me kindness first. My family was only kind because you helped me.”
Birungi said, looking from her mother to the handsome prince that was a snake only hours
before.
“That’s not true.” He said. “You accepted my kindness and didn’t turn me away. I have tried
to help other people before. But they always wanted to kill me. But you… you enjoyed my
help. You offered me a place in your home when I was an ugly creeping snake. And now I
have my body back. As young and human as I was so many years ago. That is kindness.”
Birungi could almost see tears in his eyes.
“Well, you know what they say” Birungi’s mother said again, “you can never give away
kindness. It always comes back to you”.
As the morning light slowly settled across the village, more and more people heard the news
and came to witness what had happened. What had started as a strange party celebrating the
kindness of a snake with emerald glitters ended up being a wedding celebration of Birungi
and a famous handsome Prince. The celebrations lasted only a day but Birungi and her prince
lasted forever, at least in the stories. Even to this day.

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