Mouse and The Lion that Ate Corrupt Bureaucrats!
August 16, 2011
Some five years ago, I was invited by a group of Tigrayan Ethiopians to give a speech on contemporary Ethiopian politics and in respect to my fellow Ethiopians, who for the most part exhibit tremendous curiosity in regards to the situation in their country, I descended from New York down to Washington DC. Along with me in the panel was H.E. Ato Belai Abay. The two of us were engaged in a lively and constructive discussion with the fellow Ethiopians in the audience.
During the question and answer session, so many interesting questions were raised, but one that stands out and challenging (challenging to both the panel and the audience) was, “why can’t you educated people do something in order to bring about change in Ethiopia?” and in response to the question Ato Belai and I presented metaphors related to stories about mice told a long time ago. First Ato Belai told his story and began by telling the audience that the story was told to him by an Eritrean friend, and it s was about a courageous mouse that jumps incessantly between two cliffs. The mouse was extremely cautious not to miss either side of the cliffs; otherwise death would be imminent. The message in the story is that courage and caution are important components in any political involvement.
Then I presented my version of the mice story that I was told when I was a young lad in my elementary school days. The story goes as follows: Once upon a time, there were a family of mice that were bedeviled by a notorious cat that made it second nature to kill and eat at least one mouse a night, and as a result the number of the respective mice dwindled considerably (from a hundred plus to a twenty plus). In due course of the crisis, one elderly wise mouse that realized the decimation, if not extinction, of his mice family proposed an urgent conference, in which all the remaining mice should be present to discuss the havoc created by the cat against their livelihood, and the main agenda would be survival strategy.
The wise mouse said, “fellow mice, we can’t afford to see ourselves being eliminated one by one; we can no longer wait and see to witness our doomsday. We must do something about this cat.” Then, one diminutive but seemingly intelligent mouse said, “I have an idea. Why don’t we tie a collar with a bell unto the cat’s neck so that we can detect the coming of our erstwhile enemy long before it approaches our holes; whenever the cat is close to our premises, we can hear the ringing bell and vanish into our dungeon.”
“Well,” the wise mouse retorted, “it is a wonderful idea, but who is going to hang the collar with a bell unto the cat’s neck?” Following this query, silence reigned amongst the mice and there was no answer whatsoever; not one mouse could come up with even one glib answer and as a result the mice family stumbled into a wholly unpredictable situation.
Again, the message is that it requires courage and caution as well as sacrifice (especially in the second mice story) in any political undertaking. However, as Susan Sontag once aptly expressed in her ‘Courage and Resistance,’ “courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists, may [also] be brave.” So when we say courage, we mean a commitment tainted with a sense of justice, and by ‘caution’ we simply mean ‘history always suggests caution!’
As indicated above, the story of the wise mouse that I have narrated to an audience is part of oral tradition, perhaps told centuries ago in Ethiopia and it is difficult to trace its origins with certainty. Some stories, however, can be traced back and chronologically structured. For instance, the legend of Sundiata has been told since the 1320s in Mail and can be traced back to the heyday of the Mali Kingdom. Similarly, the story of Queen Sheba could be traced back to its Biblical roots and chronologically placed around 980 BC.
The problem of stories transmitted from generation to generation is 1) the inability to pinpoint the creative genius of the originator; and 2) overtime, the story could either be exaggerated or distorted. In point of fact, I encountered the above problem when I participated in a mini-conference in Columbus, Ohio three years after I told the story in Washington DC. This time, the narrator is somebody else and he presented “my” story of the wise mouse verbatim but with some modification. Not bad at all! Although I was perplexed to listen to “my” story, I was at the same time gratified for the continuity of the oral tradition. After all, there is no copyright in storytelling across the board in Africa, but we must have the courage to underscore the source (not necessarily origin) of the story.
Irrespective of the intellectual honesty in regards to the source of stories, words (both spoken and written) that are incorporated into the corpus of the stories could enrich our knowledge of history by expanding the scope of our cumulative experience.
Let me now tell you about the lion that ate corrupt bureaucrats. This story is also part of oral tradition entertained by the people of Brazil and Peter Evans narrates it in his book entitled Embedded Autonomy. Here is a direct quote of the story and readers can come up with their own interpretation of the story and I am deliberately refraining from providing any clue with respect to the lion that ate bureaucrats. This is how Evans put it:
“A perennially popular Brazilian joke about two lions evokes one way of seeing the state. Escapees from the zoo, the two lions take different paths, one goes to a wooded park and is apprehended as a soon as he gets hungry and eats a passerby. The second remains at large for months. Finally captured, he returns to the zoo sleek and fat. His companion inquires with great interest, “where did you find such a great hiding place?” “In one of the ministries” is the successful escapee’s answer. “Every three days I ate a bureaucrat and not one noticed.” “So how did you get caught?” “I ate the man who served coffee for the morning break,” comes the sad reply.
The moral is clear: bureaucrats do nothing and are never missed; even other bureaucrats care more about their morning coffee than about anything their colleagues do. The joke is popular because it affirms the conviction that Third World states deliver little of value. It is also popular because it converts bureaucrats from predators to prey. Identifying with the lion, listeners reverse their usual self-perception as victims of the state.”
But I have this bad habit of being tempted to say something. Although I promised not to indulge in interpreting the story of the lion and inject my bias, I like to make this passing and concluding remark: The power of metaphor is that it can authenticate reality by dramatizing stories represented by fictional characters, like the cat, mice, lion, and bureaucrats. And remember, since time immemorial, the symbol of Ethiopia was the lion! For that matter, the lion is also the symbol of all Africa, but in the Serengeti, the lions eat antelopes, gazelles, and zebras and only when they are desperate do they try human flesh.
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