Samu’s Talking Bird


Samu, a ten-year-old African boy, walked slowly down the village farm road. He smacked at the hedge with every step, trying to spear a leaf on the pointed tip of his msasa stick.

When he finally reached the gate in the hedge, he paused hopefully. Then he reached out and swung the gate open and shut, open and shut. The gate was badly in need of oil and squeaked loudly as Samu swung it backward and forward.

Soon Samu heard the same loud squeak come from the old woman’s front porch. It was the bird—the clever talking bird!

“Squeeeeeeeeek, squeeeeeeeeek! Naughty boy! Who’s there?” called the bird in the yellow cage. Then it barked shrilly like the old lady’s Pekinese dog.

Samu clutched the gate and giggled. “Hello, hello!” called Samu.

“Hello, hello!” replied the bird.

Samu felt very clever. He ran to his home in the village and told his mother that he was teaching a bird to speak. His mother laughed, because she knew nothing of talking birds.

“I will show you, Mother,” Samu said excitedly. “As soon as I get a bird of my own, I will teach it to talk!”

Mother was busy pounding corn into mealie, and she just laughed at Samu’s promise and told him to run away and play.

Samu asked some of his friends to help him catch a bird. “I will teach it to talk,” he told them. But his friends only laughed, for they had never heard of a talking bird.

Next Samu spoke to Old Mwanza, who sat all day by his hut warming his old bones in the sun.

“Birds do not talk. Men talk—and they talk too much,” said the old man, shaking his grizzled head at Samu. “Why teach birds to add to the chatter?”

Samu wandered off into the bush by himself, wondering how he could catch a bird and train it to talk as the old woman’s bird did. He had almost given up hope when he saw a black crow sitting in the branches of a msasa tree hoarsely croaking about nothing in particular.

Why don’t I try to make friends with this bird by feeding it? he thought. I will bring it some of mother’s cooked mealie every day at the same time until it knows me.

Samu quickly ran home and begged for some hard-cooked porridge. His mother gave him a handful, and back he ran to the msasa tree and spread lumps of mealie on the ground. Then he hid in the bushes. After a lot of surprised scraaaking, the crow hopped down and began to peck at the mealie.

Every day for three weeks Samu took a handful of porridge and fed the crow. It no longer flew up into the tree with a scraaaaak of fright when Samu arrived. Now it hopped up close to him and jumped up and down in the dust, waiting for Samu to spread the porridge.

At first when Samu tried touching its feathered back, it hopped out of reach and looked at him with bright beady eyes as it scolded, “Quraaaaaaack?”

But in another week Samu could stroke the crow’s back gently while it pecked up the food.

Now! he decided triumphantly. Now I can teach it to talk.

“Say hello,” Samu told the crow. “Hello, hello, hello.”

“Scraaaaaaaak!” replied the crow.

“You will have to do better than that,” Samu said patiently. “Now try again. Say hello. Hello, hello, hello.”

“Scraaaaaaaaak?” repeated the crow, putting its head to one side and blinking at Samu with curious eyes.

“Look,” scolded Samu. “If the other bird can say it, so can you. You’re not trying.”

“Crraasquk,” squawked the crow as it flew up to the lowest branch of the msasa tree.

Samu walked home through the bush, dragging his bare feet and feeling miserable. Why wouldn’t his bird even try to talk?

He went back to see Old Mwanza and told him that the crow refused to learn to talk.

“This bird that talks with many voices and barks like a dog and squeaks like a gate,” said the old man, “must have two tongues. Perhaps your bird only has one tongue.”

I guess my crow does have only one tongue Samu thought sadly. But I will try once more! So back he went to the msasa tree with a handful of mealie. He fed his crow and then squatted down in the dust beside it. “Hello!” he said loudly. The crow danced sideways for a moment and then hopped on to Samu’s knee.

“Squaaaaako!” said the crow, and again it flew up into the tree.

Samu felt quite sorry for himself. All of his work for nothing!

Behind him the old man chuckled. He had followed Samu to see how he was getting along with teaching his bird to talk. “Samu,” he said, “it’s good to try hard to do something. But it is foolish to try to do the impossible. Would you try to teach a hen to swim like a duck or a dog to crow like a rooster?”

“No,” said Samu sheepishly. “But the old woman’s bird talks. Why shouldn’t mine?”

“I have found out about the old woman’s bird,” explained Old Mwanza. “It is a parrot—a talking bird. Your crow will make a fine pet. Why don’t you teach it to come when you call and to hop after you when you go for walks. Then you will be teaching it something it is able to learn.”

“One day I will get a talking bird,” said Samu. Then he started to laugh. “Teaching a crow to talk is like teaching a dog to crow!” he said.

The crow looked at him with its bright beady eyes and said, “Squarrrrrrrrk!”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ted Nagata