The Cow Tail Switch

A few nights ago I received news of a friend’s celebration of her rebirth. After a year of seemingly unrelated symptoms, she was finally diagnosed with a brain tumour and immediately operated on. The tumour which covered 80 % of the left half of her brain was not cancerous and her survival was declared miraculous by the surgeon. Hence the celebration of her ‘second birthday’. After my initial shock at hearing of her experience and the relief of knowing her prognosis was positive, I considered her gift to me; her story. The stories of other people’s lives serve as inspiration, counsel and caution in the living of our own lives. Her parting words to me in her email were, ‘Look to the future but live in the present.’

So often we simply exist without gratitude. We waste our time, we hide our talents, we take each other for granted. I am so grateful to my friend for sharing her story, for it serves to remind me that Life is a gift to be cherished always. 

The Cow-Tail Switch
Once upon a time in a small village in West Africa, there lived a hunter with his wife and seven sons. One day the hunter went into the forest alone to hunt and did not return at nightfall. His family wondered why he did not come back. They talked about it for some days, but after a while when he didn’t come back, they stopped talking about it. 
Then one day his wife gave birth to another son. As he grew older he began to talk, and when he could talk, the first thing he said was,  “Where is my father?”

 “Good question”, the others replied.
 “He should have come back a long time ago.” 
Another son said, “Something must have happened to him. We should go looking.” 
“But where will we find him?” Asked another son.
   “I saw him go.”  One son said, “If you follow me, I can show you the trail he took.”
And so the sons followed the trail. Finally, in a clearing, they found the bones and rusted weapons of their father. He had obviously been killed by some great beast. 
Another son stepped forward. “I can put his bones together.
And he did.
Another son said, “I know how to cover the skeleton with muscle and flesh.”
And he did.
Then another son said, “ I can put blood in his body.” 
Another said, “I can put breath into his body.” 
With this the hunter began to breath. 
Then another son said, “I can help him to move.”
And he did. The hunter then got up and stretched his bones. 
Then another son said, “I can give him the power of speech.”
 With this the hunter said, “Let us go home.”
They went home and the hunter’s wife gave him a great feast inviting everyone in the village. In celebration of his return, the hunter made a switch from the tail of a cow and decorated it with cowry shells. Everyone wanted it.

 After the feast, the hunter called for silence.
 “I would like to give this beautiful cow-tail switch, to the one most responsible for bringing me back to life.”
Immediately there was an uproar as each brother had an opinion.

    “It is surely me,” said the son who showed his brothers the path that helped them to find their father.

     “But without me he wouldn’t have come back to life”, said the one who laid out the bones.
 “Breath is more important than bones,” said another son.
 “What is life without movement?” said another. 
On and on they went. Finally the hunter called for silence. 
“I will give this cow-tail switch to my youngest son,” he said. “For he was the one who remembered me. It is said, that a person is not truly dead, until he is forgotten.”  
 The Cow-Tail Switch – A folktale from Liberia Collected by Harold Courlander and George Herzog (New York: Henry Holt & Co. l947).


Photo A Life by Roman W Schatz



3 thoughts on “The Cow Tail Switch

    1. Thank you Simon. As working storytellers we owe ethical folklorists a great deal for bringing indigenous tales to the world stage. I think Harold Courlander books are excellent resources for storytellers. I always write my own version of them, because I’m a storyteller and not a reciter. However some of them are close to the written version. I love to know the journey of the story, whether its been heard from another teller or a version from a written collection, so acknowledging the source is really an introduction to the tale.

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