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The Calabash Princess

“The Tuareg people told me this tale,” says Melanie Wasserman (Niger 1994–96), who worked as a nutritionist in the village of Azerori. “The Calabash Princess was the only tale that I heard in Azerori. It was told over and over again while drinking tea under the starry sky. This story shows that in a small community, you can’t afford to treat anyone badly. You may get away with your bad deeds for a while, but eventually, they will catch up to you.

ONCE THERE WAS A HANDSOME YOUNG PRINCE who refused to marry. Although his parents, the king and queen, searched throughout the land for the most beautiful women for him to meet, the prince was unmoved by their charms.
     One morning, as the prince was wandering in the bush, he noticed a vine wrapped around a tree. The vine held the most beautiful calabash he had ever seen. The skin of the calabash was smooth and clear, the color of fine, fresh butter. “This would be a fine calabash to drink hura from,” he thought, as he plucked the calabash from the vine.
     The instant the prince touched the calabash; it hit the ground and split in two. Out popped a beautiful young woman wearing a shiny, indigo dress and silver jewelry. Immediately, the woman threw herself at the prince’s feet.
     “Do not tell anyone you have seen me!” she cried. She then told the prince of her miserable past. Her father was a king, and her sisters, jealous of their father’s love for her, threatened to kill her. Rather than lose her life, she chose to live out her days inside a calabash.
     The prince held the calabash princess in his arms and dried her tears. He promised to keep their meeting a secret, and to visit her again the next day. She climbed back into the calabash’s cool interior. Every day after that, he would walk through the heat of the day to see her. Each time he would call out, “Here I am,” and the princess would pop out of her cool calabash to greet him. They would talk about clouds and trees and stars until long after the sun had set. Near midnight, the princess would crawl into her calabash and the prince would return home. But neither one could sleep very well. They were in love.
     The king and queen had noticed that each day their son was disappearing into the bush. As he was heading out one morning, they confronted him. Much to their relief, however, the prince announced that he was in love and wished to be married. “I would like to bring her home with me tonight,” said the prince.
     That night, the king and queen anxiously waited to meet their son’s bride. A sumptuous feast was prepared, and a special seat of honor was set-aside for the woman who would one day be queen. At dusk, the prince arrived at the feast with the calabash in hand. “I am going to marry the calabash!” he exclaimed with great joy.
    “My son has lost his mind!” the queen cried out before she fainted.
     Although his parents pleaded with him to be reasonable, the prince was adamant. He ordered all the wedding arrangements to be completed within three days. Then he asked that two dinners be sent to his hut. “We prefer to dine alone,” he said as he left his parents’ sumptuous house, carrying his calabash.
     The king and queen thought this was strange, but since he wouldn’t change his mind, they finally agreed to their son’s wishes. From that day forward, the prince and calabash princess lived very happily together. While the prince was away during the day, the princess would hide in the calabash. At night, the prince would return to his hut and, there, away from all prying eyes, she would step out from the calabash and lie beside him. At dawn, she would slip back into the calabash.
     The king was puzzled. What kind of satisfaction could the boy possibly obtain from being married to a calabash? One night, he decided to find out for himself. Hiding outside the prince’s window, he watched as the princess climbed out of the calabash. The king was greatly smitten by the young woman’s beauty. “I see that my son is no fool after all,” he said to himself.
     For weeks, the king could think of nothing else but the sweet face of the calabash princess. His passion for her became so great that he could not eat or drink or carry out his royal duties. “I must have her as my second wife,” he thought. He would allow no one to stand in his way.
     One night, just as the prince was about to enter his hut, the king approached his son, saying, “My son, I hear there is an evil spirit out in the forest who has been terrifying our people. I need your help. Let us go and chase it away tomorrow at dawn.”
     The calabash princess overheard the king’s words and shivered with fright. “Something is wrong,” she warned her husband. Before the prince left his room the next morning, she wove into his hair a string of dates and said, “Be careful.”
     The king and the prince rode their camels through winds full of sand, going many miles into the bush, until they reached an old, abandoned well. The king handed a rope to his son and said, “Fasten this rope to your waist. I will lower you into the well. See if there is an evil spirit at the bottom.” The prince did as he was told. When he got to the bottom of the deep, dark well, the king cut the rope and left.
     Although the prince tried desperately to scale the walls of the well, they were too smooth. Every time he tried, he fell back into the pit, where snakes and scorpions gnawed upon his hands and feet.
     Meanwhile, the king returned to the palace. Walking into the prince’s room, he split open the calabash with his sword. The frightened princess stepped out.
     “Your husband fell down a well and died while we were out in the bush. But do not worry. Marry me and become my second wife. I will take care of you.”
     The poor princess was unconsolable. Although the king tried to soothe her, she wrestled herself from his arms.
     Every day the king asked her to marry him. Every day the princess refused. She cried until her eyes were red and her face was chapped. Her beauty all but faded.
     For twenty years, the prince remained in the well, surviving on water and the dates that his wife had woven into his hair. Luckily, one of the date pits took root in the bottom of the well and, as time passed, a tree began to grow. When its branches had grown to the edge of the well, the prince climbed out.
     Immediately, the prince ran back to his village. Once there, he found the calabash princess weeping in his father’s courtyard. As soon as she saw him, the princess rushed into his arms. She was overjoyed! The queen, too, was very happy to see her son after so many years. The king pretended to be pleased.
     “Allah is great!” said the king. “My son, I thought you were dead when you fell in the well, but Allah has restored you to us!”
     “I am happy to see you again, too, father,” replied the prince. “So happy, in fact, that I would like to have a feast. I will roast a sheep in your honor.” The king accepted. To prepare for the feast, the son killed a fat sheep and roasted it on a spit. Then he dug a very deep pit. He built a roaring big fire in it, and then laid a sumptuous rug over the top of the pit, with colorful leather cushions on top.
     When the king arrived, he smelled the crisp, tender meat, and his mouth began to water.
     “Please, father,” said the prince. “Sit on this rug I have prepared for you.” The king smiled, stepped onto the rug and fell straight into the fire, where he died.
     Well, it wasn’t very nice of the son to do what he did to the father. But it also wasn’t very nice of the father to leave his son in a well for twenty years, and try to steal his wife!

Melanie Wasserman is now a doctoral student in health policy and administration at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focusing on immigrant health.
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