[Sketched on the back of a napkin at many thousands of feet somewhere between Kampala and Kigali]
With the passing of the Great Ruler, it came to be that his eldest son – long spoken of fondly throughout the kingdom – would ascend to his throne. A date was fixed for his royal coronation, and word of the new ruler-to-be began to spread slowly through the land through the merchants and musicians and other sorts of folk who live, in part, through stories and gossip with those they meet along their travels.
It was said of the new ruler that he was a dynamic sort of man. That he had a particular fondness for justice and fairness, and taking an interest in his subjects. Certainly – it was politely implied around bars and family dinners and other places where folk are more inclined to honesty – that he would have more of an inclination towards improving the lives of his subjects than his father had. Many heads nodded in approval at these stories. At the hopeful prospects that new power always brings.
So loud was the cheering and celebration that nobody noticed a tiny swallow arriving
As the date of the coronation drew near, men of means traveled from far and wide across the kingdom to attend. Some sought to ingratiate themselves with the new Ruler. Others hoped simply to become known, to tell the Ruler of their needs and their problems in the hope of receiving favour. Fed by stories of the Ruler’s greatness, a trickle turned into a flood and soon it was as if every family in the kingdom had a representative in the capital when the day finally arrived.
Looking upon the thousands of arriving subjects, the Ruler remarked to himself, “What a fine kingdom my father has left. So many people in fine clothes, with gifts of animals, fine fabric and gold. Indeed, this is a prosperous land.” And indeed, so it seemed. So loud was the cheering and celebration that nobody noticed a tiny swallow arriving upon the roof above the great hall in which the celebrations were taking place.
But by evening, many more had arrived and the tiny voice of the first swallow – drowned amongst the cheering of the richly-celebrating visitors – had become a flood. Distracted, the Ruler looked above, to see tens of thousands of swallows gathered – all shouting insistently to create a noise that had become impossible to ignore.
“What is the meaning of this disturbance?” the Ruler roared, “Can you not see that we are celebrating? And that your growing voices are interfering with this day?” Silence fell upon all present until, in due course a tiny swallow – the smallest of them all – approached the furious Ruler.
“Forgive me” the swallow began, “It was not our intention to spoil your day. We were merely, in our own way, hoping to make our contribution to the proceedings of this great event.”
“Contribute?” the Ruler thundered, incredulous, “What could you possibly bring to this day? You come from the blue, bearing no gifts. Why on earth do you come to this celebration?”
“It is true”, said the swallow, “that we come bearing no gifts. But it is not that we are here without purpose.”
The tiniest swallow paused, looking about the room.
“It is said, Ruler, that you are wise. Yet looking around this room, can you not see that every man here is dressed in finery and bears gifts that would make their villages seem wealthy. Did it not occur to you that the voices of those not as fortunate – the ones that, as Ruler, you may need to hear most – may also be present?”
“But you are not my subjects.” the Ruler replied, “You are simply swallows. You go where you will and speak for none.”
“It is true, ruler, that we go where we will,” replied the tiniest swallow, “but it is not true that we speak for none.”
These villages have no gifts to buy favour, nor the means to send their most eloquent to come and see you for themselves. Yet through us, their voices carry
“While men have been making their slow way here, laden with gifts and the hope of favours, we have flown – in our thousands – to the equally many unrepresented villages and homesteads in your lands. There, nestled in the eaves and in the trees under which men speak freely, we have learned many stories of the lives of villages too poor, or too afflicted with troubles to travel here to see you today. These villages have no gifts to buy favour, nor the means to send their most eloquent to come and see you for themselves. Yet through us, their voices carry over the miles between their halls and this one. And in their thousands, they are finally heard.”
The Ruler, on hearing this, saw that the tiniest swallow spoke wisely. And so he sat, for the rest of that day and for many months after, with a swallow always at his side, until he had heard the very last of the news that the very last of the swallows had to tell.
Summoning the tiniest swallow, he said, “Indeed I have learned much from the tales of your fellows that I did not know for myself, and which none with means had seen or thought to tell me. There is, it seems, much that needs to be put right in my land. Much that I shall act to change.”
Further, the Ruler asked the swallow if they might continue to return each year, on the anniversary of his coronation. Whether they might promise to bring news of the silent villages. In return, the swallow asked the Ruler to promise that when, each year, they returned, he would look out for and listen to their song, and act to put right the wrongs of which they spoke.
And so a deal was struck. And from that day on, and ever since, the swallows have gathered and dispersed each year. And can be found listening always, in the places where men speak freely with voices that cannot reach the Ruler.