The Young Girl and the Lioness

The Young Girl and the Lioness

Told by Shugri Salh Art by Kaelin Yumi Hall-Gardner

It was the height of the rainy season in the desert where Ebla lived. Ebla stood in front of the family hut determined to execute her plan. She watched her two older brothers, nine and ten, collecting the family camels to graze.

The plant that camels consume is different from that of goats and sheep, so the boys were often in the wilderness for weeks on end. They would come back with adventurous stories about the wild animals they had encountered. Her favorite was the time the boys told her they yanked a baby camel from the mouth of a hyena. She would look at them with wide eyes full of admiration as she listened to these stories at night by the fire.

Ebla wanted to have these adventures for herself rather than hearing about them. At six, her only responsibility was to herd the baby goats around the huts, a chore she resented. She wanted to be brave like her brothers and see the open, untamed desert for herself.

One morning, as the boys coaxed the camels to herd them, Ebla knew they were going on yet another adventure. She hid in the bushes around the hut, and followed them discreetly. One of her brothers led the camels from the front and another from the rear. They whistled and sang to the camels, and as if under a spell, the camels fell into one line, their flat feet sturdily tracking the desert. Barefoot, Ebla kept with the herd at a determined pace.

After a while, the terrain changed from low grass and patchy bushes to tall, lush, green trees. The camels slowed down to graze and Ebla, still following, craned her neck from time to time to keep them in sight. She watched birds tenderly care for their young and collect hohab, a seedy fruit that blooms this time of year. When she looked again, there were no boys or camels.

Frustrated, she ran in every direction and looked as far as the eye could see. Being a child, she soon forgot what she was looking for and just walked around. A dome-shaped tree caught her attention, and she thought this was a good hiding place. Inside, she found three little cat-looking babies. She played roughly with them, opening their closed eyes and sticking sticks in their ears. The little ones whined in discomfort.

Suddenly, Ebla had a dreadful feeling, so she took off running. She did not know where she was going or where her family hut was. In the meantime, the mother lioness arrived from hunting and quickly realized something was amiss with her babies. The young girl’s scent was fresh in the air, and the lion knew she could not be far… She charged after the girl. As Elba ran, she listened for sounds around her, and after a while she heard human sounds. The whole time she was running, she never looked back or stopped, and in an instant, she was upon a nomadic family. A loud shout reverberated. The lioness was on top a male camel, who was sitting there after the family used him to fetch water. Men took up arms and chased the lion, and others examined the damage of the bite on the camel.

Ebla was now lost, her family was nowhere near. But luckily she knew her full name and clan, so somebody would recognize who she was. The men chased the lion but near its hideout, they saw Ebla’s footprints and followed it to the dome shaped tree. When they looked inside, they saw three lion cubs, no more than a week old. The men left the lion and baby and headed home.

One man asked Ebla, “ Uncle, have you seen any little animals today?” (In Somali culture, one’s title is used by both people in the relationship. In this case, both Ebla and the man address each other as Uncle.)

“I did uncle, and I  played with them.”

The man rocked his head from side to side, incredulous about the danger this young girl put herself in. It was clear what had happened, and why the lion had come after Ebla.

“You know uncle, you played with lion cubs today. Did you know that?”

“No uncle.”

“You are indeed a blessed uncle,” the man said, but Ebla did not utter a word, she just looked down. The family took the young girl home.


This story was retold after thirty years by the woman the story happened to to.

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