‘Nawiti,’ I said, ‘go and wash your hands.’
‘I’ve already washed them!’ she retorted.
‘No you haven’t,’ I said.
‘Look at them!’ I said, as I took hold of her hands and showed her the dirty palms. ‘How can you say you have washed them?’
‘Because I washed them yesterday,’ she retorted.
‘You go and wash them, then I’ll tell you a story.’
‘What about?’ she asked.
‘About a little boy who always told lies.’
‘Now where’s my story?’ she said, as she danced back from the bathroom, waving her little clean hands in the air. ‘And what was the name of the boy?’
‘His name was Wonama,’ I replied. ‘And nobody took him seriously because he could never tell the truth. Every time he opened his mouth he lied. He lied even when there was no known reason for doing so. For instance, he would tell the other boys that he was friendly with a lion in the forest, or …
‘Perhaps he really was friendly with a lion in the forest,’ suggested Nawiti.
‘And the next day he would say that his best friend was an elephant,’ I laughed
‘Did he have any friends?’ Nawiti wondered.
‘None,’ I said. ‘Not even an elephant. Nobody could trust him, nobody could believe him. Nobody could get to know him, because every day his story changed. Even him, he didn’t know himself, because he couldn’t face the truth about himself. It was like a terrible disease. He had an awful allergy to the truth.’
‘Did the disease go away as he got older?’
‘That was the problem,’ I said ‘Grownups can forgive a lie from a naughty little child, provided it doesn’t happen too often. But when an adult lies all the time it becomes a very big problem.’
‘What sort of problem?’
‘Well, for instance if a driver stopped and asked him which was the road to Kabwe, Wonama would immediately point in the direction of Kafue! He caused much confusion and wasted petrol.’
‘Perhaps he really thought he was pointing in the direction of Kabwe,’ suggested Nawiti.
‘No, that was the strange thing about Wonama. Speaking the truth made him feel ill, so he had to lie. Then he felt better.’
‘Did he do well at school?’ asked Nawiti.
‘Of course not,’ I laughed. ‘Even if he knew the answer to a question he would automatically say something else, so he failed all his exams.’
‘So now he was in a fix,’ said Nawiti. ‘If everybody was upset with his lies, wouldn’t it just have been easier to tell the truth?’
‘He knew that. But the truth would just stick in his throat. It couldn’t come out. But a lie was so tasty and satisfying and he enjoyed his lies so much. It was more like a medical condition. He was just a born liar.’
‘So I suppose he couldn’t get a job?’
‘Of course not. He would claim to be a carpenter when he wasn’t, so he’d be fired the next day. Plumber, welder, teacher, builder, singer, writer, no job lasted longer than a day.’
‘He was nothing,’ said Nawiti sadly. ‘He must have been very unhappy with himself.’
‘He was,’ I said. ‘Until one day he suddenly and unexpectedly discovered an advantage in lying. He told an ugly old woman that she looked young and beautiful, and she put her arm round him and gave him a kiss!’
‘She liked his lie!’
‘She even seemed to like him! The secret of being liked was simply to tell people the lies which they wanted to hear! Even if it was an outrageous lie, they would believe it!’
‘So he decided to become a politician!’ exclaimed Nawiti.
‘Exactly,’ I laughed. ‘Within a couple of years he had moved from being the most despised person in the land to being the most loved. He would go round saying The people gathered here are the most beautiful on Earth! and everybody would laugh and cheer and dance.
‘But perhaps they were the most beautiful on Earth,’ suggested Nawiti.
‘You’ve forgotten that Wonama was a liar,’ I said.
‘Oops,’ laughed Nawiti, ‘I almost believed him.’
‘Now in those days the people didn’t like the ruling Prince, so he would say things likeThe Prince is a thief, he sends thieves to steal money from your pockets while you are sleepingand the people would dance and cheer, singing The Prince is a thief! Off with his head!’
‘He had discovered the value of the nasty lie,’ said Nawiti.
‘And more than that,’ I said, ‘he soon discovered the value of promises. He would sayMake me the Prince and I will put the money back in your pocket! and all the people would dance and sing Wonama for Prince! We shall all be rich!’
‘And did the people make Wonama their new Prince?’
‘Indeed they did,’ I said. ‘They carried him shoulder high to the palace, all singingWonama in the palace, money in our pockets!’
‘And did he put the money in their pockets?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘He didn’t.’
‘But why not,’ she complained irritably. ‘They all believed in him. And he was now the Prince. He had all the power to do it. Why didn’t he just keep his promise?’
‘He couldn’t,’ I explained, ‘because if he had done that, then the promise would have become the truth. And Wonama couldn’t speak the truth. He was a born liar.’
‘Oops,’ said Nawiti, ‘I’d forgotten that bit!’