Meat of the Tongue

Scene 1

(The Sultan's palace)

(Sultan enters stage left, followed by Servant)

SULTAN: I am the greatest sultan in all Kenya. I am rich! But I am missing something. (Pauses, ponders.) I know! It is time to get a wife!

SERVANT: You speak the truth, O Sultan.

SULTAN: Go fetch me one!

SERVANT: What kind of wife, Sultan?

SULTAN: Happy, young, whatever. Nice and fat, of course.

SERVANT: Of course, Sultan.

SULTAN: Don't need any skinny bags of bones clattering around here!

SERVANT: I go to do your bidding, O Sultan.

(Sultan turns away and gets busy doing something else. He is no longer thinking about a wife)

(Akello enters stage right. She is singing, dancing, and very happy)

AKELLO: (singing)

The garden of Love
is green without limit
and yields many fruits
besides sorrow and joy.

(Servant crosses to stage right and meets Akello)

Good day, lady. Would you like to marry the Sultan?

AKELLO: Marry the Sultan? What is he like?

SERVANT: What do you mean, what is he like? He's the Sultan.

AKELLO: Is he mean, or nice, or...

SERVANT: He's the richest man in all Kenya! You'll have everything. Come on.

AKELLO: Do I have any choice?

SERVANT: Not really. The Sultan commands, we obey.

AKELLO: The Sultan chose me?

SERVANT: No, I chose you. The Sultan is too busy. So am I. You're nice and fat. What is your name?

AKELLO: Akello.

SERVANT: You'll do. Come to the palace. Follow me.

Lead on, then.

(Servant crosses back to stage left, followed by Akello)

SERVANT: Sultan, I have found you a wife.

SULTAN: (to Servant) Good! Nice work. Quickly done. (To Akello) Hello. Let's go get married now.

(all exit stage left)

End of Scene 1

Scene 2

(At the poor man's house)

(Poor Man enters stage right, followed by Poor Man's Wife. They are happy, and singing to each other)

POOR MAN: (singing)

The garden of Love

WANGARI: (singing)

is green without limit

POOR MAN: (singing)

and yields many fruits

WANGARI: (singing)

besides sorrow and joy.

(They laugh and sit down)

WANGARI: (picking up two bowls) I am sorry I have cooked you such a poor supper.

POOR MAN: Wangari, you married a poor man. What do we have?

WANGARI: (hands him a bowl of porridge, keeps one) Just some porridge.

POOR MAN: (beginning to eat) Yum. Did I ever tell you the story about the monkey and the bowl of porridge?

WANGARI: (looks lovingly at him) No, dear one. Tell me now.

POOR MAN: Once a monkey came from the forest to see the city.

(Wangari gets up, starts moving stage right, beckons to Poor Man to follow)

WANGARI: Come outside where it's cooler. Tell me there.

POOR MAN: Good idea, Wangari.

(They start to exit stage right)

(As they exit, Poor Man continues his story)

POOR MAN: And the first thing the monkey saw was a hot bowl of porridge...

End of Scene 2

Scene 3

(One month later) (At the Sultan's palace)

(Akello enters stage left, flops down on a couch, lies there bored)

AKELLO: Well, now I am rich. The Sultan has everything, and so do I. But I am SO bored. And I've only been here six months!

(Sultan enters stage left, followed by servant)

SULTAN: (to Servant) Have you seen my wife lately? What's her name? Akeyo?

SERVANT: Akello.

SULTAN: Right. (notices Akello) Hello, there. (Sultan turns away and gets busy. He is no longer talking with or paying attention to Akello)

SERVANT: How are you today, my lady?

AKELLO: Bored, thank you.

SULTAN: Today, let's review the riches of my house. Is everything in good order?

SERVANT: Only one problem, my Sultan.

SULTAN: And what is that?

SERVANT: Your wife, O Sultan.

SULTAN: Who? Akeyo?

SERVANT: Akello.

SULTAN: Right. What's wrong with her?

SERVANT: She is getting skinny, O Sultan.

SULTAN: I told you I wanted a fat, healthy wife! Has she been getting meat in her porridge?

SERVANT: Yes, Sultan, plenty of meat.

SULTAN: Then what is the problem?

SERVANT: She pines, O Sultan.

SULTAN: What does that mean? To pine?

SERVANT: She's bored. And she misses her friends and family.

SULTAN: Well, I can't bring them all into my palace.

SERVANT: She may pine away until she dies. It happens sometimes.

SULTAN: Hey, that's no good! I just got her!

AKELLO: O Sultan, do you have time to talk to me?

SULTAN: No, of course not. Don't you know I'm busy?

SERVANT: You must do something, O Sultan.

SULTAN: Yes, you're right. It would look terrible if she died. Like I can't even keep a wife.

SULTAN: But who can tell me what to do?

AKELLO: O Sultan...

SULTAN: Quiet, wife! We're busy deciding what to do about you.

(Poor Man and Poor Man's Wife quietly enter stage right, sit down in their house)

SERVANT: The poor man might know. He lives right down the road.

SULTAN: Yes, I remember. His wife is nice and fat.

SERVANT: And she stays fat, too.

SULTAN: Yes, she gets fatter every year. I wonder what kind of meat she eats. (Decisively) All Right! Everyone to the poor man's house!

(Sultan and Servant move stage right. Akello rises and starts to follow)

SULTAN (to Akello): Not you! You stay home.

(Akello resignedly flops back down onto couch)

(Sultan and Servant cross to Poor Man's house)

SERVANT: (in loud, stentorian voice) The greatest Sultan in all the land commands you!

POOR MAN: (very afraid) Yes, O Sultan?

SULTAN: Your wife is fat and healthy!

POOR MAN: Yes, O Sultan! Indeed she is. Her skin is as taught as a ripe berry.

SULTAN: My wife is skinny and pines away.

WANGARI: (aside) No wonder!

SULTAN: I command you to tell me which meat you feed your wife!

SERVANT: (in loud, stentorian voice) To disobey is to die!

SULTAN: Obviously.

POOR MAN: (very afraid, again) (to Poor Man's Wife) Wangari, how do I answer him? I'm too poor to buy you meat.

WANGARI: He demands that you tell him some kind of meat. If you don't, you will die!

POOR MAN: The only meat we have is our own tongues.

WANGARI: (teasing) And you use yours for talking! And telling me stories.

POOR MAN: None of my stories say anything about this. I don't know what to say.

WANGARI: (to Servant) We're too poor to eat meat.

SERVANT: I suggest you don't tell that to the Sultan, if you want to keep your head. He does not believe in poverty.

POOR MAN: But what can I say? We eat no kind of meat.

SERVANT: The Sultan commands, you must obey.

SULTAN: Well, what is your answer?

POOR MAN: (terrified of the Sultan) Uh, mmm, I feed her... (pauses)

SULTAN: (impatient) Out with it! Immediately!

(Poor Man stands there, terrified, not able to think of what to say)

WANGARI: Meat of the tongue! He feeds me meat of the tongue!

POOR MAN: (to Poor Man's Wife) Are you crazy? We never eat tongue.

WANGARI: The stories you tell me - understand? Meat of the tongue! That's what keeps me happy!

SULTAN: (satisfied) Good. Meat of the Tongue! Why all the fuss? Your Sultan commands, you obey. Everyone is happy. Simple!

POOR MAN and WANGARI: (together) (bowing) Yes, O Sultan!

POOR MAN: (from offstage) Thank you, Wangari!

(all exit)

End of Scene 3

Scene 4

(Sultan enters, followed by Servant.)

SULTAN: Tell the cook to cook meat of the tongue for my new wife, Akeyo.

SERVANT: Akello, O Sultan.

SULTAN: Right.

SERVANT: What kind of tongue, O Sultan?

SULTAN: All the kinds in all my land! What kinds do we have?

SERVANT: Ox, and lamb, and fish, and quail, and lark...

(Akello enters)

SULTAN: Good. All of those. Nothing is too good for my wife (pauses, trying to remember Akello's name)

AKELLO: Akello.

SULTAN: Right. I had it right on the tip of my tongue.

AKELLO: Do you have time to talk to me now, O Sultan?

SULTAN: I've spent too much time on you already. I am busy and have work to do. Begone, wife.

AKELLO: You command, I obey, O Sultan.

(Akello moves to the couch and flops down on it)

SULTAN: (to Servant) Go to the cook and do as I bid. I want my wife Akeyo...

AKELLO and SERVANT: (interrupting, together) Akello.

SULTAN: (irritated, to Servant) Whatever her name is, I want her to be fat and beautiful again. Begone!

SERVANT: You command, I obey, O Sultan.

(Servant exits, followed by Sultan)

(Akello rises from couch, sighs, and exits)

End of Scene 4

Scene 5

(Poor Man and Poor Man's Wife enter stage right. They remain stage right and do not interact with characters stage left.)

WANGARI: I feel sorry for that Sultan's wife.

POOR MAN: I feel sorrier for us, if feeding her tongue meat doesn't fatten her up.

(Sultan and Servant enter stage left. The remain stage left and do not interact with characters stage right.)

SULTAN: It's been 2 months, and it isn't working. My wife... (pauses)

SERVANT: Akello.

SULTAN: These crazy African names are so hard to remember. She keeps getting skinnier.

SERVANT: That is true, O Sultan.

SULTAN: Of course it's true. I said it, didn't I?

SERVANT: Yes, O Sultan.

WANGARI: I wonder what will happen to us.

POOR MAN: He could put us both to death.

WANGARI: Tell me a story, dear one. Take our minds off our worries.

POOR MAN: Okay. Here is the story of the lark and the buffalo. Once there was a lark who lived in a meadow. One day the lark saw a buffalo in the forest...

(Akello enters stage left and flops onto couch)

There must be something that poor man does, that he didn't tell me.

AKELLO: (aside) I wonder what that could be?

SERVANT: We are feeding her tongue, O Sultan, just as you have commanded.

SULTAN: Is she eating?

SERVANT: Of course, O Sultan. She obeys your every command.

POOR MAN: The lark asked the buffalo, "What are you doing in the forest?"

WANGARI: Sorry to interrupt, but did you know, I just love your stories?

Well, there must be some other secret to keeping a wife fat and healthy and beautiful.

SERVANT: Perhaps you could ask the poor man.

SULTAN: It didn't work. Whatever he knows, he didn't tell me.

SERVANT: Maybe he tried...

SULTAN: (Interrupting) Nonsense! I was right there, listening.

SERVANT: Yes, O Sultan.

POOR MAN: And I love you, my dear Wangari.

WANGARI: As I love you, dear husband. Now keep telling.

SULTAN: Maybe he can fatten her up. Take my wife... (pauses, trying to think of Akello's name)

SERVANT: Akello.

SULTAN: Right. Take her to the poor man. Command him to keep her and fatten her up.

SERVANT: O, Sultan, he is a poor man. He cannot feed two women.

SULTAN: Details! So bring his wife here to stay with me. We can feed her.

SERVANT: O, Sultan, is it wise, to take another man's wife?

SULTAN: What do you mean, is it wise? I ordered it, did I not?

SERVANT: Exactly. (he means that the Sultan is foolish)

SULTAN: Exactly. (he means that everything he says or orders is wise) Begone!

SERVANT: I go, O Sultan, as you command.

(Servant fetches Akello, and crosses stage to Poor Man and Wangari. As he is crossing, Poor Man continues telling his story)

POOR MAN: (to Wangari) The buffalo said "I am lost, I don't know how to get out of here." The lark said "I can show you the way."

SERVANT: (Interrupting) (to Poor Man) You!

POOR MAN: (very frightened) Yes.

SERVANT: The Sultan commands you to fatten up his wife!

POOR MAN: (uneasily) But, I haven't enough food to support two wives...

SERVANT: Your wife will return with me to the palace!

(Poor Man and Wangari immediately embrace)

POOR MAN: (angry, and terrified) The Sultan takes my wife?

SERVANT: I told him it wasn't a good idea.

POOR MAN: (angry, terribly sad) Such a Sultan will come to a bad end!

SERVANT: (very loudly) Watch what you say, if you want to live. (To Wangari) Now you come with me!

WANGARI: (piteously) My precious husband!

POOR MAN: What shall we do? (turns to Akello, speaking to Wangari) What shall I do with her? Tell me! Do you want me to hate her? (turns back to Wangari)(in agony) (crying) I love you...

WANGARI: No! Don't hate her! Love her! Treat her well! Tell her your stories. That's the only way to make her well. Make her healthy, fatten her up. It's the only way for me to return to you!

SERVANT: Enough nonsense! (To Wangari) Come with me. (To Poor Man) Make her well! The Sultan commands you.

(Servant, pulling Wangari, exits stage left) (Poor Man takes Akello's arm)

POOR MAN: (still very sad, but kindly) Come, you poor skinny child. Come with me to my poor house and let's make you well.

(Poor Man and Akello exit stage right)

End of Scene 5

Scene 6

(6 months later)

(Poor Man and Akello enter together stage right and sit on the floor. They are carrying bowls. Akello is laughing and happy again)

AKELLO: Are these the same stories you used to tell your wife?

POOR MAN: No, I told her different stories. These are specially for you.

AKELLO: You are so kind. You are a lovely man.

POOR MAN: But not generous, I'm afraid. I have nothing to give. Just some porridge. (indicates his bowl)

AKELLO: Wangari was right, you know. "Meat of the tongue" - that's what a woman needs.

POOR MAN: I am glad that I can make you happy.

AKELLO: I would love to be your wife.

POOR MAN: Thank you, dear Akello. But you know that I am too poor to have two wives. Also, you do belong to the Sultan.

AKELLO: For now I will enjoy what I have.

POOR MAN: That is a good idea.

(Wangari enters stage left. She is very weak and lifeless. She flops down on the couch)

WANGARI: This is an awful place. The Sultan is so boring!

(Sultan and Servant enter)

SULTAN: It has been 6 months since I sent my wife... (pauses)

SERVANT: Akello.

SULTAN: Right. Since I sent her out for fattening. What is the news?

SERVANT: The news is very good, O Sultan. Akello is fat and happy and alive again.

SULTAN: Very good. Go fetch her back.

SERVANT: Yes, O Sultan. And what about Wangari?


SERVANT: (pointing to Wangari) Her. The poor man's wife.

SULTAN: Oh, yes. Her. Take her back.

WANGARI: Yes! (leaps up from the couch, ready to go)

SERVANT: (to Wangari) Are you ready?

WANGARI: I've been ready to leave since before I got here.

SERVANT: Then, let's go!

(Servant and Wangari cross to Poor Man and Akello)

SERVANT: (Loudly) I come on the business of the Sultan and command you to attend!

(Poor Man and Akello leap up and stand at attention, full of fear)

(Poor Man sees Wangari, rushes over to Wangari, embraces her)

POOR MAN: My darling wife! You have returned. But you are so pale, and skinny! What has he done to you?

WANGARI: (smiling wanly) Not enough stories, my sweet.

POOR MAN: Meat of the tongue?

WANGARI: Indeed.

POOR MAN: You know, this will be a good story itself.

WANGARI: Let's just make sure it has a good ending.

SERVANT: (To Poor Man and Wangari) All right, enough of the mushy stuff. (To Akello) Come back to the palace at once!

AKELLO: I don't want to go!

SERVANT: You have no choice. Come!


SERVANT: (surprised) What, you want me to leave her here? Aren't you jealous?

WANGARI: I just want her to live. You know how it is there. If she goes back to the Sultan, she'll get all skinny again, like she was before and like I am now, and she'll pine away, and die.

SERVANT: We have no choice. We must obey the Sultan.

WANGARI: Did the Sultan say you must come back alone?

No, he just said to bring back Akello.

AKELLO: What, he remembered my name for once?

SERVANT: Not exactly.

AKELLO: That figures.

WANGARI: Let's all go back together.

SERVANT: Well, the Sultan did not forbid it...

POOR MAN: Wangari, what will we do there?

WANGARI: We will tell him how to keep Akello fat and happy and well. We will tell him what "meat of the tongue" really means.

AKELLO: I don't want to leave here!

WANGARI: Akello, you are always welcome to visit. But the palace is your home.

AKELLO: (touching Poor Man, talking to Wangari) He is such a good man!

WANGARI: Do you love him?

AKELLO: Of course I do.

WANGARI: Imagine how much more I love him, who have been his wife for many years.

AKELLO: This is your only chance to come back to him.


AKELLO: Okay. I will go back.

SERVANT: Enough! Let's go, everyone! No time to lose.

(Servant leads them all, they cross stage left, to Sultan)

SERVANT: O Sultan, I have done as you commanded. Here is your wife, Akello!

SULTAN: Why did you bring these poor people into my palace?

AKELLO: Please, O Sultan! Listen to what they have to say!

POOR MAN: Yes, please, sultan.

AKELLO and WANGARI: (together) We beg you!

SULTAN: Hmmm... Women begging. I like it.

POOR MAN and SERVANT: (aside) (together) Jerk!

SULTAN: You may beg. Proceed.

POOR MAN: O Sultan, we come to tell you the secret of the "meat of the tongue."

SULTAN: Big deal. You told me once. It didn't work.

POOR MAN: That is because I explained poorly, O Sultan. Remember, I am a poor man.

SULTAN: You may proceed.

POOR MAN: "Meat of the tongue" does not mean the tongues of animals, O Sultan.

SULTAN: What does it mean, then?

AKELLO: Stories!

WANGARI: Poetry!

AKELLO: Words of love!

SULTAN: What is all that? I don't understand.

POOR MAN: Neither did I at first. It just takes time.

SULTAN: How much time? What am I supposed to do?

POOR MAN: It takes one hour each day. You start with this book. (Poor Man hands Sultan the book of Rumi poetry). Read her these poems, slowly, every night.

SULTAN: That will get boring.

POOR MAN: No, it will not. You will come to love it, and you will find many more in your excellent library.

SULTAN: I don't have the time. I'm busy.

SERVANT: O Sultan?


SERVANT: This really is the only way to keep your wife fat, beautiful, and alive.

SULTAN: Really?

ALL EXCEPT SULTAN: (together) Yes!

SULTAN: Then I must do it. It looks so bad to have a skinny wife.

AKELLO: Or one that pines and dies.

SULTAN: Right.

(Pause while Sultan finds a poem)

(Sultan faces Akello and looks directly into her eyes)

SULTAN: (to Akello) Akello.

AKELLO: Right.

SULTAN: (reading)

O lovers, lovers it is time
to set out from the world.
I hear a drum in my soul's ear
coming from the depths of the stars.

(Sultan pauses, and looks again at Akello)

SULTAN: (to Akello) How am I doing?

AKELLO: Just fine.

POOR MAN: O Sultan, it is time for us to be gone.

SULTAN: Yes. You may leave.

AKELLO: May they also return?

SULTAN: Yes. From time to time they may visit.

POOR MAN, WANGARI, and AKELLO: (together) Thank you, O Sultan!

SERVANT: Come with me.

(Servant leads Poor Man and Wangari offstage)

SULTAN: (to Akello) Now. Where were we?



Sultan (male)
Akello (female)
Poor Man (male)
Wangari (female)
Sultan's servant (male or female)


The Sultan's palace
The Poor Man's house

All scenes take place on the same set. The Sultan's palace is at far stage left, the Poor Man's house is at far stage right. You may use backdrops instead of sets; even a fancy hanging for the Sultan's palace, plus something ragged for the Poor Man's house, will do. Or you may use no sets at all; just an empty stage.


Some furniture for the Sultan's palace
(no furniture for the Poor Man's house - all sitting and lying is on the floor)
2 bowls for porridge
A book (if you want, you may write "RUMI" on the cover)


The Sultan says Akello's name only once, at the very end of the play.

Neither of the wives say their husband's names.

"Akello" is pronounced "ah-KELL-oh."

"Wangari" is pronounced "wahn-GAR-ee" ("gar" rhymes with "car").

Almost all of scene 5, and the first part of scene 6, consist of separate dialogs being carried out on the same stage. The two halves of the stage don't communicate with each other at all; they just take turns.


This folk tale from Kenya has many variations. Sometimes the poor man is a cobbler, sometimes a butcher, and sometimes just a "poor man." Sometimes, instead of a Sultan, there is just a "rich man."

In none of the variations that I found do either of the wives actually speak. There is just one reference to a wife communicating an opinion; when it is time for the Queen to leave the poor man and go back to the palace, she doesn't want to go. This script departs (radically) from that tradition in order to suit Western audiences, and in order to give female actors some lines.

"Akello," "Akeyo," and "Wangari" are girls'/womens' names from Kenya. In the traditional Kenyan stories, no names are mentioned.

The word "sultan" comes from the Arabic word "sultAn." Islam has been in Kenya for about 1300 years, and today, about 5 million, or 20%, of Kenyans are Muslim. Parallel to and coexisting with the civil legal system in Kenya, there is an Islamic court and legal system as well. Kenyan Muslims still follow Islamic marriage law today, though they may choose civil marriage law instead.

Kenyans, when addressing or referring to the Sultan, would use the (Ki)Swahili word "mfalume," but "Sultan" is easier for English-speakers to pronounce.

Rumi (1207-1273) was a Persian jurist, theologian, teacher of Sufism, and famous mystical Sufi poet. His poetry was well known in the Muslim world.

Here is the entire poem by Rumi:


O lovers, lovers it is time
to set out from the world.
I hear a drum in my soul's ear
coming from the depths of the stars.

Our camel driver is at work;
readying the caravan.
He asks that we forgive his disturbance,
He asks why we travelers are asleep.

Everywhere the murmur of departure;
the stars, like candles
thrust at us from behind blue veils,
and as if to make the invisible plain,
a wondrous people have come forth.




Leo Heska


Many versions of a traditional story from Kenya

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