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Home :  African Legends :  The Salt Trader's Justice

The Salt Trader's Justice

Ancient Egypt Legend

People in power...nothing but trouble! Give a man an office or title and watch him make a misery of people's lives! That's the way it's always been, ever since the sun first rose! But sometimes that misery comes home to roost, even if it takes a while. Listen to the story of the humble sekhti, a peasant who lived by trading salt. He didn't go out looking for trouble, but just like the rest of us, he found it anyway.

The sekhti was a kind, good-natured man who worked as hard as anyone ever did. He lived in a country where salt was found, and every morning he would load up his donkey with baskets of salt on either side. He would drive the donkey over many roads to a place where the salt could be traded. The trading wasn't rich, but by working long, hard day, the sekhti was able to provide for his family.

His daily route brought him along a narrow path, which ran between a canal and wheatfield at the edge of a great estate. The estate was run for its owner by a servant named Tehuti-nekht. Although he was only the overseer of the land, Tehuti-nekht puffed himself up, and had such a self-important attitude that anyone who didn't know any better would have thought him the master of the whole Nile valley.

He saw the sekhti driving his donkey, and greedy Tehuti-nekht said to himself: "Every day he comes along here, and I haven't gotten a thing from him yet!" Even though the sekhti had almost nothing in the world, Tehuti-nekht decided to take what he could get. He threw his cloak down completely across the path: one end lay in the water of the canal, the other end lay in the wheatfield.

Along came the sekhti, and what could he do? He started to drive his donkey over the cloak. "Just hold on, there!" cried Tehuti-nekht. "You're not going to walk that beast over my cloak, are you?" The sekhti could see that the man was someone of importance, so he answered, "I'll try to go around." But as he turned the donkey toward the field, Tehuti-nekht cried again:
"What, you'll trample the wheat instead?"

The sekhti tried to keep his temper." But the cloak is blocking the path, my lord. If I may not drive him over the cloak, and I may not take him around it, I suppose I'll have to turn him back, unless your lordship, in his wisdom, decides to remove the cloak."

Tehuti-nekht pretended great outrage. "The cloak shall lie there as long as I please; I'll not be dictated to by a donkey driver! As for the question of going back..." Unfortunately, the donkey chose that moment to eat a mouthful of the new, green wheat. "Thief!" roared Tehuti-nekht. "That's the last straw!" And he ordered his servants to seize the donkey. The sekhti pleaded and apologized and begged, but Tehuti-nekht ordered him thrown into the canal. The sekhti finally lost his patience. Sputtering and soaked in the muddy water, he cried out as Tehuti-nekht departed with the donkey:

"You have no right to abuse me like this! I am only a poor trader in salt, but I will have justice! I will see justice done!" The arrogant overseer didn't answer, but the sekhti suffered a harsh beating at the hands of the overseer's servants.

The owner of the lands where all this happened was a powerful judge at the court of Pharaoh, Lord Steward Meruitensa. Meruitensa had a reputation in those parts as being a harsh judge of people's misdoings. The sekhti had heard stories of terrible punishments given to robbers, and this gave the poor man a measure of hope. He decided to travel to Meruitensa's court, and seek an order for the return of his donkey.

But when he came to Meruitensa's court, he found it overflowing with people bringing cases. The halls and stairs and streets out front were filled with people who wanted to see the judge. It seemed like every person there had a huge list of wrongs that needed to be righted. "Surely," thought the sekhti, "things in Egypt can't be all this bad?" In fact, things in Egypt were not all that good, but the sekhti discovered that many complainers were lying. Sometimes they were little lies, to tilt the case the liar's way, but the sekhti also met people who were telling total whoppers.

The sight distressed the poor salt trader greatly. "But if everyone stands in court and lies, how will an honest man ever be believed?" Over and over he asked this question. "It all must come down to the wisdom of the judge, Meruitensa."

But one didn't speak to the judge directly. There were all sorts of people whom he had to see first: advisors and courtiers and heaven only knew what. Some of them didn't seem at all interested, and it wasn't easy for the sekhti to keep repeating the story. But he wanted justice, he needed his donkey, and he kept his faith in the wisdom of the judge.

Finally, he got his day in court. But as he waiting for his turn to come, the sekhti heard a man speak who he knew was not a liar. As the man addressed the court, he kept on looking at his shoes; Lord Meruitensa, had to tell him more than once to speak up. When the judgment came, it came against the man and he had to leave the court with nothing.

The sekhti thought, "I must speak well. It isn't enough to trust the judge's wisdom." And so when his time came to speak, he held up his head and made his case clearly. He explained about the overseer, and the cloak on the path. He told about the loss of his donkey, which he needed to work, and about the beating he had recieved from the overseers servants. One good thing about having told his story so many times was that now he was able to tell it well.

The Lord Steward did not judge right away, but asked the sekhti to return the next day. That evening Meruitensa said to Pharaoh: "A sekhti was in my court today, and I don't know what to do with his case. He complained against one of my own servants, and normally that would make me angry. But the sekhti spoke very well for himself, and that has made him harder to dismiss. There are so many people who come telling whoppers; I can't decide if this man lying or not."

Pharaoh said: "You must test him, then. But make sure his family is provided for. The man has come complaining, and he should expect trials, but his wife and children shouldn't have to suffer." So the Meruitensa provided for the family, but never let them know who was doing it.

The next day when the sekhti returned, the Lord Steward's guards ejected him from court. They were not very gentle, and instead of justice, the sekhti came out of the hall with bruises. The next day the sekhti came back again, pouring out his protest before the judge's seat. Again, the Lord Steward's guards ejected him, again with many and many a bruise. The third day the sekhti came, and the fourth. Each time he suffered at the hands of the guards.

But the sekhti believed that his cause was just. "Even if a man is powerful and great, he should not be allowed to rob the poor. I will go tomorrow and the day after that, and I will live to see justice done." He went back a fifth day, a sixth, and a seventh; the guards ejected him every time.

When they'd thrown him out for the eighth straight day, the sekhti was nearing the point of despair. He couldn't work without his donkey, and if he couldn't work, then how could he eat? He resolved he would seek justice one last time and, if it failed, he would give up hope.

But on the ninth day, when the sekhti entered the court, Meruitensa was finally convinced. "A liar would not have so much determination," he thought. Standing up in front of the court, the Lord Steward declared that his own servant, Tehuti-nekht the overseer, would be stripped of his title, position, and power. These would be given instead to the sekhti, who had proven his devotion to the ideal of justice.

The sekhti came to Meruitensa's service, and tried not to grow arrogant, as Tehuti-nekht had done. He tried not to see himself as being over other men, but as being together with them under justice. His reputation for fairness grew, and in time he became advisor to Pharaoh himself. And the donkey, who had been the cause of it all, ate grass in Pharaoh's pasture to a ripe old age.

Timothy Bush

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