At the beginning of World War II, in September 1939, a young white hunter in Kenya Colony who loves the plains, valleys, and cool nights of Kilimanjaro decides to enlist in the Royal Air Force. The young man decides to fly to Nakuru to look at wild animals rather than practicing his turns, and is nearly court-martialled after he decapitates a giraffe with the wing of his plane while distractedly looking at a rare Sable antelope.
Six weeks later the young man embarks on his first cross-country solo flight to Eldoret, but his engine fails and he must make an emergency landing. He walks to a little shack near his plane, and is housed and fed by the old man living in the shack. The old man tells the pilot a strange story, and the pilot writes down the story from his own perspective, casting the old man as a character within the story. After the young man is killed in training, his friend and co-pilot finds the manuscript, and the young man's story begins.
The old man comes out of his door after hearing a loud noise. He listens and hears the noise again, and realizes the sound is a yelping dog in extreme pain. The old man limps toward the shack in which Judson lives, and finds Judson standing over the old man's small white dog. Judson is holding the dog's ear and a large piece of bamboo, and has pummeled the dog, breaking the dog's back. The old man puts down his dog by taking an iron bar and bringing it down on the dog's head, killing the dog instantaneously. He then angrily berates Judson, calling him a "slobbering madman," (6) and Judson tells the old man that he could not stand the sound of the dog licking his paw.
After yelling at Judson, the old man walks to his black cow and begins stroking the cow's back. As the cow mechanically chews its cud, the old man speaks to it quietly "like a person telling a secret to another." (7)
Judson continues his work on the farm while the old man stays inside to escape the heat, only coming outside to sit with his cow under the acacia tree for an hour a day. One day the old man finds Judson standing next to his cow, and Judson reveals that the cow's chewing is bothering him. The old man commands Judson to "get out." (8) At dawn, the old man sits at his window watching Judson begin to milk the cow, when he notices the cow is not producing any milk. The old man accuses Judson of stealing the cow's milk, but Judson denies this.
The old man goes on watch to find the thief, holding a shot gun in his lap. An hour before dawn, his cow is full, and he hears a rustling in the distance as an eight-foot-long mamba about "as thick as a man's arm," (9) glides through the wet grass and begins to gently drink from the cow's udder. The old man watches the black snake and the black cow in the moonlight for half an hour until the snake drinks all of the milk in the cow's udders. The snake then slithers away, leaving a thin dark trail under the man's window.
As the sun rises, Judson wakes up and walks out of his hut towards the cow, realizing the cow again has no milk. The old man lies to Judson, saying he believes a Kikuyu boy is stealing the milk, but he could not shoot the boy before he got away. The following night, the old man sits by the window again, observing the snake and the cow, and the old man begins to laugh. The old man tells Judson the boy was able to steal the milk again, and asks Judson to hide in a trench beside the cow so he can catch the boy. Judson agrees to hide with his stick, but complains that he won't be able to stand the cow chewing all night. The old man tells him that Judson will do as he's "bloody well told" (12).
At night, the old man tells Judson to wait with him in his shack until the cow's udders are full. The old man commands Judson to make some tea, and the old man makes loud sucking noises while drinking his tea. Judson asks the old man to stop the loud noises. The old man asks Judson how many dogs he has killed in his life, and Judson does not answer, instead choosing to pick out all of the tea leaves in his cup and stick them to the back of his hand. As the old man continues pressing on him, Judson eventually admits that he's killed many dogs over the years "because of a noise" (13). The old man asks how Judson kills the dogs, and Judson shares that he's dropped a stone on a sleeping dog's head, but that he didn't have time to kill the old man's dog, only to stop the noise. The old man then asks Judson to get ready outside, in case the thief comes early that night.
Judson lays down in the shallow trench beside the cow as the old man covers him in grass, and only Judson's head peeps out above the ground. The old man tells Judson not to fall asleep, and that he will shoot Judson if he tries to get up from the trench. Judson begins to cry as he can barely stand the cow's crunching, and his crying continues for an hour until the cow stops chewing. The old man asks Judson what he will do once when the thief comes near the cow, and Judson says he doesn't know.
The mamba starts to slide towards the cow, and when the mamba is five feet away from the cow, the old man shouts to Judson to "go and get" (15) the thief. Judson quickly lifts his head as the mamba strikes Judson on the chest. Judson falls down screaming but eventually gets back up and rips at his chest as the old man watches from his window. The poison works almost immediately, and Judson is soon dead.
The mamba slides towards the cow after Judson dies and begins to drink from the cow's udder. The story ends with the old man repeating the phrase, "we don't mind you having his share" (16).
In An African Story, Roald Dahl explores several intersecting characters within a frame story. An African Story begins by introducing the setting. It is September 1939, and the people of England know about the beginning of World War II immediately, while people in more distant places know of the war on a slightly delayed timeline—"a few minutes later," the narrator says. Dahl begins this story with a lighter mood with words like "little" (3) when describing the Tiger Moth planes, and shows the whimsical nature of the young man. This whimsy is juxtaposed with the young man's death, and the story and takes on a darker tone as it leads into the tale of the old man and the black mamba. This frame story hints at some of the changes the young man goes through before his death, as the story he writes about the old man, Judson, and the cow and black mamba deals with themes of revenge, symbiosis, and the restoration of order.
In the story, the old man and Judson are set up as rivals, as the old man expresses his immense rage at Judson's beating of his dog. This beating is nonsensical, as Judson claims that "he can't stand noises like" (6) the ones the dog was making while it licked its paw. Judson's slobbering hints at his brutality, and the Dahl uses free indirect discourse when calling Judson a "creature," taking on the old man's perspective. The story reveals Judson's inhumanity as his immense cruelty, and the pleasure that he takes in killing animals, come to the forefront.
In contrast, the old man observes the peaceful symbiosis between his black cow and the black mamba. Even though the mamba is a venomous snake, it does not hurt the cow, and feeds off of its full udders. This mamba takes Judson's share of milk, and after Judson shares that he once killed a sleeping dog by dropping a stone on its head, the old man asks Judson to go outside and stake out the thief.
In order to exact revenge on Judson, the narrator sets Judson up to be bitten by the mamba. But, the frame story structure shows that in telling this story, the old man relieves a weight that he is carrying, almost like a confession. This suggests that this revenge takes a toll on the old man, and he may feel some remorse. But, the story also suggests that the mamba is significantly less harmful than Judson, and thus seems to deserve Judson's share of milk.
This story also contends with two evils. The old man chooses the lesser of the two evils, since snakes are traditionally associated with the devil and with corruption, but the mamba peacefully takes from the cow and is known to be a very shy animal unless provoked. Judson, on the other hand, is a violent aggressor, asserting his power through violence whenever anything bothers him. Thus, this story also explores the difficulty of choosing between different forces, and the power of revenge in this choice.