Oral Literature: Tortoise And How He Saved Elephant’s Land

Once, long ago, the rains were very late and the countryside was parched and barren. Everyone’s cattle were starved and thin, having to make do with licking the damp mud of the nearby river bed, for it was the only moisture to sustain them.

“The Spirit of the River is angry with us for some wrongdoing”, muttered the elders as they sat in council. “Maybe an offering would appease the spirit so that he will once again bring forth water for our beasts and ourselves to drink”.

Dinga, a young herd boy, overheard the elders at their council at noon the next day, as his father’s scrawny beasts licked the mud, he said, “Oh, Spirit of the River, I will give you my father’s best black ox today. He will be willingly given to you if you release the water for all to drink”.

Nothing happened.

“Maybe the red bull would please you more? Here is one, the best in all the land. Take the red bull and fill the pool for all to drink”.

Still, no water was released from the river bed. In desperation, Dinga offered Mhlope, the White One, his father’s favourite milk cow, but the cracks in the hard, dry river bed seemed to widen, in a smile at the refusal of his bribe.

“I have a little sister at my father’s kraal. A laughing, fat and joyful child. I would even give her up if you would quench the thirst of all of us”.

As he spoke these words, the water bubbled up, cool and crystal clear, and soon the pool was full for all to drink. When his father’s cattle had had their fill, Dinga drove them home. He then took his little sister, Nompofo, telling her that they would play beneath the shady trees that lined the river. After a while Nompofo fell into a deep, contented sleep and Dinga stole away, having fulfilled his bargain with the Spirit of the River.

When Nompofo awoke, she found herself alone and was scared. At this moment, the Spirit of the River rose up out of the now running stream to claim his offering. Nompofo was so terrified at the sight of such a strange being that she screamed and ran as fast as her fat little legs would carry her.

She wandered through the hills for a long time, but was soon lost, straying further from her home with each step. Finally, as night approached, she found a well kept field of mabele corn.
Ah, she thought, someone must live here. But she was wrong, for she had wandered far from her own chief’s land into the adjoining Kingdom of the Animals. The field of corn belonged to Ndlovu, the elephant, King of the Animals.

Nompofo was hungry so she gathered some of the ripe mabele corn, made a fire, and cooked a filling meal. She then covered herself with branches and grass for warmth and fell asleep. Early next morning, Nompofo was woken by talking and laughing nearby. Peeping from her little hideout, she saw the elephant’s animal servants collecting ripe mabele for their king’s breakfast. Not long after she heard one of the animals say, “Alert! Alert! There is danger close at hand. Can you not smell a foreign scent in the air?”

All the animals put their noses in the air and sniffed. Then another one shouted, “A thief has stolen our lord Ndlovu’s grain. See where the ripe fruit has been torn down!”. They all stamped their feet in alarm and turned this way and that, but none of them could see the thief.

As they neared the thicket where Nompofo lay hidden, she blew her smouldering fire into a blaze and set the mabele field alight to drive the animals away. In panic the beasts fled before the flames to report the disaster to Ndlovu, calling out, “My lord, my lord, a thief is in your fields. My lord, my lord, your fields have been set ablaze!”

Ndlovu was very angry at being disturbed at such an early hour, especially as his servants had returned from the fields empty’ handed. No breakfast for the king! So Ndlovu called to Jackal, “You who sing to the moon, go and kill this creature who dares to spoil my crops!”

Unable to avoid a direct command, Mpungushe, the jackal, unwillingly returned to the field, dragging his tail along the ground and nervously looking over his shoulder. On reaching the lands, he went from one thicket to the next, until finally he came to the bushes where Nompofo was hiding.

“I am Mpungushe”, he called out nervously, “the bold and cunning Mpungushe. Come out and let me kill you!”

Nompofo made her voice as deep and fierce as she could and replied, “Why should I fear one as insignificant as you? I am Nompofo! It is well-known that my horns are branched like a tree with ten sharp points to run you through. Ten of such as you would fit comfortably in my mouth. Get ready for I am coming for you!”

The jackal gave a piercing yelp and, with his bushy tail clamped firmly between his legs, bolted in terror back to Ndlovu’s kraal without once glancing back.

“My lord, my lord!” he cried. A wicked giant is in your lands. I saw him. He is taller than the trees. “Even you, oh Mighty One, would be crushed beneath his foot!”

Silence fell on the animals as the elephant flapped his huge ears back and forth in obvious distress. At last one animal spoke, “It would take more than a giant to crush my shell”, boasted Fudu the tortoise. “I will rid you of your enemy!”

Fudu swaggered down the path towards the lands; his show of bravery impressed all the animals at the gathering, even the mighty Ndlovu.

Nompofo was by now getting very scared and close to tears. Then she heard Fudu thudding down towards her, making as much noise and clatter as he possibly could with his heavy shell. Fudu sang loudly, “I am the son of my father. I am the son of my father!”

Nompofo could hide her fear no longer and ran screaming from her hiding place and made off into the forest. At this sight, Fudu stopped in his tracks and laughed and laughed and laughed.

At long last, he thought, Mpungushe the jackal had shown his true colours – the coward of the veld, frightened of a small child who had lost her way! Fudu decided, however, to keep this knowledge to himself so as not to belittle his own daring. He plodded back to Ndlovu’s kraal, singing loudly all the while, “I am the son of my father. The mighty giant fled from the field at the sight of the brave and bold Fudu! I am truly the son of my father!”

There was great rejoicing in the kraal of Ndlovu at Fudu’s victory over such a fearsome enemy. In his gratitude the elephant made tortoise his chief counsellor while Mpungushe was banished from the land for his cowardice. Since that day Jackal has never had the courage to hunt for himself, but follows the lion, contenting himself with the scraps Lion leaves behind and forever crying at the moon for his cruel fate!

– A Zulu story – South Africa

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