Oral Literature: Elephant, Hippopotamus and Spider

Once upon a time, long ago, there was a terrible famine. The crops had failed and there was no food to be had on either land or water. Spider and his family had finished their store of food and were beginning to feel the first pangs of starvation.

One day Spider went to see Elephant and said, “I wish you a long life. Sarkin Ruwa, the Hippopotamus, has asked me to visit you. He says that if you let him have one hundred baskets of corn now, he will give you a fine, black bull when harvest comes round. But Hippo insists that this agreement is to be just between the two of you great ones and that no one else must hear of it”.

“Fair enough”, replied Elephant and he gave orders for one hundred baskets of corn to be brought out. The young elephants picked them up and carried them to the water’s edge.

“Put them down here”, said Spider. “You have done more than your fair share of the work and can go home now. I will get Hippopotamus to send his youngsters to collect the corn. It will be quite alright here – no one else will take it”.

As soon as the young elephants had gone, Spider called his family and together they carried the corn to their home and stored it away. The next morning Spider went to the river’s edge and down into the water at the bottom of the river. He made his way to Hippopotamus’ dwellings, passed all his subjects, and entered the private rooms. Here Spider bowed deeply to Hippopotamus and said, “I wish the Chief a long life”.

“Well, Gizo, where have you come from and what brings you here?”
asked Hippopotamus. “I come to act as a go-between”, said Spider. “Sarkin Tudu, the Elephant, has sent me with a message for you. He wishes me to tell you that he has plenty of corn for making meal, but has nothing tasty to eat with it. So he wants you to let him have one hundred baskets of fish now and when harvest time comes, he will give you a fine black bull”. “That seems a fair bargain!” said Hippopotamus.

“He also says that this is an agreement just between you two great ones,” added Spider, “and that you must on no account tell anyone else about it”. “Alright”, said Hippopotamus, and with that he gave orders for all one hundred baskets of fish to be collected. The young hippopotamuses brought them up to the river bank. “You can go now”, said Spider. “I will call the young elephants to collect them and take them to Elephant’s home”.

“But if we leave them here”, said one of the young hippos, “what happens if somebody else comes and takes them?” “Do not worry about that”, said Spider. “No one will touch them here. But we simply can’t have the young men of two different chiefs congregating in the same place. If you were to stay here until the young elephants turned up, goodness knows what bickering there would be between you. And then perhaps you would set your chiefs against each other”.

“Truly”, Spider continued, “they say it is young men who eat the beans, but the elders who get the bellyache! That is true enough!” said the eldest of the young hippos. “We better go home”.

When they had gone, Spider called his family again and together they picked up the fish and carried it home, dried it in the sun, and stored it away. Now Spider and his family had no more worries about food. From then until harvest time, Spider kept all his family busy plaiting a rope which was very, very long and very, very strong.

Then one day, after the harvest had been gathered and after the brush had been burnt in readiness for the next sowing, Elephant remembered the agreement and said, “Go and fetch Spider”. And so Spider was brought in front of Elephant.

“Well, Gizo!” said Elephant. “Is Hippopotamus doing anything about the agreement you made between us?”. “I am sure that you need not worry”, said Spider. “I will go right away and see him about it and be back the day after tomorrow”.

So Spider went off and was away for three days. What he really did though was to go to the river bank where he marked out an enormous tree and tied the middle part of his rope around the trunk. Then he came back to Elephant, bringing with him one end of the rope and said, “Here is the tethering rope of the big, black bull which Hippopotamus is giving you. At daybreak tomorrow they will bring him out of the water and then as soon as you see the leaves of that tree over there shaking, your young elephants are to pull on the rope.” “So that is how it is to be”, said Elephant. “Yes!” said Spider.

After that, Spider went to see Hippopotamus, taking with him the other end of the rope. “Elephant has given me a big, black bull to bring to you”, he said, “but I am not strong enough to hold him so I have left him tied up to a tree on the bank. Here is the other end of the tethering rope. You had better send out your young hippos at daybreak to pull him in, but look out, for he is very wild and very strong”. >”Alright”, said Hippopotamus, “we will do that”.

The next morning, Elephant had all his young males lined up holding the rope and ready to pull. As soon as the young hippos began to pull on the rope, the tree shook as if it was coming out by the roots and at that, all the young elephants began hauling as well. It went on like that all day with the elephants pulling at one end and the hippos pulling at the other end. If the elephants gained any ground, the hippos pulled harder onto the rope and if the hippos gained any ground, the elephants did the same. They pulled and they tugged and they tugged and they pulled and it was not till nightfall that the two teams stopped to lie down and rest.

At daybreak the next morning, they all got up and started pulling again, the elephants at one end and the hippos at the other. Again the two teams tugged and hauled. At last, when it was midday, Hippopotamus told his young hippos to stop. “Go and ask Elephant”, said their bewildered chief, “what kind of bull is this that he has given me?”.

At the same time, Elephant was telling the young elephants to stop pulling and go and ask Hippopotamus what kind of bull he had given him. So both parties of young males set off and it so happened that they met up. “Where are you all off to?” asked the young elephants.

“We have been sent to speak to the old Elephant”, explained the young hippos, “and ask what kind of bull it is that he has given our chief in settlement for one hundred baskets of fish. We have been pulling on the creature’s rope ill day yesterday and since daybreak today, and we are utterly worn out!”.

“But that is impossible!” exclaimed the young elephants. “We have been sent to speak to the old Hippopotamus to ask him what kind of bull it is that he has given our chief in settlement for the one hundred baskets of corn. He promised us a bull and we have been pulling at its rope all yesterday and since daybreak today, until there is no strength left in us!”. The two parties of youngsters argued like this for some time and things nearly came to blows. At last they realised that the old Elephant and the old Hippopotamus had not met when they had made the agreement, and that it was Spider who had been the go-between. They realised that it was Spider who had made away with the one hundred baskets of corn and the one hundred baskets of fish.

“Well, if that is how things are”, they all decided, “we had better go back and tell our chiefs that there is no bull here and it looks like one of Spider’s tricks!”. So both parties went back and told what had happened and what they guessed Spider had been up to.

“But I do not owe Hippopotamus anything”, protested Elephant when he heard the news. “It is he who is in debt to me!” “I am not in debt to Elephant”,
said Hippopotamus, “it is the other way round!”.

But at last the old Elephant and the old Hippopotamus realised that Spider had tricked them and had taken all their food. Hippopotamus accordingly sent a message to Elephant to say that they must not be angry with each other. “After all”, Hippopotamus said, “we are among the great ones of the world and if we fall out, the quarrel will not easily be repaired. Instead it would be as well for us to lie in wait and catch Spider and teach him a lesson he will never forget for tricking us out of so much food!”.

Elephant agreed with the wisdom of this and from then on both of them starting hunting for Spider. But neither Elephant nor Hippopotamus were able to find him anywhere because Spider was so good at hiding in many secret places. From that day on, Spider has grown quite thin as he is always hiding from the vengeance of Elephant and Hippopotamus!

– Folktales from Hausa of West Africa

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