Tortoise Finds Water

Tortoise Finds Water

The land was dry. There was no water anywhere. Spring came and went but no rain fell. “We will have a very wet summer,” some said, but summer was dry and very, very hot.  By the beginning of winter the Mutale River had dried up, and if you looked down the village well in the middle of the day, you could not even glimpse water. All the animals were suffering; the snakes, tortoises, elephants and lions. In the bush the impala, kudu, duikers, porcupines and hares were panting for water. In the jackal-berry tree the guinea fowl, crows and baboons sat quiet, their throats too dry to screech or chatter.

King Lion called everybody to attend a meeting. All the animals arrived and they all agreed that during such a time they should forget all grievances and stand together.  ”We will dig for water in the dry riverbed. Mr Elephant, you will start, you are the strongest of all the animals. You must dig and save our lives.”

Mr Elephant dug and dug and dug. “No, Mr Elephant, this will not do. Look, the hole you are making is far too wide, you’ll never find water this way,” King Lion said.

Mr Kudu started digging. He dug and dug and dug but his hooves were so sharp, the soft river sand just rolled back into the hole.

“No, Mr Kudu, this won’t work, you are not getting anywhere. Let Mr Baboon try.”

Baboon dug and dug but his mind was clearly somewhere else. Every now and then he would stop and slap one of his children or reprimand his wives.

“No, Mr Baboon, you are not being serious, let someone else try before we all die of thirst.”

Then Impala tried, Duiker also tried, as did Hare, Guinea Fowl and Crow. Snake did not try.

At last Tortoise stepped forward. Slowly he started digging. He dug and dug and dug. By then it was late afternoon and the animals were tired and miserable. They sat around watching. Some had fallen asleep. The yellow  moon rose in the east. Some animals were snoring. Others were sighing.

Suddenly there was a splash, splash!

King Lion jumped up, Baboon woke up and so did Kudu and Impala, Elephant and all the animals. They rushed to the water and pushed Tortoise aside. “Get out the way, little one!” They gathered around the hole and drank and drank.

The next morning before daybreak, Tortoise was already clearing the hole that had been trampled by all the animals in their rush to drink. Slowly the hole filled up with clear water. Tortoise stepped into the pool of water and drank and drank.

Just then all the animals arrived back for their early morning drink. ”Get out of the way, Mr Tortoise, see, you are stepping in our drinking water and making it muddy.” They pushed Tortoise aside again.

”Hah! Who found you this water? As far as I can see you’ve all failed. I found the water. Today this water will dry up, all of it!”

The animals laughed and mocked Tortoise. But then, to their utter shock, the water slowly seeped back into the ground, and the hole dried up.

“”Now we are in big trouble,”” King Lion said. “”We’ve insulted Mr Tortoise and now he took the water away. What are we going to do?””

”We must apologise,” Porcupine said. ”Let us beg him to come back. Guinea Fowl, you can talk fast and non-stop, you go.”

Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki,” said Guinea Fowl, ”I’ll try, I’ll try, I’ll try.” And off he went.

The animals waited and waited and waited and by midday, when the sun was burning hot, finally Guinea Fowl arrived back with Tortoise.

King Lion stepped forward. “On behalf of all the animals, I apologise for the way we treated you. It is true you found the water for us. Please bring it back.”

Softly Tortoise sang, “Clear water rise! Clear water splash! Clear water slosh!”

In front of their eyes, even as they held their breath, the water slowly began to seep up into the hollow.

King Lion held back the animals and said, “Mr Tortoise, please have the first drink.”

After Tortoise had had his fill all the animals, in neat order, had their drink.

This is the end of the story

copyright     Dr Ina le Roux


This folktale shows that aggression in conflict is not always the best strategy. The humble tortoise is able to teach proud animals a lesson in humility. The tortoise displays wisdom and magical powers. The folktale makes clear that even in conflict, all members of the family group should be treated with respect, even the youngest and weakest. Continued oppression may even eventually lead to spiritual or magical forces interceding as is evident in the control the tortoise has over the water supply.

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