Why the hippo lives in water

A Tale from Nigeria

A very long time ago, the hippopotamus ruled the land and the water even though the elephant was larger than him. Perhaps, it was his nasty temper, so violent and so unpredictable that made all the animals accept him as their king.

The hippo king had seven wives who were just as mean as he was. Together, they often thought of really cruel jokes to play on others in the jungle. One such was to call all the king’s subjects for a feast at a jungle clearing. While the animals drooled over the feast, the king would not let them eat.

“My dear subjects, not so fast! First, one of you will have to guess my name. If you don’t, I am afraid I have to send you away without dinner!” he said with glee for he knew that none but his wives knew his name.

The king played this joke far too many times, which irritated an old tortoise so much that he decided to find out the king’s name by any which way.

The tortoise observed the royal family’s routine for a week. He realized that after a lunch of grass in the forest, the king always led his wives down a path to a river for a drink of water. Hence, on this path the clever tortoise dug a shallow hole and made himself comfortable inside. As usual, the king walked down the path after lunch. His wives ambled along slowly many meters behind. When they neared the hole, the tortoise raised his shell out of the hole. This sudden popping up of a “stone” tripped one of the wives and she fell against another, who in turn fell on another and so on. In panic, they called out to the king, “Isantim!  Oh, Isantim, help us!”

The tortoise hid a smirk as he quietly crept away into the nearby bushes.

Needless to say that at the next feast, the tortoise revealed the king’s name to all. The king was, of course, quite annoyed. While the animals enjoyed the feast, the king along with his wives went into a lake. They stayed there all day and came out stealthily out at night to feed. The hippo was no longer the king of animals.

People say that even today, the hippos continue to sulk all day in water away from other animals, and come out to forage at night under the cover of darkness.

Published as part of a series titled ‘Folktales of the World (Retold) ’ in Deccan Herald, Student Edition, dt. November 9, 2012


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