How the zebra got his stripes and the baboon his red bottoms


A South African folktale

Believe it or not, a long time ago, the zebra was a pure white animal that roamed the vast continent of Africa. At that time, he behaved very much like Man – being selfish, greedy and acting like a big bully. He also had a nasty temper to match his vile personality. Often, the animals of the plains where the terrible zebra lived, gave him a wide berth. If they spotted him coming, they changed their path just to avoid him. This naturally, left the cantankerous animal with no fights, which made him quite bored.

“There has to be a way to pick up a quarrel with the animals… I have to find a place where they all go to and then find a way to annoy them,” he muttered to himself as he stood all alone on the grassy plains.

Sure enough, he soon thought of a vile plan to trouble others. One morning, before the crack of dawn, the zebra went to a watering hole where the animals came to quench their thirst. Elephant and eland, lion and leopard, antelope and anteater, baboon and boar, giraffe and gnu and birds and butterfly came at least once during the day for a sip of water. In the pale light of dawn, he saw the shadowy figures of animals coming toward the water.

With unrestrained glee, he called out in a loud voice, “Hello, you stupid creatures! Stop right where you are! Listen carefully to what I say – this is my watering-hole; nobody takes even a sip without my permission!”

The animals stood there shocked, unable to do anything. At last the baboon called out, “Okay. Assuming that the water is yours, which of course it is not, may we drink from the pool?”

“Never, never, NEVER!” replied the zebra, spoiling for a fight. This made the baboon furious as he too had a short temper.

“Dear foolish friend, if I were you, I would change my mind. Just imagine what would happen to you if all of us were to come down and attack you,” asked the baboon. This put fear in the heart of the zebra. He quickly picked up a few logs of wood and placed them around himself and lit them.

“Try crossing that!” he called out in a jubilant voice. While the other animals shook in fear at the sight of the fire, the baboon bounded across to the evil animal. “You terrible creature, you and I are going to sort this matter out!”

“Good! Come into this circle of fire and get me!” Without any hesitation, the baboon leaped over the burning logs and landed on the zebra’s back. Then began the most vicious fight of all times that had left a mark on both, which we see even today.

The baboon bit and scratched; the zebra kicked and stomped in fury. They fought for a long time until the baboon was able to push the zebra down on the hot logs, but not before the zebra had managed to give the baboon a hard, vicious kick with his hind leg. The baboon went sailing over the tree tops and fell on the slopes of a rocky mountain. He slid and he tumbled and he rolled and he somersaulted. The hard rocks bruised his bottoms and turned them bright red. The zebra too was punished. His pure white coat now had black stripes left by the red hot logs. In pain and shame, the two slinked away into the forest, never again to bother any other animal.

Published as part of a series titled ‘Folktales of the World (Retold) ’ in Deccan Herald, Student Edition, dt. August 18, 2013


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