[From Folk Stories from Southern Nigeria by Elphinstone Dayrell, 1910. See item #67 in the Bibliography.]

Many years ago there was a great famine throughout the land, and all the people were starving. The yam crop had failed entirely, the plantains did not bear any fruit, the peanuts were all shriveled up, and the corn never came to a head; even the palm-oil nuts did not ripen, and the peppers and okra also gave out.

The leopard, however, who lived entirely on meat, did not care for any of these things, and although some of the animals who lived on corn and the growing crops began to get rather skinny, he did not mind very much. In order to save himself trouble, as everybody was complaining of the famine, he called a meeting of all the animals and told them that, as they all knew, he was very powerful and must have food; that the famine did not affect him, as he only lived on flesh; and that as there were plenty of animals about, he did not intend to starve. He then told all the animals present at the meeting that if they did not wish to be killed themselves, they must bring their grandmothers to him for food, and when they were finished, he would feed off their mothers. The animals might bring their grandmothers in succession and he would take them in their turn so that, as there were many different animals, it would probably be some time before their mothers were eaten, by which time it was possible that the famine would be over. But in any case, he warned them that he was determined to have sufficient food for himself, and that if the grandmothers or mothers were not forthcoming, he would turn upon the young people themselves and kill and eat them.

This, of course, the young generation who had attended the meeting did not appreciate and, in order to save their own skins, they agreed to supply the leopard with his daily meal.

The first to appear with his aged grandmother was the squirrel. The grandmother was a poor decrepit old thing with a mangy tail, and the leopard swallowed her at one gulp and then looked round for more. In an angry voice he growled out, “This is not the proper food for me; I must have more at once.”

Then a bush cat pushed his old grandmother in front of the leopard, but he snarled at her and said, “Take the nasty old thing away; I want some sweet food.”

It was then the turn of a bushbuck and, after a great deal of hesitation, a wretchedly poor and thin old doe tottered and fell in front of the leopard, who immediately despatched her, and although the meal was very unsatisfactory, he declared that his appetite was appeased for that day.

The next day a few more animals brought their old grandmothers, until at last it became the tortoise’s turn but, being very cunning, he produced witnesses to prove that his grandmother was dead, so the leopard excused him.

After a few days all the animals’ grandmothers were exhausted, and it became the turn of the mothers to supply food for the ravenous leopard. Now although most of the young animals did not mind getting rid of their grandmothers, whom they had scarcely even known, many of them had very strong objections to providing their mothers, of whom they were very fond, as food for the leopard. Amongst the strongest objectors were the squirrel and the tortoise.

The tortoise, who had thought the whole thing out, was aware that, as everyone knew that his mother was alive (she being rather an amiable old person and friendly with all-comers), the same excuse would not avail him a second time. He therefore told his mother to climb up a palm tree and that he would provide her with food until the famine was over. He instructed her to let down a basket every day and said that he would place food in it for her. The tortoise made the basket for his mother, and attached it to a long string of tie-tie. The string was so strong that she could haul her son up whenever he wished to visit her.

All went well for some days as the tortoise used to go at daylight to the bottom of the tree where his mother lived and place her food in the basket; then the old lady would pull the basket up and have her food, and the tortoise would depart on his daily round in his usual leisurely manner.

In the meantime, the leopard had to have his daily food, and the squirrel’s turn came first after the grandmothers had been finished, so he was forced to produce his mother for the leopard to eat as he was a poor, weak thing and not possessed of any cunning. The squirrel was, however, very fond of his mother, and when she had been eaten, he remembered that the tortoise had not produced his grandmother for the leopard’s food. He therefore determined to set a watch on the movements of the tortoise.

The very next morning, while he was gathering nuts, he saw the tortoise walking very slowly through the bush and, being high up in the trees and able to travel very fast, the squirrel had no difficulty in keeping the tortoise in sight without being noticed. When the tortoise arrived at the foot of the tree where his mother lived, he placed the food in the basket which his mother had let down already by the tie-tie and, having got into the basket and given a pull at the string to signify that everything was right, he was hauled up and, after a time, was let down again in the basket. The squirrel was watching all the time and, directly after the tortoise had gone, he jumped from branch to branch of the trees and very soon arrived at the place where the leopard was snoozing.

When the leopard woke up, the squirrel said, “You have eaten my grandmother and my mother, but the tortoise has not provided any food for you. It is now his turn, and he has hidden his mother away in a tree.”

At this the leopard was very angry and told the squirrel to lead him at once to the tree where the tortoise’s mother lived. But the squirrel said, “The tortoise only goes at daylight when his mother lets down a basket, so if you go in the morning early, she will pull you up, and you can then kill her.”

To this the leopard agreed, and the next morning the squirrel came at cockcrow and led the leopard to the tree where the tortoise’s mother was hidden. The old lady had already let down the basket for her daily supply of food, and the leopard got into it and gave the line a pull but, except a few small jerks, nothing happened, as the old mother tortoise was not strong enough to pull a heavy leopard off the ground.

When the leopard saw that he was not going to be pulled up, he scrambled up the tree, being an expert climber. When he got to the top, he found the poor old tortoise whose shell was so tough that he thought she was not worth eating, so he threw her down on to the ground in a violent temper, and then he came down himself and went home.

Shortly after this, the tortoise arrived at the tree and, finding the basket on the ground, he gave his usual tug at it, but there was no answer. He then looked about, and after a little time he came upon the broken shell of his poor old mother, who by this time was quite dead. The tortoise knew at once that the leopard had killed his mother, and he made up his mind that for the future he would live alone and have nothing to do with the other animals.


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A Reader's Guide to African Folktales at the Internet Archive Copyright © 2022 by Laura Gibbs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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