An argosy of fables/African fables

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An argosy of fables
Book 4, Kraal and wigwam fables; Part 1, African fables.






THE Hedgehog and the Dog were formerly good friends, and cultivated bananas together. When the bananas were full-grown, the Hedgehog used to go to look at them every day, and when at last they were ripe he invited the Dog to go with him and eat them. When the two friends reached the foot of the banana tree, the Hedgehog tried in vain to reach the bunches of bananas. The Dog, meanwhile, standing on his hind legs, could easily reach up and pluck the fruit. He found them so good that he did not stop until he had eaten all the bananas, without giving a single one to the Hedgehog, regardless of his entreaties.

When the Dog had eaten the last banana the Hedgehog said: "Now let us play a game that I often play with my brothers. You must take a bamboo and sharpen it at both ends; and when it is sharp you must stick it into the ground at the foot of the tree, and then climb the tree and jump down on the stick. The Dog was willing to play this game, and when all was ready he invited the Hedgehog to jump first, and even helped him up the tree, since his friend could not climb alone. The Hedgehog jumped first, straight down onto the bamboo stick,—but thanks to his stiff quills, he was not hurt. Then came the turn of the Dog, and he jumped, and was transfixed by the sharp bamboo. As the Hedgehog departed he called over his shoulder, "Ask your banana skins to help you!"

(Senegal Folk-Tale, from Collection de Contes et Chansons Populaires, Vol. 40.)


A PAIR of Wrens once built their nest in a hedge beside a highway. Soon after the eggs were hatched, a Camel happened to pass that way. The little Wrens saw him, and said to the father bird, when he returned from the fields:

"Oh, papa, a monstrous big animal came by here just now."

The wren stretched out one leg: "As big as that, my children?"

"Oh, papa, much bigger than that!"

The Wren stretched out a leg and a wing: "As big as that, my children?"

"Oh, papa, much bigger."

Finally the Wren spread out both wings and legs: "As big as that, then?"

"Oh, yes, much bigger!"

"That is impossible, my children, for there is no animal bigger than I!"

"Just you wait and you will see for yourself," said the little Wrens.

Presently the Camel came back, browsing along the hedge. The Wren was perched beside his nest; and the Camel, biting off a bunch of leaves, and not seeing the bird, took him in with them. The Wren, however, flew out safe and sound between the Camel's big teeth, and hurried back to his children.

"You are quite right," he said. "The Camel is a monstrous big animal. But I am pretty well satisfied with myself, just the same."

(Kabyle Fable. From Collection de Contes et Chansons Populaires.)


ONCE upon a time the Lion was roaming through the jungle like a mighty chief on his own land. He looked to the right; he looked to the left; he took two steps forward, then stopped, then went forward again. All at once an Ape saw the Lion and began imitating him and making fun of him. The Lion was angry and said:

"Get back to your place, Ape, and scratch yourself, and stop making fun of me or I will make a meal of you."

But the Ape, who is a tricky animal, swung safely onto a high branch, and there continued to make the same movements and take the same steps that the Lion was taking on the ground. And at this the Lion became very angry indeed.

Unluckily for the Ape at the very height of his grimaces and gambols he lost his balance and fell straight between the paws of the Lion, who seized him and was about to make an end of him with one powerful bite, when the idea came to him that it would be pleasanter to eat the Ape in company with a friend. Accordingly he flung his captive into a small cave, the mouth of which he closed with a large stone. After which he set out in search of a fellow-diner.

Once more alone and somewhat recovered from his fright, the Ape's first thought was, "How am I to get away?" So he set to work at the mouth of the cave; but the stone was too heavy to push aside, and too tight a fit for the Ape to squeeze past it. All his efforts were wasted and he was in despair.

All of a sudden, a Wolf chanced to pass that way and heard the Ape howling desperately. The Wolf had lately quarrelled with the Ape and still owed him a grudge, so it pleased him to hear the Ape howling, and he asked, "Why are you making such an outcry?"

The Ape, who was quick-witted, saw that if he failed to trick the Wolf, he had lost his last chance, so he replied, "I am not crying, I am singing."

"Why are you singing?" asked the Wolf.

"To help my digestion, while I am waiting for the Rabbit, who has gone to get some more meat. This morning he and I arranged for a feast together, and we are to continue it all night. We have so much food here that I can eat no more; my stomach is too small. There are heaps of leavings all around me."

The Wolf, who is a born glutton, asked coaxingly, "You wouldn't refuse an old friend like me a share in the feast, would you?"

"No, indeed," answered the Ape, "Come right on into the Rabbit's hole, there is plenty of food for one more. But for fear any others should see us feasting, be careful to make no noise in rolling away the stone that closes the doorway." The Wolf obeyed, and the moment he rolled aside the stone and started to enter the cave, the Ape slipped between his legs and shoved back the stone, leaving the Wolf a prisoner.

Meanwhile the Lion arrived accompanied by his hungry friend. "Well, well!" said he, "So the Ape got out of the cave, after all! Never mind, we will eat the Wolf instead." And while they made their dinner off the Wolf, the clever Ape was dancing and gambolling in the tree-top, overjoyed at his success in tricking both of his enemies.

(Senegambian Fable. From Contes Populaires de la Sénégambie, by I. J. B. Béranger-Ferard. )


A BOAR, hunting for food, met a Chameleon at the foot of a tree. "Hello!" said the Boar, "you act as though you were half dead, dragging yourself along in that lazy way!"

"Don't be so proud of your strength, brother Boar," retorted the Chameleon, "I am a match for you any day!"

"Hold your tongue, you wretched little beast!" rejoined the Boar angrily. "If you think so well of yourself, will you run a race with me."

"Of course I will," agreed the Chameleon readily. "Do you see that little hill over there? Let that be the goal."

"All right," said the Boar, and at once started to run. But the tricky little Chameleon caught hold of the Boar's tail. When the hill was reached, the Boar said, "Well, Chameleon, where are you now?"

"Here I am," said the Chameleon, who had been quick to let go of the Boar's tail and drop to earth.

"Well, you run faster than I thought you could," said the Boar.

"Let's try again. This time I won't let myself be beaten!" So they ran again and the Chameleon repeated his trick and for the second time reached the goal at the same time as his enemy.

"Haha! haha! Where are you this time, little brother?" called the Boar gleefully.

"Here I am, big brother!" shouted back the tricky little Chameleon. And so the Boar, puzzled and ashamed, had to admit that the Chameleon had won the race.

(Madagascar Fable. From Collection de Contes et de Chansons Populaires, Vol. 38.)


IN the old days the Guinea-hen and the Crocodile were good friends and swam in the same waters. But one day the Crocodile said to his children, "I have eaten the flesh of all the animals on earth, excepting only that of the Guinea-hen. Now I am going to do my best to eat that also." So the Crocodile pretended to be dead, and said to his children, "Gather together and weep, and send for the Guinea-hen."

So the little Crocodiles went to the Guinea-hen and said to her: "Guinea-hen, our father, Ramamba, the Crocodile, is dead, and we have come to tell you, because you were his oldest friend."

Then the Guinea-hen gathered together all her family and said, "Oh, my children and my grandchildren, gather together, for we are going to the funeral of the old Crocodile, Ramamba."

When all the little Guinea-fowls had come together, the old Guinea-hen said, "The Crocodile wants to eat Guinea-fowls. When we go to the funeral, be sure not to go near him until you see me go near him, and don't sing until I tell you to."

Then all the family of Guinea-fowls set out for the funeral of the Crocodile. And the little Guinea-fowls and the little Crocodiles all greeted each other properly. Then the mother Guinea-hen said to the little Crocodiles, "Have you yet held the funeral of your father, Ramamba?"

"Not yet," answered the little Crocodiles. "We are still children, and we do not know the proper way to hold a funeral. That is why we sent for you and have waited until you came." Then the Guinea-hen said, "Sing, my children, while I talk to the Crocodile." Then she turned to where the wily old Crocodile lay, stiff and silent as though he were dead, and asked him:

"Is it true, Ramamba, that you are dead? If it is true, move your feet, so that your children and grandchildren can see and can tell themselves, 'Ramamba is dead, and we must recite his great deeds. For he is now famous among dead heroes, and many are his deeds that must be told.'"

Ramamba, at this, moved his feet. Then all the little Guinea-chicks sang in chorus, "Mbitra! Mbitra!" and the mother Guinea-hen said:

"Ramamba, you have moved your feet! You, who are dead, nevertheless still move. Since you are really dead, Ramamba, open your jaws, and your children and grandchildren shall sing your praise." The Crocodile opened his jaws, and all the little Guinea-chicks again began singing, "Mbitra!"

"Ramamba," began the Guinea-hen again, "if you are really dead, open your eyes!" The Crocodile opened his eyes, looked at the Guinea-hen and said to himself, "To-day I shall certainly taste the flesh of a Guinea-hen!"

"Turn over on your other side," commanded the Guinea-hen, and Ramamba turned over. Then all the little Guinea-chicks ran together in a bunch and sang in chorus, "Ramamba meant to eat us all, but he shall never taste our flesh!"

"Our plans have all failed," said the Crocodile to his children, "we shall not have the feast we hoped for. But may my curse rest upon any one of my descendants who fails to eat a Guinea-fowl if he gets the chance!"

And for her part the Guinea-hen said, "If ever my children or grandchildren go into the water, may they be eaten by the Crocodile! When they must bathe, let them bathe in the dust, and when they would drink let them quench their thirst in the evening dew!"

That is why the Guinea-fowl never goes into the water; and that is why the Guinea-hen and the Crocodile are no longer friends.

(Madagascar Fable. From Collection de Contes et de Chansons Populaires, Vol. 38.)


ONE day when there was no rice left in the rice-fields, the Guinea-Fowl and the Hen stole potatoes to satisfy their hunger. They lighted a fire, and when the potatoes were roasted, the Hen said:

"I am going to carry the largest potatoes home with me, and eat only the little ones here in the field."

"And I," said the Guinea-Fowl, "shall be wiser than you. For I shall begin by eating all my biggest potatoes. So if the owner of the field finds us here, I can leave the small ones and fly away."

"The owner? The owner?" said the Hen, "I am not afraid of him! If the owner comes, I shall fly off too, and take my big potatoes with me!"

Thereupon the two friends settled down to their feast of potatoes. The Hen, according to her plan, picked out only the little ones, while the Guinea-Fowl chose only the largest. Presently the owner of the field passed that way and, discovering the two thieves, gave chase to them. The Guinea-Fowl at once took to flight, deserting her friend, the Hen. The latter, loaded down with her big potatoes, fell an easy prey to the farmer, who caught and took her home with him. That is how the Hen was domesticated by Man, while the Guinea-Fowl still runs wild.

(Madagascar Fable. From Collection de Contes et de Chansons Populaires, Vol. 38.)


ONE day a Cat and a Rat wished to cross a river but were daunted by its width and the strength of its current. The Rat alone knew how to swim, and both were afraid of the Crocodiles. As for hiring a canoe, they could not think of such a thing, for they would have had to hire a canoe from some Man, and they were afraid of Men. At last they decided to make a canoe for themselves cut out of a large potato. While the Cat held the potato between her paws, the Rat hollowed it out with his teeth which were sharp as hatchets. When the canoe was finished they pushed it into the water and both stepped in. The Rat paddled because he was the younger. But after a while he grew tired and threw down the paddle; for it seemed as though the other side of the river was still a day's journey off.

"I am very hungry," said the Rat.

"Hungry? So am I," said the Cat.

"I am going to gnaw our canoe a little," said the Rat. "It is my natural food. Why should I go hungry while there is food within reach?" And he began to gnaw the potato.

"Have a care," said the Cat, "for if you gnaw too deep and wreck our canoe, you shall die with me."

The Rat promised not to gnaw the potato any more. But presently he quietly began again, and gnawed a little every time the Cat's head was turned; and whenever the Cat looked his way he hid with his body the hole that he had gnawed. At last the bottom of the canoe was gnawed so thin that it gave way, and began to fill with water. Instantly the Rat jumped into the river and swam to shore, escaping the Crocodiles. When he was safe on land he began laughing at the Cat as he watched her struggle and splutter the water from her nose. "If you go to the bottom," he called out, "give my regards to the fishes!"

The Cat was so angry that she felt that she would rather have drowned than live to be laughed at like that. In her rage she managed to struggle ashore, and before the Rat could make his escape, she pounced upon him, and seized him by the head.

"Mercy, Mercy!" cried the Rat! "If you must eat me, begin at my tail," for he wanted to see the light of day as long as possible.

"Don't bother me," said the Cat, and she promptly ate him up.

And to this day it is a common saying in Madagascar. "Don't bother me, said the Cat."

(Madagascar Fable. From Collection de Contes et de Chansons Populaires, Vol. 38.)


ONCE upon a time the Elephant and the Frog went courting the same girl, and at last she promised to marry the Elephant. One day the Frog said to her,

"That Elephant is nothing but my saddle horse."

When the Elephant came to call that night the girl said to him: "You are nothing but the Frog's saddle horse!"

When he heard this the Elephant went off at once and found the Frog, and asked him:

"Did you tell the girl that I am nothing but your saddle horse?"

"Oh, no indeed," said the Frog, "I never told her that!"

Thereupon they both started back together to see the girl. On the way the Frog said:

"Grandpa Elephant, I am too tired to walk any further. Let me climb up on your back."


"Certainly," said the Elephant, "Climb up, my grandson." So the Frog climbed up on the Elephant's back. Presently he said:

"Grandpa Elephant, I am afraid that I am going to fall off. Let me take some little cords and fasten them to your tusks, to hold on by."

"Certainly, my grandson," said the Elephant; and he stood still while the Frog did as he had asked. Presently the Frog spoke again:

"Grandpa Elephant, please stop and let me pick a green branch so that I can keep the flies off of you."

"Certainly, my grandson," said the Elephant, and he stood quite still while the Frog broke off the branch. Pretty soon they drew near to the house where the girl lived. And when she saw them coming, the Elephant plodding patiently along with the little Frog perched on his broad back, holding the cords in one hand, and waving the green branch she came to meet them, calling out,

"Mr. Elephant, you certainly are nothing but the Frog's saddle horse!"


ONE year, during flood-time, when all the rivers overflowed their banks, a Crocodile was carried a long way from his own river, and landed so deep in the jungle that he could not find his way back to water. For many days he had nothing to drink or to eat, and so grew very thin. At last a hunter, looking for deer, met the Crocodile and asked:

"What are you doing here?"

The Crocodile told his story, and the hunter said: "If you will promise not to hurt me, I will carry you back to your river."

The Crocodile promised; and the Hunter bound him with cord, put him on his head, and carried him back to the bank of the river. Then the Crocodile said:

"Since you have brought me as far as this, you may as well carry me down into the water." So the Hunter, still carrying the Crocodile, waded into the river up to his knees.

"As a favour go a little further," begged the Crocodile. So the Hunter went further, until the water was up to his breast.

"A little further still," begged the Crocodile, and he went on until the water was up to his neck. Then he unbound the cords and placed the Crocodile in the water, saying: "There now, are you satisfied?"

"Not yet," answered the Crocodile. "Not until I have eaten you," and he seized the unhappy Hunter, and held him tight.

"Is this my reward for bringing you so far, and saving your life?" asked the Hunter.

"I shall not eat you until we find some one who shall judge between us," answered the Crocodile.

Presently a Horse came down to the river to drink. The Crocodile said: "Don't drink until you have judged between us," and then told the Horse the facts of the case. The Horse replied:

"You should eat him, for a Man is a wicked creature. Ever since I was a colt, Men have mounted me, driven me, travelled on my back and maltreated me. Now that I am old, they no longer take the trouble to feed me."

The Crocodile said: "Let us find a second judge."

Next came a Cow: and when the case was stated to her, she said: "Eat the Man! Men milk me, drink my milk, and then neglect me because I am old!" A Donkey next passed by and, being appealed to, said: "Eat the Man, and quickly! Men have always worked me hard, abused and half starved me! Now they desert me because I am old."

Last of all came a Rabbit. When asked for his judgment he said to the Crocodile: "How could a Man bring you here, a big creature like you?"

"All the same, he did it," answered the Crocodile.

"How did he do it?" asked the Rabbit.

"By binding me with cord, and carrying me through the jungle on his head."

The Rabbit told the Hunter to take the cord and show how he had bound the Crocodile. When this was done, the Hunter took the Crocodile once more on his head, and carried him back to the jungle where he had first found him. Then the Rabbit asked the Hunter: "Do you eat Crocodiles?"

"Yes," answered the Hunter.

"Then eat him, and quickly," advised the Rabbit. "Since the Crocodile intended to do you harm."

(Senegal Fable. From Collection de Contes et de Chansons Populaires.)


THE rat one day said to the toad: "I can do more than you; for you do not know how to run. You do nothing but hop—that is the only way you can run!"

When the toad heard these words of the rat, he said to him: "We will see whether you can do more than I. To-morrow I will do thing; if you can do it without anything happening to you, then I will admit that you can do more than I."

The rat agreed to the toad's proposal.

The next day the toad waited until noon, when the sun was overhead and all the workmen went to sit down in the shade of a tree to eat their luncheon. Then he hopped over to the men and passed in and out among them.

"See that toad!" said one of the men; but no one wanted to touch him.

Then the toad hopped back to the rat.

"You saw what I did," said he. "Now you do the same."

The rat laughed at such a simple task, and ran at once across to the tree where the men were sitting in the shade.

But when the men saw him they exclaimed, "Here is a rat!" and they grabbed up sticks and tried to kill him. The poor rat barely managed to escape, and ran back, all bruised and sore, to where the toad was waiting.

"Brother Toad," said he, "I thought that I could do more than you; but you have shown me that you can indeed do more than I!"

No one can excel in every way.

(Bornu Fable. From African Native Literature, by the Rev. S. W. Koelle.)