The Leopard, the Squirrel, and the Tortoise: A Efik Folktale

Cross River State Nigeria - Folkli
General Location: Cross River State / Map data ©2018 Google

This Efik folktale tells the tale of the tortoise, who his his mother from the leopard, and of the squirrel who could not.

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

The leopard, who lived entirely on meat, did not care for any of these things; although some of the animals who lived on corn and the growing crops began to get rather skinny. In order to save himself trouble, he called a meeting of all the animals .

The leopard reminded the gathered animals that he was very powerful and demanded that they bring their grandmothers to him for food, and after that their mothers. He warned them that if the grandmothers or mothers were not forthcoming he would turn upon the young animals themselves.

The young generation, who had attended the meeting, agreed to supply the leopard with his daily meal in order to save their own skins,

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 growled out: “This is not enough; I must have more food at once.”

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 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 had been eaten, and it became the turn of the mothers to serve as food for the ravenous leopard. But 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.

Amongst the strongest objectors were the squirrel and the tortoise. The tortoise knew 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. The tortoise then made a 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. He then instructed her to lower the basket every day, and promised that he would place food in it.

All went well for some days. The tortoise went at daylight to the bottom of the tree and placed food in the basket; then his mother would pull the basket up and have her food, and the tortoise would depart on his daily round in his usual leisurely manner.

The leopard meanwhile still had to have his daily food, and the squirrel’s turn came first. He was forced to give his mother as food to the leopard. But although he was a poor, weak creature and not possessed of any cunning, the squirrel was very fond of his mother. When she had been eaten he remembered that the tortoise had not brought his grandmother and 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, 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, was hauled up, and after a time was let down again in the basket.

The squirrel was watching all the time, and when the tortoise had gone, jumped from branch to branch to tell the leopard that the tortoise had hidden his mother away.

The leopard was enraged, and told the squirrel to immediately lead him to the tree. But the squirrel explained: “The tortoise only goes there at daylight, when his mother lets down a basket; you must go early in the morning, she will pull you up, and then you can kill her.”

The next morning the squirrel 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, and 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 came down himself and went home.

Shortly after this the tortoise arrived at the tree, and finding the basket on the ground gave his usual tug at it, but there was no answer. He looked about, and came upon the broken shell of his poor old mother. The tortoise knew at once that the leopard had killed his mother, and from that moment forward he lived alone and wanted nothing to do with the other animals.

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