The Leopard, the Tortoise, and the Bush Rat: A Efik Folktale

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

This Efik folktale tells the tale of a tortoise who sought revenge on a leopard, and of the bush rat that took pity.

At the time of the great famine all the animals were very thin and weak; but there was one exception, and that was the tortoise and all his family, who were quite fat, and did not seem to suffer at all. Even the leopard was very thin, despite having eaten the grandmothers and mothers of all the other animals.

In the early days of the famine the leopard had killed the mother of the tortoise, and the tortoise determined if possible to seek revenge. He had discovered a shallow lake full of fish in the middle of the forest, and every morning brought back enough food for himself and his family.

One day the leopard met the tortoise and noticed how fat he was. As he was very thin himself he decided to watch the tortoise, so the next morning he hid himself in the long grass near the tortoise’s house and waited patiently, until at last the tortoise came along carrying a basket which appeared to be very heavy.

The leopard sprang out, and demanded to know what was inside the basket. The tortoise tried to trick him by saying that he was carrying firewood, but the leopard had a very acute sense of smell, and knew at once that there was fish in the basket.

“I know there is fish in there, and I am going to eat it.”

The tortoise, not being in a position to refuse, replied:

“Very well. Let us sit down under this shady tree, and if you will make a fire I will go to my house and get pepper, oil, and salt, and then we will feed together.”

To this the leopard agreed, and began to search about for dry wood, and started the fire. In the meantime the tortoise waddled off to his house, and soon returned with the pepper, salt, and oil; he also brought a long piece of cane tie-tie, which is very strong. This he put on the ground, and began boiling the fish.

Then the tortoise proposed they play a game while waiting for the fish to cook. He suggested they take turns tying each other to the tree. When the tied up animal said “tighten” the other should loosen the rope, and when the tied up animal said “loosen” the rope would be tightened. As a show of good faith, the tortoise agreed to be tied up first.

The hungry leopard thought that this game would make the time pass more quickly, so he agreed to play. The tortoise then stood with his back to the tree and told the leopard to loosen the rope. In accordance with the rules of the game, the leopard began to tie up the tortoise. Soon the tortoise shouted “tighten” and the leopard at once unfastened the tie-tie, and the tortoise was free.

Then it was leopard’s turn, so he stood up against the tree and called out to the tortoise to loosen the rope, and the tortoise very quickly passed the rope several times round the leopard and secured him to the tree. Then the leopard shouted “tighten”; but instead of playing the game in accordance with the rules, the tortoise ran faster and faster with the rope round the leopard, taking great care to keep out of reach of the leopard’s claws.

All this time the leopard was calling out to the tortoise to let him go, as he was tired of the game; but the tortoise only laughed, and sat down at the fireside to eat his fish. When he had finished he packed up the remainder of the fish for his family, and prepared to go, but before he started he said to the leopard:

“You killed my mother and wanted to steal my fish. I shall leave you to starve.”

He then threw the remains of the pepper and salt into the leopard’s eyes and quietly went on his way, leaving the leopard roaring with pain.

All that day and throughout the night the leopard was calling out for someone to release him, and vowing all sorts of vengeance on the tortoise; but nobody came, as the people and animals of the forest do not like to hear the leopard’s voice.

In the morning, when the animals began to go about to get their food, the leopard called out to everyone he saw to come and untie him, but they all refused, as they knew that if they did so the leopard would most likely kill them at once and eat them.

At last a bush rat came near and saw the leopard tied up to the tree and asked him what was the matter, so the leopard told him that he had been playing a game of “tight” and “loose” with the tortoise, and that he had tied him up and left him there to starve. The leopard then implored the bush rat to cut the ropes with his sharp teeth.

The bush rat was very sorry for the leopard; but at the same time he knew that, if he let the leopard go, he would most likely be killed and eaten, so he hesitated. But this bush rat, being rather kind-hearted, and having had some experience of traps himself, could sympathise with the leopard in his uncomfortable position. He therefore devised a plan.

The bush rat first started to dig a hole under the tree. When he had finished the hole he came out and cut one of the ropes, and immediately ran into his hole to see what would happen; but although the leopard struggled frantically, he could not get loose. The bush rat crept out again and very carefully bit through another rope, and then retreated to his hole as before. Again nothing happened, and he began to feel more confident, so he bit several strands through one after the other until the leopard was free.

The ravenous  leopard, instead of being grateful, made a dash at the bush rat with his big paw, So close was the bush rat’s escape as he leapt down his hole, that the leopard’s sharp claws scored his back and left marks which he carried to his grave.

Ever since then the bush rats have had white spots on their skins, which represent the marks of the leopard’s claws.

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