Why the Hippo lives in the Water: 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 hippo Isantim, who challenged the guests at his feast to discover his name. 

Many years ago the hippo, whose name was Isantim, was one of the biggest kings on the land; he was second only to the elephant. The hippo had seven large fat wives, of whom he was very fond. But the curious thing about Isantim was that, although everyone knew him, no one except his seven wives knew his name.

At one of the feasts he used to hold, just as the people were about to sit down, the hippo said, “You have come to feed at my table, but none of you know my name. If you cannot tell my name, you shall go away without dinner.”

As they could not guess his name, the guests had to go away and leave all the good food and tombo behind. But before they left, the tortoise stood up and asked what the hippo would do if he found out his name before the next feast. The hippo replied that he would be so ashamed of himself, that he and his whole family would leave the land, and forever dwell in the water.

Now the tortoise knew well that the hippo and his seven wives went down to the river to wash and have a drink every morning and evening. The hippo always walked first, and the seven wives followed.

One day when they had gone down to the river to bathe, the tortoise made a small hole in the middle of the path, and then waited. When the hippo and his wives returned, two of the wives were some distance behind, so the tortoise came out of hiding, and half buried himself in the hole he had dug, leaving the greater part of his shell exposed.

When the two hippo wives came along, the first one knocked her foot against the tortoise’s shell, and immediately called out to her husband, “Oh! Isantim, my husband, I have hurt my foot.” At this the tortoise was very glad, and went joyfully home, as he had found out the hippo’s name.

When the next feast was given by the hippo, he made the same condition about his name; so the tortoise got up and shouted as loud as he was able, “Your name is Isantim,” at which a cheer went up from all the people, as they sat down to their dinner.

The hippo, and his seven wives, in accordance with his promise, went down to the river, and they have always lived in the water ever since; and although they come on shore to feed at night, you’ll never find a hippo on the land during the daytime.

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