A West African Folktale

Once upon a time, in the days before the people began to make war on the animals, the animals gathered together to talk about how they could live together in peace. “We must learn how to avoid insulting one another,” they all agreed.

Now at this gathering, the tortoises were the first to speak up. The Tortoise King stood up and cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he said, looking about him, and then in a soft voice he said, “I must tell you there is one thing we tortoises abhor.”

“What’s that?” asked the Boar King.

“Well,” said the king of the tortoises, and he looked down at the ground as he spoke, for he was a little embarrassed. “We tortoises are sensitive, and we do not like others to talk about us behind our backs.”

“Of course you don’t,” said the Boar King, “and we would never do such a thing. Now we boars don’t mind when others talk about us, but we become angry when others step on or even touch our tails.”

“Understood!” said the Lion King, “and like you we lions do not care if others speak about us. In fact, we like that quite a bit, and anyone may step on our tails, but if there’s one thing that insults a lion more than anything else, it’s lack of respect. If you’re speaking to me, be respectful and don’t stare.”

Now all the animals began to whisper among each other, reciting the insults they must avoid.

“Never touch a boar’s tail,” the tortoises muttered.

“Never talk about the tortoises behind their backs,” the lions murmured.

“Never show a lion disrespect,” grunted the boars.

The animals promised they never would turn against one another. They vowed never to insult one another. And, they agreed, they would teach their children how they must treat each and every creature.

“Thank you all, and now we will be going home,” said the Tortoise King, and he and the other tortoises trundled into the bush.

When the tortoises were out of sight, the Lion King said, “I wonder what those tortoises think we would say about them when their backs are turned.”

The Boar King thought about this for a while. Finally he smiled. “He probably thinks we’re talking about that silly shell upon his back.”

The Lion King’s roared with laughter. “Oh yes,” he said, “and he probably imagines us talking about his wrinkled skin and how awkwardly he walks.”

But just as the lion finished speaking, he heard rustling in the nearby grass. The animals turned to see the tortoises right before them. They had not gone away after all. Instead, they had crawled into the tall grass nearby and had overheard everything. Now they knew the others would never keep their promise.

The Tortoise King slowly marched up to the Lion King and stared at him with such contempt, every hair on the Lion King’s neck stood on end.

“How dare you look at me that way!” the Lion King roared. “You’ve broken your promise.”

“Just as you broke yours,” the Tortoise King retorted, and with that they fell upon each other, and soon they were wrapped in a struggle, the tortoise’s massive shell shielding him from his bigger opponent’s blows.

As they were squabbling, the Lion King stepped backward, and his foot kicked the Boar King’s tail.

“How dare you insult me like this!” the Boar King cried, and he joined in the fight, his tusks slashing this way and that. All the animals stared as their kings wrestled with each other.

“Look at the way that Tortoise King fights,” some of the younger lions jeered. “He moves so awkwardly!”

When the tortoises heard this, they turned toward the lions and stared with fury at them. Their contempt so angered the lions that they charged the tortoises, who turned and lumbered into the bush. As they did, they somehow brushed against every boar’s tail, and soon every animal was fighting. Peace, it seemed, was but a distant dream.

After that awful day, the animals gathered many times to see if they might find a way to restore peace, but each time someone insulted somebody else, and the fights began anew.

Ever since that day, the tortoises, the lions and the boars have been sworn enemies, for no one ever stopped to think of the misery that would plague their descendants because of their failure to make peace.

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