Why The Hippo Lives In Water

A Nigerian folktale explains something I’ve always wondered about: why the hippo lives in water. It goes like this:

Long ago, the hippo ruled the land, second only to the elephant. The hippo king, Isantim, had seven wives. On occasion, he would give a big feast for the creatures of the land. But the hippo was a private animal and he gave out his name to no one, except his wives, whom he could count on to be loyal.

Kenyan Hippos

One feast day, just as the animals were about to sit down to eat, 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 all of you go away without your dinner.”

The animals looked at each other in dismay, as they all realized that no one knew their host’s name. After a time, when no one could guess it, they got up one by one and left the table and all the good food and wine. But the tortoise, slow moving though he may be, was clever and swift in his mind so he stood up and asked the hippopotamus what he would do if he told him his name at the next feast. The hippo didn’t think this could happen, but he replied that he would be shamed and that he and his whole family would leave the land and would reside in the water forevermore. The tortoise nodded and moved away with his plodding gait.

Of an evening it was customary for the hippo and his seven wives to walk down to the river morning and evening to cleanse their bodies and quench their thirst. Isantim led, followed by his wives and children. The tortoise, aware of this habit, made a small hole in the center of the path to the river, then hid himself in the shrubs nearby. When he saw the hippos returning from the river, he waited until most had passed by, then he came out of his hiding place and half buried himself in the small depression he had made earlier. The rounded top of his shell was exposed, making a bumpy spot in the path.

The last two of Isantim’s seven wives came along the road, chatting and not noticing where their feet were placed. One stumbled over the tortoise’s shell and cried out to her husband, “Oh! Isantim, my husband, I have hurt my foot.”

The tortoise smiled at hearing the hippo’s name and, after the hippo procession had completely passed, he returned to his home to await the next feast.

Some time later, when the time for the next feast rolled around, the hippo asked again, “Does anyone here know my name? If you cannot tell me my name, you must leave the feast and miss out on the wonderful and tasty meal my wives have prepared.” At first no one stood up, but then the tortoise lumbered up from his seat and asked, “You promise you will not kill me if I tell you your name?” The hippo promised, feeling confident that the tortoise had no idea of his name. The tortoise then shouted as loud as he was able, “Your name is Isantim,” at which a cheer went up from all the creatures, and then they sat down to their dinner.

The hippo sat in shame throughout the feast. But he also felt rage at the tortoise’s knowledge of his name. However, he did not harm the tortoise, and when the feast was over, he kept his promise and went, with his seven wives and all his children, to the river. There the hippos stayed, until this day, in accordance with Isantim’s promise. But the hippos are still unhappy at being forced to leave the land and so they tend to be angry and vengeful if another creature enters the water near them.


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