The hare and the hippo were great friends. They walked together in the veld and visited each other in their homes. The hippo was very proud of his hut on the edge of the forest, and every day he gathered soft dry grass to add to the comfort of his very large bed, for he was a very large creature.
He was also quite vain, for he had a beautiful coat of hair which kept him warm throughout the winter months. Then it happened that one day, while on a walk together, the hippo – who was as clumsy as he was large – pushed the hare against a tree, hurting him badly. Not realising what he had done, the hippo walked on, taking no notice of the hare’s cries of pain.
The hare was very angry at such apparent heartlessness. For a long while he nursed his anger, during which time he planned to punish his friend for his carelessness. Sometime later he again visited the hippopotamus. The hippo was delighted to see him, and soon their conversation was running smoothly as of old.
“My friend,” said the hare, following a lull in the conversation, “why is it that Fire, although professing great friendship towards you, does not return the many visits you have paid him? Surely it is right that you should return his past hospitality! Or is it that his friendship is not as great as he would have you believe?”
“No, Hare,” replied the hippo, “his friendship is indeed a true one. We always find great enjoyment in each other’s company.” “Then, friend Hippo, to test his fondness for you, let him know that you are deeply hurt at his neglect.”
The hippopotamus was silent for a while as doubts began to creep into his mind. Then he said, “Well, maybe you are right, friend Hare, for many times have I accepted hospitality from Fire. Yet never once has he given me the opportunity of returning it in my own home. I shall speak to him about it.”
Having had the seeds of doubt so successfully sown in his mind, the hippopotamus lost no time in calling on Fire. The hare did not accompany him, complaining of toothache. “Good day to you, Fire,” said the hippo. “Do I find you well?”
“Good day to you,” replied the fire. “It is a long time since I have had the pleasure of seeing you. Have you been ill, that you have not visited me for so long?” “Not ill, Fire,” replied the hippopotamus, “but I have been greatly grieved that you have never returned my friendship by visiting me.”
“Dear friend,” said the fire, “to do so would give me pleasure, but it would cause you nothing but distress. All creatures fear me when I leave my home, and you would fear me too.” “But, good Fire, that would be impossible, considering our long-standing friendship. I have complete trust in you. Please visit my home. If you fail to do so, I shall know that there has been but little truth in your professed friendship for me.”
As the hippo refused to listen to his protestations, the fire eventually said, “Very well, tomorrow at midday I shall visit you.” The hippopotamus was delighted.
The following day he was preparing for his guest’s arrival when he heard a crackling noise outside. He looked out of the doorway of his hut to see a big black cloud approaching, and many birds and animals running towards him in panic. “My friend is on his way!” thought the hippo joyfully. But his joy turned to fear as the fire entered his hut with a roar and a hiss. Then he felt searing flames envelop him as the tinder-dry grass that was his bed caught alight. He raced from the hut like a ball of fire, and into the river he plunged to cool his burning skin. Not a hair was left on his big bare body – and so it has remained ever since.
The hippo never went back to his home on the edge of the forest, but has lived in rivers and lakes from that day on, too afraid of meeting Fire again. And he never ventures out of the water in daytime, leaving it only at night to eat the grass at the water’s edge.
(Folktale from Tonga People of Southern Zambia)