Oral Literature: The Rabbit and the Lion

Many ages ago the lion and the rabbit were great friends. They lived together in a narrow valley richly verdant with green pasture and trees. They lived alone in that place and they were always together, with neither of them wanting to separate from the other.

They owned a vast number of cows with shining pelts and full, smooth stomachs. Because he was the stronger, the lion always kept guard at night whilst the rabbit looked after the cows at pasture in the daytime, and therefore worked much longer hours than the lion. Because of this they started to argue at the end of one day.

Whilst he was out in the pasture the rabbit devised a plan to free himself of his powerful friend. He realised it would no longer be possible to get on well with each other; therefore, it would be better to find another way out of the impasse. If he had spoken to the lion about it, he would, no doubt, have received the worst of the argument. He thought instead that it would be wiser to free himself from the lion with cunning.

One day the rabbit led the herd beyond a hill so that it could not be seen. Next to the hill there was a little lake which was not very deep. There the rabbit put his plan into action. He had planned to get possession of all the cows after getting rid of the lion.

One by one he cut off the cows’ tails and then placed them firmly in the water and mud of the lake close to the bank. After doing this he led the herd a long way away, hiding them in a grotto in the forest. He then returned to the banks of the little lake to wait for the time to return home.

When the sun had almost set the rabbit ran home screaming loudly: “Help, help! Save the cows!” The lion at that moment was just beginning to wake up, and still a little sleepy he asked: “What are you yelling about? What has happened?” The rabbit replied anxiously: “All of the cows have sunk in the mud of the lake and only their tails can be seen above the surface of the water.”

The lion ran with the rabbit to the place of the disaster and, sure enough, there were the cows’ tails pointing up just above the surface of the lake. The tails were swaying gently to and from with the movement of the water. After a few moments of thought the lion suggested: “Listen friend, the only thing that we can do is try to pull the cows out by their tails and see if we can save at least a few of them.”

The rabbit, still out of breath after the run, replied: “To be sure, it is the only thing we can do, but be careful not to pull too hard, or else we shall pull the tails off. If we do that, the cows will be lost forever in the mud.”

The lion, ignoring this last remark, had already taken hold of one tail and was pulling with all his strength, only to fall flat on his back with nothing but the tail in his hand. “I told you to go carefully!”, said the rabbit. But the lion, more furious than ever, took hold of another tail and gave it a violent tug, only to find himself once more on his back with the tail in his hand.

The rabbit then dissolved into tears crying: “All is lost! We can do nothing more! We have lost everything!” The lion, seeing that there really wasn’t any more to be done about it, realised that he was beaten, and turned to the rabbit to scold him for having lost the herd in this way. And there and then he decided to leave the rabbit for ever.

The lion went far away from that valley, but the rabbit instead returned alone to the grotto where he had hidden the cows and was able to keep them all to himself. That is how the rabbit managed to free himself from his powerful friend the lion and at the same time keep all the cows for himself.” Ever since then the Borana say: “An intelligent friend is worth more than a powerful friend.”

(Folktale from Borana People. Kenya)