Oral Literature: Why Warthog has Small Tusks

Amongst the Baila people, a story has been passed on through the oral tradition to explain why Warthog has small tusks.

There was a time, long, long ago, when Elephant’s nephew, Warthog, had handsome long, curved tusks and Warthog’s uncle, Elephant, had shorter tusks that curved upwards.

Both Elephant and Warthog lived harmoniously together in an area of open grasslands where there were clumps of bushes and trees that provided favourable grazing for both browsers and grazers.

But one day, Warthog and Elephant had a disagreement and mud-caked Warthog said to his uncle, Elephant, “You offered to find food for me in your foraging trip through the grasslands. But you have broken your word.”

The friendship was strained between these two relatives for some time, but their differences were settled and Warthog and Elephant became friends again. But when out feeding in the grasslands together, Elephant spent more and more time admiring Warthog’s long curved tusks and day by day he became more envious of them.

Eventually Elephant lumbered up to Warthog who was on his knees, trying to uproot a tuber and said, “Let us exchange tusks for a while, Warthog and then I will return them to you on an appointed day.”

Knowing that it would only for a short period of time. Warthog agreed to exchange tusks with Elephant and they met late one afternoon in the shady overhang of a large tree as the sun began to disappear behind the western hills. After their exchange of tusks Warthog went on grazing and his life continued.

Elephant, however, was so enjoying his longer tusks that he had no intention of returning them to Warthog. The appointed day arrived for Elephant to return his tusks and he kept well away from his nephew, grazing and browsing far from where Warthog lived.

From sunrise to sunset, Warthog waited for Elephant to arrive. When he realized that he had been let down by his large uncle, Warthog went off to find him.

When he found Elephant uprooting a clutch of grass with his trunk, Warthog demanded that Elephant return his tusks. “That was the agreement,” said Warthog with a sense of urgency.

“Sorry, Warthog,” said Elephant. “I like these better and our exchange has become a permanent arrangement.”

Warthog was both disappointed and dismayed. Looking up at Elephant who was walking away in the opposite direction. Warthog said, “You have deceived me, Elephant. I am going to sleep in a burrow from this day on, but you will wander far and wide, from day to day.”

As Elephant walked away with his new set of tusks, Warthog shouted after him, “And from this day on, we shall never be friends.”

Warthog felt so inferior and lost without his long, curved, white tusks that he spent much time hiding underground. One day he went to consult Ant-bear who received him warmly, offering him hospitality in his burrow. And even to this day, Warthog and his kind are frequently found in the burrows of ant-bears.

(Folktale from Zambia – photo: Charles J. Sharp/CCO)