Oral Literature: the Tortoise, the Dog and the Farmer

Once upon a time, there was famine in the land of the animals because the dry season had extended more than usual. There was no rain in the land and every animal was looking rather thin and unhealthy because very limited food was available. 

However, the tortoise observed that his friend the dog was looking very fresh and healthy. He wondered what the secret of the dog’s wellbeing was and decided to find out.

The next day, the tortoise decided to pay his friend the dog a visit. On getting to his house, the tortoise said, “My good friend, you know we have been friends for a very long time, please tell me the secret of your rosy cheeks and your bulging stomach, despite the famine throughout the land. I need to know so that I do not die of hunger. What’s your secret friend?” The dog replied, “There is no secret to it my good friend, it’s all my hard work that has paid off.”

The tortoise was not fooled by the dog’s reply and he decided to press further. He said, “My friend, I know that you have found a way to beat this famine, please tell me, I will keep your secret.”

The dog however denied that there was any secret behind his wellbeing. So, the tortoise thanked him and left, but he could not get the issue out of his mind so he came up with a plan.

The next day, he decided to shadow the dog’s movements. He hid behind a tree and observed the dog leave home very early in the morning with a basket. He tailed him all the way to the neighbouring village, making sure he was at some safe distance behind the dog all the time.

The dog made his way to a farm and, after looking around to make sure that no one was watching, started harvesting yam off the farm into his basket.

The tortoise then announced his presence to the dog. The dog was shocked that his friend would go to that extent to find out his secret, but there was nothing he could do. He decided to let the tortoise in on his terrible act of stealing from someone else’s farm. So off they went on the next day, and the next, and the next….

Each time they went, the tortoise took a little more than he did the previous day. It then occurred to the dog that the more yams the tortoise added each day, the longer it took them to get back home, so he decided to caution him. “My good friend tortoise, the quantity of yam you take home each day is becoming too much. Yesterday, we left for home at 5.45pm. The farmer may catch us and then that will be the end of us.” The tortoise replied nonchalantly, “Don’t worry my friend; I’m storing enough yam at home for the rainy day. The farmer will never catch us.”

“I don’t think you should be greedy; you could get us in trouble if we harvest too much yam than we can carry easily enough to escape being caught by the farmer,” said the dog worriedly. So the next day, at 5.30 prompt, the dog announced that he was leaving for home. But the tortoise pleaded for some more time to harvest yam. Shortly after, the dog put his basket on his head and started heading home. The tortoise noticed this and shouted after the dog. “Dog, wait for me, wait for me, I can’t carry my basket alone, it’s too heavy, please help me,”

The dog however refused to listen and made haste to avoid the farmer. The tortoise pleaded for hours, but the dog by then had long gone. The farmer arrived on his farm and found the tortoise with a basketful of his yam. He handed him over to the king’s men and the tortoise was brought to justice. When the dog saw what had happened to his friend tortoise, he was afraid, he then realized how unfair his actions towards the farmer had been. From then on, he decided that he would never take whatever did not belong to him so that he would not get himself into trouble like the tortoise.

(Folktale from Kenya)