Oral Literature: The Tortoise and the Chimpanzee

The Tortoise and the Chimpanzee had been friends for a very long time and so it was only natural that they should invite each other to their wedding feasts when they both decided to get married.

The Chimpanzee was the first to celebrate his wedding. The most delicious food was prepared and the finest palm wine was provided for every guest.

Tortoise arrived punctually on the day and was most impressed by what he saw. He was extremely hungry after his very long journey, and more than anything he looked forward to tucking into the food in the company of the other guests.

After a long wait, the dinner gong was sounded and all the Chimpanzees began climbing the trees where they sat waiting to be served.

Tortoise, of course, could not climb at all well and struggled very hard to make it even to the lowest branch. By the time he eventually reached the party, the first half of the meal had been served and cleared and he found that he was ignored by the other guests who chatted loudly among themselves.

Finality, he thought it best to mention to his friend the slight problem he was having keeping his balance on the branch. “But you must sit like the rest of us – the Chimpanzee told Tortoise -, it is our custom. When my people eat, they always sit this way. It would be so rude to lie on the ground when everyone else is upright.”

And so Tortoise tried a little harder to make himself comfortable, but as soon as he reached forward to grab hold of some food, he fell flat on his belly. All the Chimpanzees roared with laughter at the sight of him and he hung his head in shame, feeling hungry and frustrated, knowing that he would never get to eat any of the delicious food.

When the day arrived for the Tortoise to marry, he had no wish to provide a lavish banquet for his guests, but prepared a small dinner-party for his closest friends. Before any of the guests was due to arrive, however, Tortoise went outdoors and lit a torch. Then he began to burn the dry grass around his house. Chimpanzee and his new wife soon appeared in the distance and Tortoise slipped indoors again to resume the preparations.

He embraced the couple warmly when they arrived and made sure that they were given one of the best seats at his table. The food was set down before them, and all were about to tuck in when Tortoise suddenly stood up and raised both arms in the air: “Let’s just make sure that we all have clean hands – he said. “Nothing upsets me more than people who eat their food with dirty hands.”

One by one his guests began to examine their hands, quite confident that they were clean. But when Chimpanzee stared at his, he was shocked to see that they were a filthy black colour.

“But I scrubbed them before I left my house,” he protested. “None the less – replied Tortoise -, they are very dirty indeed and it would be offensive to my people if you did not make an effort to clean them one more time. Go back to the river across the bush and try again. We promise to eat slowly so that you do not miss the meal.”

Chimpanzee set off to do as his host suggested, walking on all fours through the charred grass and soot until he reached the river. Here he washed his hands thoroughly and returned by the same path to Tortoise’s house.

“But there is no improvement. You must go again,” said Tortoise, munching on a delicious yam. “What a shame! We will have eaten everything if this keeps up.”

Again, the Chimpanzee returned and again the Tortoise sent him away, a third and a fourth and a fifth time, until all the splendid dishes had been gobbled up.

So, in the end, Tortoise had his revenge, and for many years afterwards he took great delight in telling his friends the story of how he managed to outwit Chimpanzee on his wedding day.

(Folktale from Tanzania) – (Photo: BY-SA 4.0/Catatine – David Adam Kess)