(Editor’s note: This African story will likely sound familiar to American readers. It is one of many stories brought here by Bantu-speaking Africans who came as slaves. There are no rabbits in Africa, however -- The “rabbit” of the American version is, in Africa, a type of hare, Lepus crassicaudatus, and quite a different animal. In African folk tales, however, he is just as troublesome as his American cousin!)
There was a summer when it did not rain. First the streams stopped running. Then the rivers dried up. Even the springs ceased to pour water from the rocks.
The animals held a meeting, all together, to decide what they should do.
The elephant suggested a water dance. “We have tried stamping on the river bed to make the water come up out of the mud, but it was not enough,” the elephant said.
The animals shook their heads. If the elephant could not bring up the water, the drought was very bad indeed.
“If everyone takes part, it might work,” the lion said. “But everyone must help. If you do not help, and we find water, there will be none for you.”
The hare laughed. “I don’t like to dance,” he said, “but I will drink water anyway.” And he went away without offering to help.
All of the other animals gathered in the river bed and began to dance. They danced and danced, the jackal and the hyena and the lion and the rhinoceros. The tiny gazelle danced next to the mighty buffalo, and the screeching baboon danced alongside the silent giraffe.
After a long time, someone shouted, for the crusted mud under his feet was becoming soft and damp. Everyone danced harder, and soon all the mud was wet, and then there were places where it was more water than mud. At last, they had danced the riverbed down to where it turned into a pool of water.
Every animal had a drink, and then they rested. At last, they all went back into the forest and plains, except for the hyena, for he was chosen to guard their waterhole and make sure nobody drank from it except the animals who had worked so hard to make the water come.
The moon was just rising when the hyena saw the hare coming down the path with two gourds. “Don’t ask for water,” the hyena called out to him. “You’ll get none of ours. You didn’t dance with us, and you won’t drink with us!”
The hare smiled. “I don’t want your plain old water, friend,” he said. “I have much better water right here.” And he lifted one of the gourds to his lips. “Would you like to try it? It’s very special water!”
The hare took a blade of grass and dipped it into the honey he had in the gourd. He held the grass up and let the hyena lick a drop as it dripped off. “That is good!” hyena said. “Can I have a sip of it?”
“I don’t know if it would be safe,” the hare said. “It is very powerful water. You might begin to leap about. You might even try to eat me!”
“I wouldn’t do that,” the hyena promised. “Just let me have a sip of your special water!”
The hare thought a moment. “Well, let me tie you to this tree first. That way, if the special water makes you go crazy, I’ll be safe until you calm down.”
The hyena agreed, so the hare took some strong vines and tied him to the tree. “Can you move?” the hare asked.
The hyena struggled, but the vines held him tight. “No, I can’t move at all!” he said.
“Good,” the hare laughed.
Then he went to the waterhole, filled his other gourd with water and drank deeply. “My, that’s very nice water!” he said. “Thank you, hyena! I’ll come back tomorrow night for another drink!”
In the morning, the other animals came to the waterhole for a drink and found hyena still tied up. They laughed at him for letting the hare fool him, but then they wondered who could keep the hare from drinking their water.
“I will do it,” said the tortoise. “If the hare can fool the hyena with the bee’s honey, I will fool the hare with their wax!”
He got the other animals to help spread sticky beeswax all over his shell, then he waded down into the pool until nothing of his legs, head or tail showed above the water. All that could be seen of tortoise was his high, round back.
That evening, the hare came down to get another drink. He looked around to see if there was a guard, and then went to get a drink. “I see they put a rock in the water to keep their feet dry! What a good idea!” he said, and jumped right onto the tortoise’s sticky shell.
The hare quickly realized what had happened, but his feet were already stuck in the beeswax. “Let me go, or I’ll hit you!” he shouted. He swung one fist, then the other, but he did not hurt tortoise, and now his hands were stuck, too!
“You think you’re smart?” he said. “I’ll butt you with my head!” and the next thing the hare knew, his head was also stuck to tortoise’s sticky shell. And when he tried to whip tortoise with his tail, he had no better luck.
The tortoise turned and slowly walked out of the water with hare stuck to his back, while all the animals came out of the bushes laughing.
“What shall we do with this thief?” the tortoise asked them.
“Cut off his head!” someone shouted.
“Let the elephant stomp him flat!” cried someone else.
“What do you think we should do to you?” Tortoise asked.
“I don’t care, as long as it is an honorable death,” the hare replied. “I would not want a shameful death, like being swung around by the tail and slammed into the ground.”
“That is what we will do, then!” the elephant shouted. And he grabbed the hare by the tail, pulling him off the tortoise’s shell and swinging him around his head.
But the hare’s tail quickly broke and he flew off into the bushes, while elephant’s trunk held nothing but a bit of skin and fur.
“Ha ha!” a voice laughed in the distance. “That part of my body was made to fool my enemies! Thank you for the drink, and for letting me escape again!”
text by Mike Peterson, c. 2005 - illustrations by Marina Tay, c. 2005