Mystery and marvel: The porcupine and the war ants

This week we are sharing a Central African tale about the consequences of actions and how we are all connected. To fully understand this tale and the way it was written we recommend you read our introduction to our folklore series.
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The porcupines had cut grass for their houses. They had put it in the sun to dry. One day they went to tie it into bundles. Look, the ants had eaten it all up. While they stood there looking at it and talking about what had happened, one of these white ants, or termites, bit the hand of one of the porcupines and made a cut. The porcupine shook his hand, and a bit of blood flew up and fell on the butterfly.

When the butterfly saw the drop of blood, he flew up quickly. A big bird saw the blood on the butterfly. It frightened him, and he and the other birds rose up with a loud cry. These birds always flew about six or eight together. Now they flew off together, and they all cried out.

 

Some monkeys were in a tree nearby. They were eating the fruit of the tree. When they heard the cry of the birds, they thought that there must be a war. They all jumped up to run away. As they were running, an elephant came along to get a drink in the stream beneath the tree. The monkeys were causing the tree to shake violently, and some of the fruits fell to the ground. One fruit fell and hit the head of the elephant. Now the elephant rose up, startled.

The elephant began to run too. He ran out of the woods and into the high grass.While the elephant was running, he stepped on a turtle. The turtle’s shell broke, and fire came out. The fire fell into the big grass, and the grass all burned out. The fire burned the houses of the black war ants, and many of their children died. 

In the morning, the war ants began to ask the meaning of the big fire that had burned their home. They wanted to know how it all started. They gathered together, as they always did, and they said, ”Let us go and ask the grass the meaning of this”. They walked in a line, as they always did. They came to the place of the grass. They asked the grass, ”Grass, where did this fire start that burned all of our houses?” The grass said to them, ”You go – you ask the fire why it fell into me, the grass, so that I burned up in this place.” 

So they went to the place of the fire. They asked the fire – they said, ”What is the meaning of this that the grass burned all our houses?” The fire said to them, ”You go, you ask the turtle, because the turtle made it so that I, the fire, fell into the grass so that the grass burned everything.” They went on their way until they came to the turtle. They asked the turtle, ”Tell us the meaning of what happened so that the fire burned all our houses.” The turtle said to them, ”You go ask the elephant.”

So they went their way until they came to the place of the elephant. They asked the elephant, ”Why did the fire burn all our houses?” The elephant said to them, ”I came to drink water, and the monkeys shook down some fruit which struck my head very hard, so that I rose up to run. While I was running, I stepped on the turtle so that the shell broke and the fire came out and fell into the grass, and the grass burned all your houses. So, you go – you ask the monkeys.”

So they went until they came to the place of the monkeys. They asked the monkeys, ”Can you show us what happened so that the fire burned our houses?” They went until they came to the place of the monkeys. They asked the monkeys, ”Can you show us what happened so that the fire burned our houses?” The monkeys said to them, ”We were eating fruit when the big birds rose up with loud cries. They came screaming at us. We were frightened, so we rose up quickly. While we were running, we shook the fruit from the tree, and some of it hit the elephant’s head so that he ran quickly, so that the shell of the turtle was broken, so that the fire came out and fell into the grass and burned all your houses. So, you – you ask the birds.”

When they came to the place of the birds, they asked them, ”Can you tell us what happened so that the fire burned all our houses?” The birds said to them, ”We were in the tree, and look, the butterfly flew up, and blood was all over his body. When we saw the blood, we were afraid, so we flew up crying. While we were flying with loud crying, the monkeys rose up to flee. That was how they shook the tree, and the fruit fell to hit the elephant’s head, and the elephant rose up quickly so that he stepped on the turtle, and the turtle's shell broke open so that fire came out and fell into the grass and burned all your houses. So, you go – you ask the butterfly.”

So they went on their way until they came to the place of the butterfly. They asked the butterfly, ”Can you show us the reason for what made the fire burn all our houses?” The butterfly said, ”I was having a good time, and look, a porcupine threw blood on me. When I saw the blood, I flew up making the big birds rise up with a cry, so that when the monkey heard the cry, they rose up to run, That is why they shook the tree so that the fruit fell to hit the elephant, so that the elephant rose up to run. That is why he stepped on the turtle so that the fire came out of the broken shell and fell into the grass and burned all your houses. So, you go – you ask the porcupine.”

So they went on their way until they came to the place of the porcupine. They asked him, ”Can you show us the reason why these things happened so that the fire burned all our houses?”

The porcupine said to them, ”Look, I was cutting grass for my house. I put it on the ground. When I went to get it, the termites had eaten much of it. When I came to tell them about it, a big termite bit my hand. That is why I shook off the blood. The blood fell on the butterfly so that the butterfly rose up with the blood, so that the big birds saw the blood, so that they rose up with a loud cry, so that the monkeys heard their cry, so that they rose up to run, so that they shook the tree, so that the fruit fell to hit the elephant’s head, so that the elephant rose up quickly, so that he stepped on the turtle. And the turtle's shell broke so that the fire came out and fell into the grass. That is why the fire burned all your houses. So, you go – you ask the termites.”

So they went until they came to the place of the termites. They asked them, ”You show us the meaning of the things that made the fire burn all our houses.” The black war ants said to the termites – white ants – ”Brothers, we have not come to make war, but we want to know the reason why our houses and our children have burned.” The termites said, ”Ha! We only make war when we continue to talk like this.” And quickly a big termite grabbed a war ant and killed him. The war ants were very sad, and they began to fight. And look, the war ants killed many many termites.

Because of this there is a continual war between the termites and the war ants, until today.


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The tales we are sharing in this series were written down by Polly Strong, as told to her mainly by Moussa Andre and Bissafi Jeannot. These tales were originally published in a book  “African Tales, folklore of the Central African Republic” by TELCRAFT in 1992.