The tortoise’s song

ILLUSTRATIONS: Samantha van Riet
ILLUSTRATIONS: Samantha van Riet

Long, long ago, a terrible drought dried up all the streams, rivers, wells and springs. It turned the whole world into a dusty desert. The termites gobbled up every leaf and blade of grass, and the animals were forced to chew on dry twigs just to stay alive.

Because life was so hard, the
animals met to talk about the
problem. They talked and talked, and talked and talked until
eventually they all agreed that the way to find water, was to dig a deep well. Only Hare refused to take part.

“No! Your plan won’t work,” he said, “so I won’t waste my time

“Then we won’t share our water with you!” said the other animals.

Hare just laughed, but the other animals were sure that their plan would work.

So, that same day, the animals went down to the valley, where the ground was at its lowest. Lion
began digging a hole. Then, one after the other, the animals entered the hole to dig – all except Hare and Tortoise.

Hare just sat around laughing. He didn’t want to dig, and nobody forced him to. But it was different for Tortoise – when she crept along to take her turn, the others wouldn’t let her dig.

“No, Tortoise,” they said. “You’re just too slow. You’ll waste too much time!”

Months passed. There had been lots and lots of digging and at last the hole was deep . . . but there was still no sign of water.

“Ha! Ha! Ha! I told you!” laughed Hare. “There’s no water down there!”

“He’s right,” said the warthog to the zebra. “Let’s just give up!”

“No, let’s carry on. We’ll find water,” said Tortoise. “You wish!” laughed Hare.

Each day, Tortoise watched
quietly as the other animals took turns to dig. More time passed and more digging was done, but still there was no sign of water.

One baking hot day, when all the animals lay exhausted in the hot sun near the deep, dry hole,
Tortoise again asked if she could have a turn to dig. None of the
other animals answered her. Some of them were too tired and miserable to care. Most of them just lay sweating and moaning in their sleep.

Tortoise walked slowly over to the hole and started to dig. The soil was as hard as rock, but she kept on scratching away, flinging the dry soil behind her. “I’m
scratching and scratching to find water,” she said as she dug. “It’s not easy, but it will be worth it!”

Soon she made up a little song to help herself keep digging. Tortoise sang it over and over again:

“I am scratching and scratching and scratching for water, I’ll dig, dig, dig and I will find it.”

After some time, Hare came strolling by. When he heard these words drifting out of the hole, he burst out laughing. This woke up the other animals. With an angry roar, Lion leapt into the hole, picked up Tortoise and flung her onto the mound of soil next to the hole.

“OW!” she cried, as she landed with a thump. “It’s not fair! I also want to dig!”

“Don’t waste our time! Play on the soil next to the hole,” said Lion so sharply that it made Tortoise cry.

Some of the other animals felt sorry for the brave little tortoise.

“Give her a chance!” pleaded Bushbuck.

“Yes,” said Giraffe, “let her try!”

Without a word, Lion climbed out of the hole and made way for Tortoise. Slowly, she wiped away her tears and climbed back down into the hole. Again, she started digging and singing:

“I am scratching and scratching and scratching for water, I’ll dig, dig, dig and I will find it.”

Hare and Monkey rolled about laughing.

Lion threw back his mane and smiled. “I told you it’s a waste of time!” he said.

Rhino stepped forward to peer inside the hole ... when suddenly, THWACK! a lump of wet soil flew out of the hole and hit his face!

“Be careful of my eyes!” he shouted covering his face, but the other animals saw that the soil was wet.

“Water!” they shouted. “Tortoise has found water!”

The animals rushed forward, trying to reach the well where water was rising up. The big animals shoved their smaller friends out of the way, but mighty Elephant was bigger than all the others. In a few huge slurps, he drank all the water and started to dig for more. The other animals could only moan and cry – or squeeze the wet soil for tiny drops of water.

Elephant dug hard and threw out clump after clump of soil. Soon, though, the animals noticed that with each throw, the soil was getting drier, until eventually the soil was completely dry.

The animals watched sadly. Slowly, one by one they turned towards Tortoise who sat a little way away.

“Elephant!” shouted Rhino. “Get out!”

“Tortoise! Tortoise!” the
animals shouted loudly. “Please help us!”

So Tortoise slowly climbed back down into the hole where she began to dig and sing her song again:

“I am scratching and scratching and scratching for water, I’ll dig, dig, dig and I will find it.”

This time, the others, joined in too:

“She’s scratching and
scratching and scratching for

It wasn’t long before Tortoise started throwing wet soil out of the hole. Then she stopped scratching the ground and moved away. The clean, cold water gurgled as it rose up to fill the well.

The animals sang and danced, and drank as much water as they wanted. Even Hare joined in – and, because everyone was so happy, they forgot to chase him away.
Tortoise had saved them all!
V Retold by Pirai Mazungunye

This story was provided
courtesy of the Nal’ibali national reading-for-enjoyment campaign which works with schools,
partners, and community
members to nurture a love for
reading among children in the Western Cape and across the
country. To read the story in another South African language, or for literacy activities, reading tips and more stories to enjoy with your children, visit or You can also find Nal’ibali on
Facebook and
Twitter: @nalibaliSA.

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