Ancient Ecological Wisdom on the Nile Revealed in Acholi Folklore!

Ekkehard Doehring, David Achaye, John Sampers, Sabine Becker, + 2


Ekkehard Doehring, Associate Editor Nile Journal



Last December a group of us set out on a field trip in the Murchison Falls Park Area, the largest such game reserve in Uganda and one of the finest environmental resort in all East Africa. Among the Acholi people of the area we encountered a tale that rose out of the land from the wisdom of the ages.

Small Animals Big Animals
Once upon a time a young and ambitious hippo on the Nile Valley discovered to his amazement that every animal on the land, big or small, including the fierce and feared lion, deferred to the Elephant. The hippo knew as did everyone else in the land that Elephant was simply huge. Now the hippo got it. Size was all that matters.

He too would grow big, thought the hippo, bigger than the Elephant. He too will become feared. More feared than the Elephant. He will become the new king of the Nile. Why not?

So the hippo started gathering and guzzling tons and tons of grass. Other animals were at first amused at the antics of the hippo. Then they were amazed and alarmed. Soon the activities of the hippo scotched the land. A great dust storm arose. The once beautiful Nile valley grew gray and desolate. A way of life was eroding!

But the hippo prospered and grew bigger and bigger. Smaller animals started to fear and to defer to him. And the hippo started to act as though in reality he was the king of the Nile.

The mighty Elephant hated to see the hitherto lush and beautiful Nile valley become grey and desolate. He knew of the hippo’s new ways. He hated rumors he was hearing, that the hippo was the new king of the land.

Straightaway he called a meeting of all the animals of the land. They gathered before him. It was a wondrous sight! Lions, zebras, buffalos, rabbits, rhinos, waterbucks, cheetahs, monkeys, all were there including tribes of hippos, gathered as though they came to suppor their man. Birds and the few butterflies that were still around watched the show from a distance. They watched from the safety of elevated nearby treetops. Hippo was eating the land dry! Elephant announced. He must be stopped!

The animals murmured among themselves and nodded their heads in agreement! Something must be done! And something was done. Henceforth all hippos will be restricted to the waters and banned from ever again setting foot on the land. A mighty roar of approval went up. Elephant! Oyee!

But soon a lone voice was heard, it was the crocodile, king of the waters. He protested! Crocodile feared that the hippo would soon wreck the same havoc he wrought on land upon the waters of the Nile. Soon there might be no water, no river and no fish.

There is no voice as strong as when defending self interests. But soon a compromise was reached. The gentle but powerful Elephant was great at this kind of thing.

Hippos would be restricted to the waters by daytime. And they must catch no fish. But at nightfall they may roam the land freely and may graze freely. In that way they could never eat all the grass. Thus the green valley of the Nile was saved.

Under the new instructions a strict regime of checks and balance was put in place. All hippos must defecate on land by dawn, to show they had eaten only grass. And before stepping on land at dusk hippos must open their mouths wide and must show their teeth, to prove there were no bloodstains there.

Orders are orders! So whenever you see hippos open their mouths wide, as though to yawn, they are not yawning at all. They are obeying orders from the king of the Nile.

Some Remarks
As a general rule, in the animal kingdom, the bigger an animal the less vulnerable it is to be preyed upon by other animals. But there are downsides to bulk, because with size comes the need for increased energy and thereby for a great quantity of food.

In animals, after a certain weight level, the food requirement is so great that eating flesh alone could not guarantee the energy needs required. This is the reason giants in the mammal world are grass eaters.

It is estimated that on the average the hippo will need about 80 kg of grass per day to survive. This is a massive amount of grass and will certainly undercut the ratio of smaller animals.

Definitely hippos defecate into the waters. In ecological terms this is critical to the development of a viable water life. Bacteria live on the hippo’s waste; fish in turn live on the bacteria, while bigger fish leave on smaller fish. The result is a food chain that embraces humans.

It is all there! We could consider the old Acholi tale in terms of the global environmental crisis that threatens the world today.