LONGLIST REVIEW: A Wisp of Wisdom: Animal Tales From Cameroon


This wonderful collection of stories was created in aid of the people of Korup in Cameroon, Africa. The children of the region have never been able to read the traditional stories because they have never been written down- until now. A team of ecologists from Oxford university gathered these folk tales with the aim of compiling them into a book to give back to the people. Twelve incredible authors got involved with the project and added their own personal style to each retelling. The stories are full of tales about tricky tortoises, cunning monkeys, flies stronger than elephants, blue bottomed drill monkeys, despicable crocodiles and animals gathering for meetings up in the sky.


Story 1 - Why there is Still Enough Wisdom on Earth by Geraldine McCaughren

Pa Tortoise wants to gather the world’s wisdom for himself. He travels the world in search of knowledge and collects it in a Calabash gourd that he hangs around his neck. In his greed, he attempts to climb a tree to keep the wisdom safely for himself. But his short stumpy legs are not adapt at climbing and in frustration he smashes the Calabash, returning the world’s wisdom. He uses the broken Calabash as a hiding place which he still uses today as a shell.

Share and discuss the long term planning for the year with the class and display it in a class ‘Calabash’. Talk with the class about the things they would like to learn about each topic.


Story 2 - How the Tortoise Earns the Dents in his Shell by Abi Elphinstone

The animals of Korup hold their annual conference in the sky where they discuss how satisfied they are with their food, shelters and general health. Elephant, Leopard, Civet, Hornbill, Eagle and Tortoise gather and make their way up the ladder that stretches from mount Yuhan into the clouds. Tortoise has to be carried and he is grumpy and ungrateful.  During the conference, Tortoise continues to prove himself to be rude, selfish and greedy and all the animals are offended by his behaviour. No one wants to carry him back down to Korup and so he decides to jump the distance, relying on his wife to lay out a soft landing for him. However, when Ma Tortoise hears about his behaviour, she lays a bed of rocks for her husband to land on. Tortoise lands badly, cracking his shell. You can still see the dents today.

Write a letter to Tortoise persuading him to change his ways and be kind to the other animals of Korup.


Story 3 - Why the Dog and the Drill Monkey are Enemies by Adele Geras

Dog and Drill Monkey weren't always sworn enemies; they were once the best of friends. They would spend their days together annoying the other animals in Korup. Together the animals decide that they would all be better off if Dog settled down and found himself a wife. Finally, a suitable bride is found from a very refined family and invited to meet the Dog and Drill Monkey families. Drill Monkey is jealous of the attention Dog gives to his future wife and decides to test whether his love is stronger than his nature. Dog fails to suppress his wild and rude nature and his new family, unimpressed, call off the wedding. In his anger Dog vows to forever be the enemy of the Drill Monkey.

Divide the class in half. One half will write on behalf of the mischievous Drill Monkey and the other for the reformed character of the Dog. Write in character about why they wish to behave in such different ways. Have the children share their written ideas and discuss and debate the opposing character views.


Story 4 - Why it is Believed Tortoises Live Forever by Ifeoma Onyefulu

Leopard calls the animals of Korup to an urgent meeting to announce a series of regional competitions. Tortoise, the proudest of all animals, does not perform well; however, he cannot resist boasting about his great skills. His friend, Buffalo, is unimpressed and so he brags that he can win a game of tug of war against two elephants. Tortoise manages to persuade two elephants to join him in a game of tug of war, only if the rope is so long that they cannot see the other end. However, the elephants do not realise that they will be pulling against each other. Buffalo, unaware of the trick Tortoise has played on her, vows that the little creature deserves to live forever.

Write to persuade an elephant to join you in a game of tug of war.


Story 5 - Why the Hornbill Calls After Monkeys by Sarah Lean

The monkeys of Korup hold a carnival competition to see who has the longest tail. They use colourful feathers from the regional birds to decorate their tails. Word passes between the birds to be wary and all except Hornbill stay out of the way of the mischievous monkeys. Guenon, a small white monkey, is desperate to join the carnival and is tempted by the feathers of the Hornbill. Guenon spreds a rumour to enrage the proud Hornbill, who wishes to enter the carnival himself, in order to trick him into exchanging tails. After convincing Hornbill to switch tails, Guenon also tricks him into arriving late to the competition. Furious, Hornbill follows the monkey troop into the forest squawking and calling after Guenon. Never able to accept that he was fooled by a small monkey, he continues to caw after all the monkeys in the jungle.

Retell the story, writing about the carnival and Guenon’s reaction to winning the longest tail competition.


Story 6 - Why the Bush Pig Digs Roots from the Ground by Tom Moorhouse

Bush Pig or the Red River Hog, is renown for being the grumpiest of all the animals in Korup. He used to be polite and incredible wealthy and considered by everyone to be the very finest of beasts- all but Tortoise, who is jealous of his wealth. Tortoise devises a plan to take River Hog's fortune by playing upon his generous nature. Gullible River Hog gives away most of his money to Tortoise, hoping that it will one day be paid back. However, Tortoise is always full of excuses when River Hog asks for his money. Red River Hog gradually becomes bitter, angry and obsessed with having his money returned. Tortoise and his wife continue to trick River Hog and ask that he find and return a beloved stone before they return the money and Red River Hog has been looking for it ever since.

Discuss the adjectives Tom Moorhouse has used in this story, particularly those used in the first paragraph. Write an alternative explanation (with lots of descriptive adjectives) for why the Bush Pig likes to root in the ground.


Story 7 - How the fly Defeats the Elephant by Geraldine McCaughrean

Elephant, the bully of Korup, feels he is better than all the other animals and loved to challenge everyone he meets to fight him. However, only fly was brave enough to stand up to him and accept the challenge to fight. The animals gather to watch as Elephant shows off his strength. Fly simply flies around and lands in Elephant's large ear. The fly tickles and buzzes Elephant until he becomes dizzy, dancing and scratching at it. Finally, Elephant concedes and pleads for Fly to stop the insistent buzzing. Fly agrees on the condition that Elephant never bully anyone again. If ever Elephant does forget his manners, you may again see the little fly buzzing around him.

Read other stories about unevenly matched parings or 'underdog' stories - David versus Goliath, the lion and the mouse, the hare and the tortoise, the fox and the crow and the ant and the grasshopper. Compare the outcomes of these stories and the similar moral messages throughout. Choose a story to retell.


Story 8 - Why the Drill Monkey has a Blue Bottom by Beverley Naidoo

In the middle of Korup forest there is a village where all the animals live in harmony and share everything. Invitations are regularly sent throughout the forest to invite all the animals to attend feasts and parties. The only animal regularly uninvited is Tortoise. One day an invitation is sent out on behalf of Ma Hen in order to request help with hatching her eggs. Proud Tortoise hears of her plight and offers to help. Foolishly, the animals agree to his offering of help. Tortoise tricks the animals and cooks and eats the eggs. Unaware. they offer him gifts of fruits and vegetables and Pa Drill Monkey offers to give him a lift home with his reward. As soon as the animals realise what has happened, they chase Tortoise and Pa Drill Monkey through the forest. When the Drill Monkey returns to the village, the animals beat him on the bottom with branches from the trees for helping Tortoise and his bottom turns blue from shame.

Write out a recipe for Tortoise that involves eggs - omelette, scrambled eggs, meringues or soufflé. Focus on the imperative verbs and adverbs whilst writing your instructions- for example 'gently whisk the eggs... Carefully pour the mixture... Generously sprinkle with cheese...'


Story 9 - How the Monkey Defeats the Crocodile by Piers Torday

Pa Colobus was the smartest monkey on all of Korup. He was always careful when approaching the river but on one particular morning when he went down to drink, he was met by crocodile. The Colobus and the Crocodile become friends and share daily greetings and gifts with one another. Crocodile confides in the monkey that his father is ill and Colobus offers to help his friend Crocodile. Unfortunately, Crocodile’s father will only get better after eating the heart of a monkey, a gift that Colobus doesn’t wish to give. Colobus convinces the father and son that he does not carry his heart around inside him because it is too heavy. Whist going to fetch his heart, he escapes from the crocodiles. Colobus learns to be wise and cautious, even when dealing with his friends.

Write a different ending to the story. Imagine what might have happened if Colobus had used a rock for his heart? Would Colobus and Crocodile still be friends today if he had offered a substitute heart?


Story 10 - Why the Francolin’s Legs are Red by Elizabeth Laird

Tortoise and Francolin have always been best friends. Back when they were friends, the Francolin didn’t have red legs- they were brown. Every morning, the tortoise and the bird went out to look for food together. Tortoise ate leaves and Francolin would look for nuts and seeds on the ground. Francolin didn’t enjoy flying but it was all that Tortoise could talk about and it began to annoy him. The two creatures found themselves lost and desperate for food. Finding pine nuts, they decided to roast them. Tortoise could. reach into the fire due to her hardened skin but Francolin’s legs needed more protection. Wrapping himself in banana skins he jumped into the fire to retrieve his pine nuts but the fire was too hot and his legs were burned red. The francolin’s legs are still red today and he still doesn’t fly far.

Write poems to perform about the story of Tortoise and Francolin.


Story 11 - Why the Rat-Mole Stories Goundnuts by Lucy Christopher

Rat-Mole had worked hard all year to gather nuts in her burrow for the rainy season. Mole spent much of her life underground. When above ground, her eye sight wasn’t good and she would have to feel her way around. Mole overheard the animals gossiping about the humans that lived beyond the forest. The people were hungry and were beginning to hunt the animals for food. Mole knew she was too small to scare or outrun the humans but felt guilty for having such a large supply of food and knew she should probably share it. After being caught by a young girl, Mole felt her fears of the humans reduce. She was able to share enough food with the girl to feed her family and the village too. In another area of the forest, Mole’s animal friends had been captured by hungry villagers. When the humans heard of the kindness of Mole, they released the animals and promised never to hunt them again.

Write a character profile of the brave little rat-mole. Discuss other characters that show bravery in the face of adversity.


Story 12 - Why the Tortoise Eats Mushrooms

The animals could sense a change in Korup. They knew that they needed to work together to survive it. Some animals collected seeds, some honey. Others dug up yams and gathered corn. The man was the only animals that didn’t contribute anything to the collection. He planned on stealing the food the animals worked hard to harvest. While the animals slept, the man built a wall around the gathered food. The animals were furious when they realised that they had been tricked. Elephant realised that man had been foolish. All the animals work together to nourish, plant and pollinate and man needed their help if he was to survive more than one season. When drought came, the animals began to starve whilst the man was well fed and watered behind his wall. When rain at last fell, life returned to Korup.  Man wanted to enjoy the fresh water and plants and at first the animals refused to allow him, because of his greed. Gradually, the man’s pride prevented him from leaving the wall. The man had lived so long beneath the stones that they had become part of him. Elephant advised that the man try to walk with the stones on his back. The animals gave the man a new name- Tortoise- as a reminder of the trickster he had been. 

Elephant suggested that if the Tortoise/Man gave back to the forest and opened his heart to the environment around him, he would be able to undo what he had done. Make posters, adverts or plan fund raising activities to help save the animals of Korup.


General Teaching Ideas

  • Write non-chronological reports about the animals of Korup.
  • Investigate the animals of the region that are now endangered and create posters to persuade people to care them.
  • The stories of the Korup have always been told orally and have never been written down. Explore a variety of ways of story telling through music, dance, rhymes and pictures. Divide the class into small groups and assign each a different method of reselling a story from Korup.
  • Many of the stories feature the tricks of Pa Tortoise. Discuss whether he would be so tricky if the animals treated him more fairly.


A Wisp of Wisdom: Animal Tales from Cameroon

Various authors

Lantana Publishing    ISBN:  978-1911373063


You can read another review of 'A Wisp of Wisdom' here.