Oral Literature: The ambitious Ants

Ants are the busiest creatures in the world. Every ant has a full time job, with no holidays and no half-days off Ants like to work, and they don’t like much else.

The biggest and strongest ants build whole cities for themselves, complete with compartments like deep shelters to which they can retreat if any enemies try to destroy the city above. In these cities there are even big stores where food is kept, and special nurseries for young ants.

If you watch ants at work you will notice that they always work in vast numbers. One or two single ants never do anything alone. If they happen to get separated from the regular army they scuttle about in great distress until they find their way into the crowd again. Once there they get into line like soldiers, and march patiently off about their tasks.

This was not always the way they worked. Once there were two ants who had very big ideas about what they could do. They believed that if they could make a tunnel all the way under the earth they would really be able to span the whole world, and that gradually every other creature would have to obey their orders.

They decided that the best way to start this tunnel was to begin burrowing in opposite directions, and then they would eventually meet at the other end.

So each ant began to burrow, and on and on they went. Of course they didn’t realise that it was most unlikely that they could work in such a straight line that they would meet in the end. Day after day, they dug, but there was no sign of their meeting. Finally the first ant began to think something was wrong. He decided that his partner was a very foolish fellow who had somehow taken the wrong turning, so he turned round and marched back. After a long and tiresome journey, down the tunnel he had made, he arrived in the open once more.

Here he found everything as usual. Millions of ants were all scurrying around on their accustomed tasks, each one in an awful hurry — you may have noticed ants always are in an awful hurry — and he had to waylay one to ask for information.

“Have you seen or heard anything of my friend who is making a tunnel round the earth?” he asked a young ant who was carrying a large leaf on his back. “No, I haven’t,” replied the young ant. “But I did see someone being carried off on a stretcher. It may be your friend!”

Seriously alarmed our ant hurried off to the hospital, and made anxious enquiries, but none of the ants brought in during the past few days were his friend. However, the ant on guard at the door had another piece of news. “I did hear about an ant who was going to tunnel his way round the world, he was brought in badly injured some days ago, and he died.”

This upset our ant very much, and he at once scurried to the Registrar of Births and Deaths, where he made enquiries into all the burials of the past few days.

“I don’t see your friend’s name,” the Registrar told him. “What makes you think he’s dead?”

“Well he was helping to make a tunnel round the world, and it’s a pretty dangerous job.”

The Registrar laughed.

“Oh is he one of them? Crazy folk are always getting the idea that they can do that, but most of them end up in the Mental Hospital. I should go and look there if I were you!”

Our ant retreated in a thoroughly bad temper, consoling himself with the act that great men were always misunderstood by those around them.

In the meanwhile the second ant had gone on tunnelling, and tunnelling until he was worn out, and still there was no sound of his friend’s approach from the other end. So finally he also decided that he would go back and try and find out what was the matter.

After a long, weary journey he emerged into the daylight, and found everyone busy as usual. The only person who took the slightest notice of him was a vulture. As vultures always see everything the ant asked him if his friend had been around.

“Well, I’m not sure if it was him,” replied the vulture, “but I did see a fellow calling a meeting yesterday, and it seemed to me that something very queer was going on!” The vulture gave the ant a crafty look. Nothing pleased the vulture better than a fight because the victims always fell to him in the end, so he never missed an opportunity to start some trouble.

“But why should he call a meeting?” asked the ant.

“Well, he might claim that he had circled the earth single-footed, and offer to act as leader to the other ants, and conquer the world at last,” suggested the vulture.

“But he couldn’t do that, I’ve done as much as he has!”

“Oh, probably he hasn’t done anything of the kind. It’s only an idea I had. Forget it,” the vulture said cunningly.

The ant went away feeling thoroughly upset. When you put your trust in someone this was always what happened, he told himself, quite forgetting that the vulture hadn’t a shred of evidence to support his nasty idea.

“There is only one thing to do,” the ant told himself; “I’ll have to get people on my side. I’ll have to convince them that I am in the right.”

So he went into the public square and waved his feelers wildly, but the other ants were as usual so busy marching round on their accustomed tasks that no one took any notice of his antics. Finally, he rolled a large stone into the middle of one of their endless files of marching men, and this broke them up in confusion, and he made them listen to him.

At first they refused to believe that he had really made such a long tunnel as he claimed. They merely tapped their foreheads, and decided that here was someone else who had crazy ideas about conquering the world.

“Give me a fair chance,” pleaded the ant. “Come and see what I have done, and then you will believe me!” More in anger than sympathy one of the leaders eventually told off a posse of workers to accompany the ant, and off they went towards the tunnel. Having entered it, and marched, and marched, for miles, they became somewhat impressed, and believed that after all there might be some truth in this amazing claim.

“I know I must be almost all the way round the world,” the ant assured them, “and another bit of work will prove it. Come on and help me dig!” So they all helped him, and they dug, and dug until they were weary, and called, and called to try and locate the fellow who was supposed to be digging from the other end, but there was no reply, and finally they were forced to give up.

In the meanwhile the first ant had repeated the performance of his friend. Convinced that he had been betrayed he too called a meeting and recruited a crowd to his aid, and they went back and proceeded to burrow further along his tunnel, but without any result. The only person who was pleased was the vulture, who could see some really worthwhile developments from his personal viewpoint.

After much time had passed both gangs of workers gave up and made their way back along the tunnels until they at last emerged face to face. At once both the leaders advanced on each other furiously, and made accusations of treachery, while the eager vulture sat up on a tree above, almost drooling in anticipation of a huge meal of slaughtered ants.

However, all the ants weren’t hot-heads, and as each side listened it became clear to many of them that the whole misunderstanding lay in the original idea that two ants burrowing in opposite directions round the world, could meet on the other side. So they broke up the argument by pointing this out to the leaders. “If you ask me,” one old ant commented, although no one had asked him anything, “If you ask me, all the trouble arose because you two tried to do this thing on your own. If you had worked with an organised army the way we usually do, everything might have been all right. I think a resolution should be passed that in future, all ants, everywhere, will never work alone, but always in large numbers.”

The original leaders had nothing to say against this plan, for they felt more than a little foolish, and so the resolution was passed unanimously. From that day to this no ant ever does anything alone, and if you want to see this for yourselves all you need do is to go into the garden and watch till you see ants at work.

As regards their idea of ruling the world it never came to anything, because quite apart from the difficulties, there aren’t enough ants for the job. True there are billions, and billions of them, but that isn’t enough. (Folktale from West Africa)

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