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How the elephant got its trunk
John Eppel
December 07, 2009

A doggerel adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's story "The Elephant's Child" from Just So Stories
A playlet for children of all ages

Part One

NARRATOR: O dearly beloved, if you have recovered
From helping the leopard embellish his skin,
You may learn about the mammoth discovered
His trunk! And now, by your leave, I'll begin . . . .


My tale unfolds in the far south land . . .
And the far south land, as I understand,
Is an inferior area deeply interior,
Infested with missionaries, mites, and malaria,
And there in the bushveld dark and wild,
In an elephant herd, lives the elephant's child:

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: I'm the elephant's child and my heart is as big
As the appetite of a large white pig.
I'm the meekest, mildest, elephant childest
Pachyderm ever seen,
But being so curious makes them furious -
My uncles and aunties, I mean.
They spank me when I ask them why,
They spank me when I ask them how;
They spank me, but I never cry,
I simply sniff and take a bow.
My nose is shaped like a soldier's boot
And wriggles from side to side;
When I blows it goes parp-a-root-a-toot-toot
And the birds fly off to hide;
Root, toot, parp-a-root-a-toot-toot
And the bunny rabbits run inside.
It's an ugly, useless, bulgy snout
Like an old discarded boot,
But at least it can blow and wriggle about
With a root, toot, a-root-a-toot-toot.


Ah, here's tall aunt ostrich!
Tall aunt ostrich, tell me why
Your tail feathers grow just so?
How come you're a bird yet you cannot fly?
And how do you get your neck to grow?

OSTRICH: Cheeky child, don't get me riled,
Take this, and that, and some of those;
Of all the creatures of the wild
You have the most inquisitive nose.

NARRATOR: Indeed it is the nosiest boot
That ever didn't ever didn't ever set foot,
And indeed it is the bootiest nose
That ever didn't ever didn't ever keep toes.
She tweaks it with her horny beak
And sends the snooper on his way:

OSTRICH: That nosy child, that elefreak,
The same darn questions every day:
How do I get my neck to grow?
Why is this or that just so?
How the heck should an ostrich know?

NARRATOR: Ah, here comes hairy uncle baboon,
He's been looking for insects under the moon.
Aunt ostrich asks him:

OSTRICH: How did it go?

NARRATOR: He says:

BABOON: I found a scorpio.

NARRATOR: The elephant's child, like a round balloon
Bobs across to the wise baboon
And he says:

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: O hairy uncle, why
Do watermelons taste just so?
How come our drinking hole runs dry?
And how many beanstalks in a row?
Why are your eyes so close together?
Is a hair just a skinny sort of a feather?

NARRATOR: And hairy uncle says not a word, except:

BABOON: Bahoo!


BABOON: The child's absurd.

NARRATOR: And he spanks him with his hairy paws
And he scares him with his spiky jaws -
Spankety, slappety, spankety, slap,
The elephant's child is taking the rap;
Smackety swat, crackety pow,
The elephant's child is taking a bow!


There's broad aunt hippopotamum
Wallowing, swallowing in the mud,
Bursting with rubbery, blubbery blood,
Chewing her hip-hippopotamus cud.

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: Broad aunt hippo why so glum?
Why so fat and round?
How is it your tummy tum-tum
Fa-lops along the ground?

NARRATOR: Now broad aunt hippopotamum
Holds her broad broad hoof up high
And brings it down on the elephant's bum

HIPPO: That's my reply,
You quizzy little elephant's child,
Be thankful that my nature's mild . . .

CHILD: And yet your eyes are very red,

NARRATOR: Says the mammoth with a bow:

CHILS: Is that because you're almost dead,
Or because you have no brow?

NARRATOR: But the elephant's child must be reconciled
To an answerless life of spanks -
It seems all the creatures of the wild
are annoyed with his prying pranks.

[jeeringly]: He's the elephant's child and his heart is as big
as the appetite of a large white pig;
he's the meekest, mildest, elephant childest -

[Narrator blows whistle and they freeze]

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: The crocodile is famous for his tears
And notorious as a gaping, toothy grinner,
But nobody knows, it sadly appears,
What the crocodile eats for his dinner . . .

NARRATOR: There's a rush of breath
And a hush like death,
The animals are astonished:
The elephant's child is about to be admonished.
They spank him once, they spank him twice,
They spank him three times under:
The sound of spanking fills the air like rolls of angry thunder.

EVERYONE: What a terrible terrible thing to ask!

NARRATOR: Comes the cry from far and wide:
The weaver hides behind his mask
And the lion forsakes his pride;
Donkeys bray, unicorns neigh,
And those who can, kneel down and pray!
But the elephant sniffs and makes a vow
Just as sweet, quite as neat, as a cat's meeow,
And as gentle, sentimental, as a dog's bow-wow.
Says he couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't ever ask again
What the crocodile eats - shhh - those words again.
Then out of the sky a mutter is heard
As down swoops the wise old kolokolo bird;
He settles his feathers on a wait-a-bit tree -

BIRD: Little elephant's child, attend to me.
I know the place where you must go
To find out what you want to know.

NARRATOR: (Avoiding certain distasteful words
Is a trait of the wise old kolokolo bird's.)
The elephant's child says:




BIRD: Now proceed to the great grey green greasy banks
Of the Limpopo River, if you please,
All set about with fever trees.

NARRATOR: And the elephant's child again says:

I proceed to the great grey green greasy banks
Of the Limpopo River, if I please,
All set about with fever trees?

BIRD: That's right,

NARRATOR: Says the wise old kolokolo bird
In the saddest voice you've ever heard.

BIRD: It's a long and arduous way, so if
You don't take shade and plenty to eat
You'll perish in the weltering sweltering heat,
And then rapacious vultures may
Devour your carcass quite away.

NARRATOR: When the elephant's child has heard these tidings
His relatives assemble for some farewell hidings;
And with a final sniff and a final bow,
He says:

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: I'm off to find out how
An elephant's child can find out what,
And why what is, is, and isn't not..

[as animals file off stage they chant, getting progressively quieter]

EVERYONE: Everybody knows that a nose that grows
Is the fate that a crate like the elephant chose
Everybody knows that a nose that grows
Is the fate that a crate like the elephant chose . . .

NARRATOR: (He has learnt from the wise old kolokolo bird
To avoid a certain tasteless word.)
Then he takes some shade and plenty to eat:
Bananas, melons, and sugar cane sweet,
And he sets his bearings east by north,
Wiggles his nose and waggles forth
From Graham's Town to Kimberley,
Through Khama's land where the monkeys flee
The leopard with his crazy spots:
Like huddled black forget-me-nots;
And the rusty shacks in Francistown
Are cracking up and falling down.
The grass is sparse and dry, the bush is dead,
The withered dogs are whining to be fed.
Gaunt cattle lapse and perish (vultures thrive)
And bees turn over - toes up - in the hive.
But the elephant's child has plenty to eat
And shade for his head and his blistery feet.
He avoids the town and the trading posts
Where the hunter with his trophies boasts.
As the ‘curfew tolls the knell of parting day'
The elephant northward plods his weary way
Through a land of sand where nothing grows
Save the hair on the knuckles of the antbear's toes.

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: The stars at night are a delightful sight,

NARRATOR: Says the elephant twitching his snout:


ELEPHANT'S CHILD: I wonder what we'd do for light
If all the stars went out?

PYTHON SNAKE: Thatss a ssomewhat ssilly thing to ssay,

NARRATOR: Comes a hiss from a baobab tree:
It's the multi-coloured python snake
With eyes like the currants in a crumble cake
And a stare that would make a quaker quake,
And he says sarcastically:

PYTHON SNAKE: Ssuch a ssapient little pachyderm,
Ssuch clever quesstionss make me ssquirm,
Which sspoilss my coilss.

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: You must be a worm
Or an eel or a lizard or a length of rope
Or a tassel from the vesture of the blessed Pope . . .
No, you can't be a worm, you're much too tall,
Or a length of rope ‘cos rope can't crawl,
Or a lizard or an eel or a tassle or a hose . . .

NARRATOR: And the elephant wiggles his stunted nose.

PYTHON SNAKE: You ssaucy little malapert!
Pressumptiouss, bumptiouss, ssnotty ssquirt!
I'll teach you how to be polite . . .

NARRATOR: And he wraps him round and holds him tight
And spanks the child with all his might
Throughout the black and starry night.
At last his tail begins to fail
And he lays it down to rest;
The elephant's child witholds a wail
And makes a blunt request:

ELEPHANR'S CHILD: The crocodile is famous for his tears
And notorious as a gaping, toothy grinner,
But nobody knows, it sadly appears,
What the crocodile eats for his dinner . . .

PYTHON SNAKE: Why don't you assk the crocodile?

NARRATOR: Says the python snake with a cold-blooded smile.
And the elephant says:

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: What a good idea!
I've travelled so far, I must be near
The Limpopo river, if I please,
All set about with fever trees.

PYTHON SNAKE: Indeed you are, I'll guide you there;
Now lift your bonce and ssniff the air.

NARRATOR: The elephant bows and takes a sniff
And suddenly his legs go stiff
And his eager nose begins to quiver:
He can smell the great Limpopo River.
He shouts to the stars a grateful thanks
And runs to the great grey green greasy banks
With the python hard upon his heels:
No legs, no wings, no fins, no wheels,
And yet he moves with rapid ease
Along the ground and through the trees.



NARRATOR: Staunch trees with elbows stretch against the sky
To tickle breezes as they giggle by
And catch the sunlight's gaudy yellow glare
With leaves as bright as polished silverware.
Along the water's edge the tadpoles play
And dream about being handsome frogs one day.
The pompous dragon fly inspects his wings
And somewhere in the thorny bush a cricket sings.
The banks are teeming with animals various:
Rats, warthogs, and tortoises testudinarious;
The hyena is finding it all quite hilarious;
That nasty bonecruncher will never be serious.
In the pea-green water, grinning the while,
The other creatures to beguile,
With bumps down his back - the crocodile!
His beads dilate with crocotears
As the breathless elephant's child appears
And settles his rump on a muddy log -
Some muddy log! It's the crocodile!
And he proves it with a tusky smile.


NARRATOR: Says the silly child:

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: Logs don't smile and you distinctly smiled;
Can you please tell me what the crocodile eats for his dinner?

CROC: Come hither child, and listen well,
I am the crocodile;
Come closer child and I will tell
You secrets for a while.

NARRATOR: The mammoth gasps and bites his cud.
He kneels beside the boggy brink
And his elbows and his kneecaps sink -
And sink - and sink into the mud.

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: Tell me what it is you eat?
Is it bitter, sour or sweet?
Do you treat it as a treat?
Is its flavour hard to beat?

CROC: Come closer child, and have no fear,
I want to whisper in your ear
And tell you secrets for a while . . .
I am the very crocodile!

NARRATOR: And he proves it with a heavy tear.
The elephant's child leans closer still
And, trembling, listens with a will.
What happens next? Good gracious me!

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: Led go, led go, you're hurtig be!

NARRATOR: The crocodile has grabbed him by the snout
And his tail's begun to gaily thrash about.
One cunning move, one mighty snap
And the elephant is caught like a mouse in a trap.
Then the croc between serrated rows
Of teeth as sharp as pinking shears
Lately oiled, lately filed, says:

CROC: I think I'll start with elephant's child.

NARRATOR: And he bursts into a whoop of tears.
The python snake is all afright,
Tells the child to pull with all his might:

PYTHON SNAKE: Or you'll ssink in the drink and cease to be
And that sslaughterer will gobble you up for tea.

NARRATOR: There's a tugging and a gripping
And a lugging and a slipping;
A trailing and a trawling
And a hailing and a hauling . . .
And the elephant's child is slowly falling
While his nose is stre-e-etching out
Like a man knocked down in a boxing bout.

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: Ow by dose, you're hurtig be,
By eyes are squint, I caddot see;
Fails by heart I do dot doe
That I cad pull buch longer;
By limbs are tired ad eddyhow,
The crocodile id stronger.

NARRATOR: Then the snake slides down and knots his coils
About the mammoth mound
And they pull together. The water boils
As the crocodile thrashes around.
At last, with a curse and a plop and a quiver
That is felt for miles up and down the river,
The croc lets go of the elephant's nose -
Just as long, just as wrong as a garden hose,
Just as foolish, quite as ghoulish as a boot that grows,
And as sore, just as raw, as an athlete's toes.
Now the foolish elephant's child believes
If he wraps his nose in banana leaves
And dips it in the soothing water
It will check its advance and start growing shorter.
For three whole days he sits on the brink
Waiting for the snout to heal and shrink;
But all in vain, the length and the. pain in the main remain,
And the elephant's child has to think again.
Suddenly a gadfly settles on his head
And before he knows what he's doing,
His nose flicks up and smacks it dead.

PYTHON SNAKE: ‘Vantage number one,

NARRATOR: Says the snake:

PYTHON SNAKE: See what a difference a trunk can make!

NARRATOR: Next, the elephant's child wants to eat some food
And before he knows what he's doing, his nose
Pulls up grass in juicy chunks . . .

PYTHON SNAKE: ‘Vantage number two. The method'ss crude
But it does confirm one's faith in trunks.

NARRATOR: The elephant thinks and blinks through the chinks
Of his eyes in surprise, and dumbly applies
The grass from his trunk to his gaping mouth.

It is time to return. He heads due south
Past Francis Town in Khama's land
Through miles and miles of thorn and sand,
Where the sun beats down and boils the blood,
And the elephant's head goes thud thud thud.
He rests at a drying drinik hole
And before he knows what he's doing his nose
Scoops a schloop of cool and sloshy mud
And slaps it on his throbbing crown.
He sighe as the coolness trickles down.

PYTHON SNAKE: ‘Vantage number three,

NARRATOR: Says the snake
Who has slid along rid along, just for the break:

NARRATOR: And you can greet your friends with a paddle and a thwack -

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: That's right,

NARRATOR: Says the elephant spraying his back:

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: What a wonderful thing is a five foot nose:
It's a switch and a swatter and a hand and a hose.

NARRATOR: At last the elephant child arrives
At his home in the south, where the cat contrives
To be king of the beasts, and the dog's best friend
Is a two-legged monster with a tail-less end.
His friends are happy to see him again
And they offer him spanks and sugar cane.
Then the pachyderm lifts his trunk in the air
And brings it down on rump and rear,
Beats his uncles black and blue,
Friends and fickle aunties too.

ELEPHANT'S CHILD: I'll show you how to spank!

NARRATOR: He shouts,
And he clobbers and he cudgels and he collars and he clouts.
Dazed and amazed they all agree
That the trunk is a useful novelty,
And they set their bearings north to find
New noses and new peace of mind.

And that, yes that, O dearly beloved
Is how the elephant duly discovered
His nose . . .
I suppose.


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