LISTEN LIVE: Loading...



Hungry Hippo | Ep. 192

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

We’ll start today’s show with a riddle:

“You can have me but cannot hold me.

You can gain me yet quickly lose me.

If treated with care I can be great,

And if betrayed I will break.

What am I?”

Do you know the answer?

It’s trust!

When you gain someone’s trust, they feel they can rely on you. But in today’s story, we’ll meet a character who loses the trust of a god!

Our story is called “Hungry Hippo.” Versions of this tale originally come from eastern, central, and southern Africa.

Voices in this episode include Jonathan Cormur, Hrishikesh Hirway, Jessica Rau, Erika Rose, Nick Sholley, Dawn Ursula, and Scott Lawrence. Listen for Scott Lawrence in the animated series Star Wars Resistance on Disney Plus, and the Star Wars virtual reality series Vader Immortal, where he plays Darth Vader!

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Nora Saks. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

Coloring Page

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes, click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

Hippo had trouble being kind to others. But there are plenty of ways you can practice acts of kindness every day. And to help you along, why not make a Kindness Jar?

  1. Find some pieces of paper and ask a grownup to help you cut the paper into strips.
  2. On each strip of paper, have your grown-up help you write one kind thing you can do for someone else. Maybe you can help someone with a chore or eat lunch with a new friend. Perhaps you can make a card for someone or give a family member a compliment - or a hug!
  3. Once you’ve written an act of kindness on each strip of paper, put them all in a jar.
  4. Every day or every week, pick a strip from the jar.
  5. Read what it says, then do what it says! It’ll be super-fun for you, and super-meaningful for somebody else!

Musical Spotlight: Djembe

Mali’s Bambara people say the name of the djembe (pictured here played by Eric Shimelonis) comes from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé": "everyone gather together in peace.” (Courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)
Mali’s Bambara people say the name of the djembe (pictured here played by Eric Shimelonis) comes from the saying "Anke djé, anke bé": "everyone gather together in peace.” (Courtesy of Rebecca Sheir)

The goblet-shaped drum known as the djembe is one of West Africa's best-known instruments. Historians believe it dates back 400 to 800 years. Traditionally you carve the djembe from a single piece of African hardwood, then stretch animal skin over the top as a drumhead and play it with your hands. It’s been said the djembe contains multiple spirits: (1) the tree from which it was made, (2) the spirit of the animal whose skin created the drumhead, and (3) the spirits of the woodcutter, carver and people who assembled the drum.


NARRATOR: Way, way back, after the Supreme Spirit created the earth and sky, the powerful deity created the animals… and decided which ones would fly in the sky, which ones would swim in the water, and which ones would walk, run, and crawl on the land.

Among those who’d spend their life on land was Hippopotamus. 

If you’ve seen a hippo, then you probably know they spend their time in the water, right? But way, way back, Hippo dwelled on the land, where he roamed – and munched – the grassy plains.

HIPPO: (eating sounds)

NARRATOR: Hippo was a much smaller animal in those days; he was no larger than a golden retriever! But despite Hippo’s small size, he had a very big

HIPPO: (eating sounds)

NARRATOR: appetite!

HIPPO: Ohhhh! This patch of grass might be the tastiest one I’ve found yet! So crunchy! So sweet! So full of fiber yet so utterly delicious! Mmm mmm mmm!

NARRATOR: Thing is, much as Hippo loved to eat, one thing he did not love to do…

ZEBRA: Hey Hippo! How about sharing that grass?

NARRATOR: …was share.

HIPPO: Are you out of your mind, Zebra?!?? I will not share this grass! This grass is mine!

NARRATOR: No matter which of his fellow land dwellers asked if Hippo could please share the grass…

WILDEBEEST: Uh, Hippo? Could you please share the grass?

NARRATOR: …he always said no.

HIPPO: No way, Wildebeest! I will not!

NARRATOR: This happened again…

GAZELLE: Uh, Hippo, mind if I have some grass –

HIPPO: Dream on, Gazelle! 

NARRATOR: …and again…

WARTHOG: So, Hippo, could you maybe share some grass –

HIPPO: Buzz off, Warthog!

NARRATOR: …and again.

ANTELOPE: Ya know, Hippo, I was thinking maybe I could have a bite of your grass –

HIPPO: Take a hike, Antelope! Seriously! Can’t a hippo just eat his grass in peace?!???

NARRATOR: Hippo’s selfishness grew and grew… and so did he! Because the more grass he ate, the bigger his barrel-shaped body got. And before long, Hippo was one of the hugest animals on the plains, second only to Elephant and Rhinoceros!

But with Hippo’s big size… came an even bigger problem.

You see, as Hippo’s body grew larger, his brownish-gray hide stretched tighter and together to cover it. So when the dry season rolled around… and the fiery sun baked the grassy plains below… Hippo felt himself baking, too!

HIPPO: Uch! My poor hide! It feels so tight! And cracked! And dry! How will I make it through the dry season without frizzling like a fritter???

NARRATOR: Hippo found a tall tree and parked himself beneath its shade. But…

HIPPO: …I’m still hot!

NARRATOR: He whipped his bristly little tail this way and that, trying to fan himself. But…

HIPPO: …I’m still hot!

NARRATOR: He threw his body to the ground and rolled around in the dust. But…!

HIPPO: I’m still hot!

NARRATOR: He shuffled to the cool blue river, and took a drink at the water’s edge.

HIPPO: (slurping water sounds)


HIPPO: I’m still hot!

NARRATOR: As Hippo wallowed in his misery, he suddenly caught sight of Turtle, Otter, and Crocodile – three of the water-dwelling animals – as they splashed around in the river.

TURTLE: Ahhhhh! How amazing does this cool water feel on such a hot day, you guys?

OTTER: It feels amazing, Turtle! Don’t you agree, Crocodile?

CROCODILE: I sure do, Otter! Thank goodness the Supreme Spirit created us to live in the water, so we don’t have to suffer beneath that sweltering sun! Am I right?

TURTLE: Totally, Crocodile!

OTTER: One-hundred percent!

NARRATOR: As Hippo enviously stared at Turtle, Otter, and Crocodile, he suddenly got… an idea.

HIPPO: Forget about the grassy plains! What I need… is to live in the water! To spend my days wading in the river – instead of roaming around on land! The water would protect my hide from the heat! And I’d always be cool and refreshed!

NARRATOR: Hippo dipped one of his feet into the river. It sure felt good on his stubby toes.

HIPPO: You know what? I’m going to ask the Supreme Spirit if I can become a water creature! I’m so miserable in this heat she’s sure to grant my request!

NARRATOR: So Hippo lumbered off to the Supreme Spirit’s towering, lofty mountain, and asked the mighty deity to turn him from a land creature into a water creature.

SUPREME SPIRIT: Now hold on there, Hippo. Are you serious? You’re really asking me to turn you from a land creature into a water creature!??

HIPPO: I am! I mean, I know you’re all-powerful and everything… and far be it from me to second-guess any of your all-powerful decisions… but I’m pretty sure I’d thrive a whole lot better if I lived in the water!

SUPREME SPIRIT: But Hippo! I created you to thrive on the land!

HIPPO: I know that, Supreme Spirit! But with all due respect… this summer heat! It’s killing me! Look at my hide! It’s all dry and cracked!

SUPREME SPIRIT: Right… but to be fair, Hippo – your hide wouldn’t be so “dry and cracked” if it weren’t stretched so thin! And it wouldn’t be stretched so thin if you hadn’t grown so large! From eating all that grass and keeping it to yourself!

HIPPO: What can I say? I’ve got a healthy appetite!

SUPREME SPIRIT: So I’ve noticed! Listen, Hippo. I know how miserable you are, and I can’t bear to see any of my creations suffer. So I'll tell you what. I will turn you into a water creature.

HIPPO: You will?!?

SUPREME SPIRIT: I will! But you’ll have to make a few… changes.

HIPPO: Of course! I’ll do anything, Supreme Spirit! Anything!

SUPREME SPIRIT: Good! First, you’ll have to give up eating grass… and start eating fish.

HIPPO: I can do that, Supreme Spirit! I can go from being an herbivore to being a pescatarian! No problem!

SUPREME SPIRIT: Very good! But once you start eating fish, Hippo, you must promise you won’t keep them all for yourself! You must share them with your fellow water dwellers!

NARRATOR: Hippo felt a rush of dread. “Share”? He had never shared anything before – and certainly not food! But he was so desperate to spend his scorching-hot days in the water, what else could he say except…

HIPPO: You’ve got it, Supreme Spirit! I’ll do it! I’ll start eating fish, and I’ll share them with my fellow water creatures!


HIPPO: I promise!

SUPREME SPIRIT: Then consider your wish granted! But remember: I’m doing you a big favor here. So if you break your promise – and break my trust – there will be a price to pay. And mark my words, Hippo: that price will be nearly as enormous as you are!

[theme music in]

NARRATOR: What do you think: will Hippo honor his agreement with the Supreme Spirit? Or will he ‘pay the price’?

We’ll find out what happens, after a quick break.

[theme music out]


[theme music in]

NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “Hungry Hippo.”

[theme music out]

NARRATOR: Before the break, Hippo had eaten so much grass, his barrel-shaped body had ballooned to an enormous size – and his stretched-out, brownish-gray hide had become dry and cracked in the blazing sun.

The Supreme Spirit took pity on Hippo, and granted his request to become a water-dwelling creature. So, with newfound happiness in his heart, Hippo waddled down to the cool, blue river and dove in with a splash.

HIPPO: Ohhhh! What a relief! I feel so comfortable! So refreshed! So… hungry! Uch, my stomach is growling like a mama lion protecting her cubs! I haven’t eaten in hours and I am famished. I promised the Supreme Spirit that I would give up grass and start eating a diet of fish… so I guess it’s time to give those little slippery snacks a try!

NARRATOR: Hippo plunged his head under the water, opened his jaws, and gulped down a mouthful of fish.

HIPPO: (gulp) Mmmm! Not bad!

NARRATOR: Then he gulped down another mouthful.

HIPPO: (gulp) Really not bad!

NARRATOR: Then another!

HIPPO: (gulp) Really, really not bad! These fish are so good, I’ll have no problem keeping my promise to the Supreme Spirit! No problem at all!

NARRATOR: Now remember. Eating fish wasn’t the only promise Hippo had made to the Supreme Spirit. Do you remember what the other promise was?

That’s right!

He had also promised… to share!

He gave the Supreme Spirit his word that once he lived in the water, he would share fish with the other water animals.

But as Hippo stood there, chowing down in the river, can you guess what he did?

Or, rather, what he didn’t do?

TURTLE: Hiya, Hippo! Welcome to the water! Any chance you could share some fish?

OTTER: Yeah! You know, we love eating fish too!

CROCODILE: And we’d be honored to join you for a meal!!!

HIPPO: ‘Join me for a meal’...?!? ‘Share some fish’...!?? Turtle, Otter, Crocodile – somehow you water animals are just as delusional as the land animals are! These fish are mine! Now beat it!!!

NARRATOR: Indeed. Just like that, Hippo forgot all about his second promise to the Supreme Spirit!

Well… when the Supreme Spirit learned that Hippo had gone back on his word, the great deity swept down from the mountain to confront him.

SUPREME SPIRIT: Hippo!!!!! What in the world do you think you’re doing?

HIPPO: ‘What in the world do I think I’m doing’? I think I’m doing exactly what you told me to, Supreme Spirit! I’m gobbling up all these delicious fish!

SUPREME SPIRIT: But I didn’t tell you to gobble up “all” of the fish, Hippo!! When you asked me to change you into a water-dweller, you assured me you would share the fish! Yet look at you! You’re hoarding them all for yourself! Have you already forgotten the other half of your promise???

NARRATOR: Hippo froze mid-gulp.

HIPPO: Um… right! About that… Uh, listen, Supreme Spirit. I can explain everything!

SUPREME SPIRIT: There’s nothing to explain! We made a bargain, Hippo. I trusted you. And you broke that trust. You let your selfishness get the better of you. So now… just as I warned… you must pay the price.

NARRATOR: Hippo felt the bristles of his little tail stand on-end.

HIPPO: Uhhhh… and what, pray tell, might that “price” be…?

SUPREME SPIRIT: Well, Hippo… from this day forward you may continue to live in the water… but you will no longer eat any fish.

HIPPO: ‘No longer eat any fish’?! Then what will I eat?

SUPREME SPIRIT: That’s simple! You will go back to eating grass!

HIPPO: Okayyyy… but there’s no grass in the river!

SUPREME SPIRIT: Indeed! Every time you get hungry, you must crawl out of the water and go back to the land to eat grass. But you won’t eat nearly as much grass as you did before! To ensure that there’s plenty of grass left for the other animals, I will give you a smaller appetite. Much smaller!

NARRATOR: And to this day, that’s true. Even though hippos weigh a lot – like, as much as a small car – they're pretty light eaters! Especially compared with other animals their size.

But as the Supreme Spirit went on to explain, a smaller appetite wasn’t the only price Hippo would pay.

SUPREME SPIRIT: And furthermore, Hippo! In order to make sure that you’re just eating grass – and not any fish – I will need… proof.

HIPPO: Uh… what kind of “proof”?

SUPREME SPIRIT: Well… As you wade around in the water, you will stretch your mouth open veeeeeery wide! Wide enough for me to make sure you’re not hiding any fish in there! You will do this many times throughout the day, so that I can keep an eye on you.

NARRATOR: And that’s true to this day, too! Hippos frequently stretch their mouths open really wide. At full stretch, their mouth can measure four feet from top jaw to bottom. That’s tall enough for a six-year-old kid to stand up in – not that they’d want to!

SUPREME SPIRIT: But wait, Hippo! There’s one more thing!

HIPPO: There is…?

SUPREME SPIRIT: Yes! You’ve broken my trust once. And I can't take you at your word anymore. So it won't be enough for me to check that there are no fish in your mouth. I’ll also need proof… on the other end.

HIPPO: Uh… what do you mean, “on the other end”...?

SUPREME SPIRIT: Well… you know that bristly little tail of yours?


SUPREME SPIRIT: After you eat your fill of grass, all the fiber your body can't use will pass through your digestive system. And when it comes out the other end, you will use your bristly little tail to spread your dung along the riverbank!

HIPPO: Uhhhh… come again!??

SUPREME SPIRIT: After you eat, when it’s time to “do your business,” you will come up and out of the river. Then you will spin your tail very, very quickly – so quickly, that your dung will spray every which way! And it will land in scattered piles along the riverbank! Then I will come down and inspect those piles, to make sure they contain no fish bones!

NARRATOR: Hippo could hardly believe his ears.

HIPPO: What?!?

NARRATOR: And chances are, you can hardly believe your ears, either!

But – honest to goodness – it’s true! To this day, when hippos come to the riverbank to relieve themselves, they twirl their tails really, really fast – like an airplane propeller or an electric fan. So as they do their business, their dung sprays in all directions, and lands in a scattered heap.

Now, scientists say that hippos create this ‘dung tornado’ as a way of marking their territory. But if you believe our story, it’s also a way for these immense animals to prove they’ve been true to their word. And that despite their huge mass…

HIPPO: …we’re only full of grass! 

Rebecca Sheir Twitter Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



Listen Live