"The Ants and the Treasure" a West African Folktale

"Gold-Digging Ant", by mutmut, from DeviantArt

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This Episode was sponsored by "Stories of Strangeness" Podcast

The following story comes from the Yoruba people of West Africa who today live throughout the countries of Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana, and was taken from https://sacred-texts.com/afr/yl/yl16.htm  and has a few small lingo changes by me to make it easier to read.

There once was a poor man who was very kind to animals, birds, and insects. However little he had, he always spared a few grains of corn or beans for his parrot, as well as spreading some bits on the ground every morning for the industrious ants hoping that they would be satisfied, and leave his few possessions untouched. And for this the ants were grateful.

In the same village there lived a greedy man who had by crafty and dishonest means collected a large sum of gold, which he kept securely tied up in the corner of a small hut. He sat outside this hut all day and night, so that nobody could steal his treasure.

When he saw any bird, he threw a stone at it, and he crushed any ant which he found walking on the ground, for he detested every living creature and loved nothing but his gold. As might be expected, the ants had no love for this man, and when he had killed a great many of their number, they began to think how they might punish him for his cruelty.

“What a pity,” said the King of the ants, “that our friend is so poor, while our enemy is so rich!”

So the ants got an idea. They decided to move the greedy mans treasure to the poor man’s house. To do this they dug a great tunnel under the ground. One end of the tunnel was in the poor man’s house, and the other end was in the hut of the greedy man.

On the night that the tunnel was completed, a great swarm of ants began carrying treasure through the tunnel and into the poor man’s house, and when morning came and the poor man saw the gold lying in heaps on the floor, he was overjoyed, thinking that the gods had sent him a reward for his years of humble toil. He put all the gold in a corner of his hut and covered it up with cloths.

Meanwhile the greedy man discovered that much of his treasure had gone missing! He was alarmed and could not think how the gold could have disappeared, he had kept watch all the time outside the hut.

Then next night the ants again carried a great portion of the gold down the tunnel, and again the poor man rejoiced and the greedy man was furious.

On the third night the ants worked non-stop and succeeded in moving all the treasure to the poor mans hut.

“The gods have sent me so much gold!” shouted the poor man, as he put away his treasure.

But the greedy man called together his neighbors and told them that in three consecutive nights his hard-won treasure had vanished away. He swore that nobody had entered the hut but himself, and therefore the gold could have only been removed by witchcraft.

However, when the hut was searched, a hole was found in the ground, and they saw that this hole was actually the opening of a tunnel. It seemed obvious that the treasure must have been carried down the tunnel, and so everyone began hunting for the other end of the tunnel. Eventually it was discovered in the poor man’s hut! And under his pile of cloths they found the missing gold.

The poor man protested in vain, he could not possibly have crept down such a small tunnel, he pleaded his case that he truly did not how how the gold had got into his but. But the rest of the people said that he must have some magical spell he used to make himself very small and that he crept down the tunnel at night into the greedy mans hut. For this, they locked him up in a hut. On the next day he was to be burnt alive.

When the ants saw what had come of their plan to help him, they were perplexed and wondered how they could save their friend from such a painful death. There seemed to be nothing for them to do but to try and eat up the whole hut where he was confined. It took many hours but eventually they devoured the whole hut, and the poor man was astonished to find himself standing in an open space. He then ran away into the forest and never came back.

The Next morning the people saw that the ants had been at work, only a few stumps of the prison hut remained. They said: “The gods have taken the punishment out of our hands! The ants have devoured both the hut and the prisoner!”

And only the ants knew that this was not true….


For a short story with a simple plot, I think this African folktale packs a lot of lessons. So Ill start from the top. 

The poor man is generally good to the world around him, while the greedy scrooge man is not. This kindness of the poor man, earns him the favor of the ants even though they have no direct contact. 

The ants take it upon themselves to do something about the poor mans condition, at the expense of the greedy man.

For awhile it works, but they go to far and without realizing it, the greedy man egins to suspect foul play, and even his neighbors, who were not necessarily his friends began to realize something wasn’t right. Eventually they found the snall tunnel and began looking for the other end. Where did all the Gold go?

This eventually led them to the poor mans home, where they discovered the gold. 

The poor man had no idea how the gold got into his house, for all he knew it was magic, and likewise the greedy man suspected it might be magic that took the gold in the first place. As punishment, the village decided the poor man should be executed for theft and likely witchcraft. 

The ants, who only had good intentions to start with realized this was all their fault. The man they wanted to help, ended up being on death row because of them. The ants then come in the night and devour the prison hut where the man is held. Never realizing the ants, the poor man gets up to find himself in an empty field, he runs away into the forest never to be seen again.  

Does that remind you of anything? Any social, economic, or moral scenarios come to mind? 

My  mind came to few more familiar phrases “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime”. Or howabout “Robbing peter to pay Paul . Or parents who unintentionally wreck their children lies by giving them anything and everything? Despite the good intentions of the ants, the real result of their actions was they created animosity in the village above and beyond what existed previously. The poor man ultimately lost his home, and nearly his life, and nothing changed in the greedy man except he became more bitter.  Theft (cough cough taxes) is absolutely not the same thing as charity!

Or howbout we view this a little weirder. Treat the Ants like an unknown third party. God perhaps, or maybe Aliens, or Zookeepers. Doing one gesture with a specific intent, but getting some completely unintended result! I think it’d be fair to say we’ve all done that at some point! 

Random tidbit: Origins of the quote "Give a man a fish..."