Christmas is a time of traditions, stories and folklore. In Africa it is no different, although the folk tales are told throughout the year to many willing listeners. With acknowledgements to Chinua Achebe, the renowned Nigerian novelist who wrote Things Fall Apart (the most widely read book in modern African literature according to Wikipedia) – let me tell you the tale of how the tortoise got the lovely patterns on its shell.
Tortoise was a cunning fellow, who was known to pull a trick or two on the animals in the district. When he heard that the birds had been invited to a feast by the sky people, his mouth watered at the thought of the delicious food that would be on offer. The land had been stricken by drought and Tortoise was so thin that his shriveled body rattled inside its shell.
He used his powers of persuasion to get the birds to allow him to accompany them to the feast. Of course he didn’t have wings like they did, but they were a friendly lot and each bird kindly donated a feather to Tortoise, which he made into two nice big feathered wings. As I said, Tortoise was a sly reptile and the birds didn’t really trust him at all, but he assured them that he was a changed man.
They all dressed themselves and then took off together for the feast in the sky. Tortoise, being widely traveled and knowledgeable, told them that it was important to note that when they were invited to such a great feast, it was customary that they should change their names for the occasion. This was news to the birds, but they respected Tortoise for his great wisdom. After the birds had all assumed new names, Tortoise renamed himself “All of you.”
When the party eventually arrived at its destination in the sky, they were warmly welcomed by their hosts. Tortoise, in his beautiful feathered plumage, stood up to thank them for their invitation and he was so eloquent and grand that the sky people assumed that he was the king of the birds. The feast began with pots and pots of delicious food being set before them. Tortoise could hardly believe his eyes. The sky people invited the birds to eat. Tortoise immediately jumped up and asked them who the food had been prepared for. “For all of you,” the man said.
Tortoise turned to the birds and reminded them that his new name was “All of you” and he said that the custom here was for the spokesperson to eat first and then the other birds would be served after he had eaten. Tortoise ate and ate and ate and the birds grumbled angrily. The people of the sky thought it was the bird’s custom to allow their king to eat first.
Tortoise ate his fill and left the birds nothing but bones and meagre pickings. They were so angry with him that they chose to fly home with empty stomachs. Before they left, they each took back their feather that they had given to Tortoise. He stood there in his shell, with his belly bloated from all the food and wine. He had no wings to fly himself back home again. He asked the birds to take a message to his wife, but they all refused. Eventually an angry parrot offered to relay his message.
Tortoise asked parrot to tell his wife to cover the ground around his home with soft things, so that he could jump from the sky and make a soft landing. Parrot promised, but his message to Tortoise’s wife was the opposite and he told her to put lots of hard things around the home (like hoes. guns and a cannon). Tortoise could see her working hard, but was too far away to see what she was putting out. When she was ready, he let himself go and dropped out of the sky. He fell and fell and at last he crashed into the compound around his home.
His landing caused his shell to shatter into many pieces. Tortoise survived the fall, but his wife had to call the local medicine man to fix him up again. The medicine man gathered all the broken pieces of his shell and stuck them together. We can still see where all the joins are today.
A lovely African tale, don’t you think? I’m enjoying the book too.