Oral Literature: Why The Tortoise Shell Is Not Smooth

The moon had been rising late every night, until it was seen only at dawn. Nakerekere and her mother sat on a mat on the floor after their supper. The world was silent, except for the shrill cry of insects, which was part of the night, and the sound of wooden mortar and pestle as Narieyuru pounded her ‘amazigbo’.

Narieyuru lived four compounds away and she was notorious for her late cooking. Every woman in the neighbourhood knew the sound of Narieyuru’s mortar and pestle.

Dagberewere had eaten from his wives’ dishes and was now reclining with his back against the wall. He searched his bag and brought out his snuff bottle. He turned it on to his left palm, but nothing came out. He hit the bottle against his knee to shake up the tobacco. That was always the trouble with Gbatembia’s snuff. It very quickly went damp, and there was too much saltpetre in it. He grumbled.
Dagberewere had not bought snuff from him for a long time. Mbakadi was the man who knew how to grind good snuff. But he had recently fallen ill.

Low voices, broke out and sound of singing reached Dagberewere from his wives’ huts as each woman and her children told fold stories. Nanzio and her daughter Nakerekere sat on a mat on the floor. It was Nanzio’s turn to tell a story.

“Once upon a time”, she began, all the birds were invited to a feast in the sky. They were very happy and began to prepare themselves for the great day. They painted their bodies with red cam wood and drew beautiful patterns on them with “mbiongo“.

Tortoise saw all these preparations and soon discovered what it was all about. Nothing that happened in the world of animals ever escaped his notice. He was full of tricks. As soon as he heard of the great feast in the sky, his throat began to itch at the very thought of it. There was a famine in those days and tortoise had not eaten a good meal for two moons. His body rattled like a piece of dry stick in his empty shell. So he began to plan how he would go to the sky.

“But he has no wings”, said Nakerkere. “Be patient”, he replied her mother. “That is the story”. Tortoise has no wings, but he went to the birds and asked to be allowed to go with them.

“We know you too well”, said the birds when they had heard him. You are full of tricks and you are ungrateful. If we allow you to come with us you will soon begin your mischief.

“You do not know me”, said tortoise. “I am a changed man. I have learned that a man who makes trouble for others is also making it for himself”. Tortoise had a sweet tongue, and within a short time all the birds agreed that he is a changed man, and they each gave him a feather, with which he made two wings. At least the great day came and tortoise was the first to arrive at the meeting place. When all the birds had gathered together, they set off in a body.

Tortoise was very happy and valuable as he flew among the birds, and he was soon chosen as the man to speak for the party because he was a great orator. “There is one important thing which we must not forget”, he said as they flew on their way. “When people are invited to a great feast like this, they take their new names for the occasion. Our hosts in the sky will expect us to honour this age-old custom”.

None of the birds had heard of this custom but they knew that tortoise, in spite of his failings in other directions, was a wide travelled man who knew the customs of different peoples. And so they each took a new name. Tortoise to be called ‘All of you’.

At last the party arrived in the sky and their hosts were very happy to see them. Tortoise stood up in his many-coloured plumage and thanked them for their invitation. His speech was so eloquent that all the birds were glad they had brought him, and nodded their heads in approval of all he said. The hosts took him as the king of the birds, especially as he looked somewhat different from the others. After the kola nuts has been presented and eaten, people of the sky set before their guests the most delectable dishes tortoise had ever seen or dreamed of. The soup was brought out hot from the fire and in the very pot in which it had been cooked.

It was full of meat and fish. Tortoise began to sniff aloud. There was pounded yam and also yam pottage cooked with palm-oil and fresh fish. There were also pots of palm-wire. When everything had been set before the guests, one of the people of the sky came forward and tasted a little from each pot. He then invited the birds to eat. But tortoise jumped to his feet and asked: “For whom have you prepared this feast?” “For all of you”, replied the man. Tortoise turned to the birds and said “you remember that my name is All of you. The custom here is to serve the spokesman first and others later”.

“They will serve you when I have eaten”. He began to eat and the birds grumbled angrily . The people of the sky thought it must be their custom to leave all the food for their king. And so tortoise ate the best part of the food and drank two pots of palm-wine, so that he was full of food and drink and his body filled out in his shell.

The birds gathered round to eat what was left and peck at the bones he had thrown all about the floor. Some of them were too angry to eat. They chose to fly home on an empty stomach, but before they left each took back the feather he had lent to tortoise. And there he stood in his hard shell full of food and wine but without any wings to fly home. He asked the birds to take a message for his wife but they all refused. In the end, parrot, who had felt more angry than the others, suddenly changed his mind and agreed to take the message. “Tell my wife”, said tortoise, “to bring out all the soft things in my house and cover the compound with them so that I can jump down from the sky without great danger”.

Parrot promised to deliver the message, and then flew away. But when he reached tortoise’s house, he told his wife to bring out all the hard things in the house. And so she brought out her husband’s bows, machetes, spears, guns and even his cannon.

Tortoise looked down from the sky and saw his wife bringing things out, but it was too far to see what they were. When all seemed ready, he let himself go. He fell and fell and fell until he began to fear that he would never stop falling. And then, like the sound of his cannon, he crashed on the compound. “Did he die?” asked Nakerekere.

“No”, replied Nanzio. “His shell broke into pieces. But there was a great medicine man in the neighbourhood. Tortoise’s wife sent for him and he gathered all the bits of shell and stuck them together”. . That is why tortoise shell is not smooth, as a result of his mischief and gluttony.

– Story from Azande people – DR. Congo

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