The Cunning Tortoise explores a popular story about the Tortoise who is known to be a trickster in many West African folktales. Join host Thelma Ekeocha, as she discusses some of the main elements and themes found in this story. This episode features Paige, a politics and culture enthusiast and student at American University in Washington, DC.
[Upbeat African drums begin to play and under voiceover]
HOST: Welcome to Moonlight Tales, a show where we explore the oral tradition of African folktales. I am your host, Thelma Ekeocha and this is Moonlight Tales.
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[Host (Thelma Ekeocha) introduces show’s episode]
THELMA EKEOCHA: Hello and welcome to this week’s episode of Moonlight Tales with me, your host, Thelma Ekeocha. In today’s episode, I will be sharing a story that comes from the Igbo tribe in Nigeria. This is a story about the Tortoise who is known to be a wise and cunning animal in many West African folktales. This is a story that my parents shared with me in our native language, Igbo, and we have translated this story to English to share with you today.
After sharing this story, I will be joined by our featured guest Paige who is from the Caribbean Island nation of Jamaica and a student at American University in Washington DC. We will be discussing some of the cultural elements found in the story and we will also discuss some of the similarities between Igbo and Jamaican folktales. Without further ado, this is a story about the cunning Tortoise.
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THELMA EKEOCHA: Once upon a time in the animal kingdom, Tortoise who was a cunning animal wanted to get married. He could not afford the traditional wedding items required by his soon-to-be inlaws, so he borrowed them from his neighbors. He called his kinsmen to accompany him to his in-laws for the wedding ceremony. Before Tortoise and his kinsmen set out, he told them that they should all take on special names to answer to when they arrived at the ceremony. Everyone chose their names and Tortoise chose to be called “all of you.”
When they arrived at the wedding, the in-laws had prepared different kinds of foods and drinks. The ceremony began first with the serving of kola nuts and palm wine. When the kola nuts were served, Tortoise stood up and asked his in-laws [“who are the kola nuts for?”] and the in-laws replied, [they’re for “all of you”]. Then Tortoise turned to his kinsmen and said [“my people, the kola nuts are for me”]. So Tortoise put the kola nuts away in his bag. After some time, the in-laws came back with other foods and drinks and Tortoise would ask again [“who are these for?”] and the in-laws would reply [“for all of you”]. Tortoise took all the foods and drinks that were served for himself and put them away in his bag.
When the in-laws came back and saw that the kinsmen were not eating and drinking, they asked Tortoise why? Tortoise replied that it was because the in-laws said that the food was for “all of you” and that that was his name.
After the serving of food and drinks, they began the traditional wedding ceremony. Tortoise and his kinsmen presented the bride price and wedding gifts to the bride’s family. Some of the gifts were yams, rice, and palm oil. The in-laws accepted these gifts and stored them in their house. At the end of the ceremony, Tortoise and his new bride went home. Tortoise, being a greedy and crafty animal, arranged with some thieves to steal the wedding gifts he had just presented to his in-laws. When Tortoise and the thieves arrived at night to steal the gifts, the in-laws heard the noise and raised an alarm. Neighbors came running and caught Tortoise and the thieves. The neighbors tied Tortoise and the thieves to a tree in the public square as punishment. Later, members of the community pleaded to have Tortoise and the thieves released. The in-laws released them and Tortoise went home in shame. When Tortoise got home, he realized that his bride had gone back to her father’s house.
THELMA EKEOCHA: And this is the end of our story.
THELMA EKEOCHA: And now we will turn it over to our discussion with our guest Paige.
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THELMA EKEOCHA: Okay, so I am here with Paige and Paige is here to discuss the story that we have just heard…umm so Paige welcome to the show and please tell our listeners a little bit about yourself.
PAIGE: Hey Thelma, thank you so much for having me on your show. Umm like Thelma mentioned, my name is Paige and I am a Jamaican. I’ve been living in the US for quite some time now. I’m a student at American University and I study International Affairs Policy and Analysis and among my interests are culture and folktales and music and how all those things intersect in modern societies.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Thank you. So we are talking about a specific African…uhh.. folktale. So I just you know….can you let our listeners know why you are interested in folktales in general, especially African and West Indian folktales?
PAIGE: I think my interest in folktales comes first of all from my interest in culture. A lot of Jamaican folktales are some of the only things that we have left from African culture given that people were stolen and enslaved. Umm a lot of those folktales were passed down orally from the descendants of formerly enslaved people and it’s a way of really holding on to a culture that can be lost.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Right. Yeah, these stories are…. you know… have been passed down from our ancestors. These stories have been passed down through oral tradition over generations. And I think we can both agree that these stories are often told to children, right, as a way to pass down norms and values….umm to teach about different aspects of our culture.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Umm so with this particular that we have heard, what would you say is the main value being taught with this story?
PAIGE: I think that …umm… you’re absolutely correct about it being you know lessons for children and young people. And I think for this one I’d say that in addition to you know like just not stealing in general, it would be just a larger story about greed, right?. So we heard about…umm… you know the renaming of himself to collect more goods from his in-laws’ homes and you know then going home with his bride then going back to steal from his in-laws’ house. Just really not being satisfied with what he’s already stolen and just keeps stealing more. I think it’s a larger commentary about… you know what befalls people, and greed.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Right and it’s interesting because the tortoise makes a lot of appearances in a lot of West African folktales, especially in a lot of Igbo folktales. So the Igbo people, the Igbo tribe, are one of the three main tribes in modern-day Nigeria. And I am an Igbo person. So, I grew up listening to a lot of stories that have the tortoise as the main character. And so he’s often portrayed as this umm wise yet greedy, cunning animal. And so it’s interesting to see how you see those two elements of him being a wise person to him choosing to be renamed as “all of you”…you know that’s a clever way to get more food at the wedding ceremony. And, also to see you know the idea of good and bad traits being portrayed in the same character. What would you like to say about that?
PAIGE: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right and I think these are just largely stories that you know essentially warned against using… you know… using smarts and using wisdom for evil because then it becomes you know cunning and trickery because that you know that was a really smart move but it wasn’t used for good; it was used for deception and thievery. So I think it just speaks back to the larger element of the story being used as lessons and moral lessons for young people.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Right! So I want us to touch on a little bit more about some of the main parts of this story; some of the main elements in this story…umm.. that we also see in many African or West Indian folktales. So food is always an important cultural element, a factor of our stories. So in this story, you have some of the main foods that you find in Igbo culture. So you heard about yams and these are African yams, not the sweet potatoes that you see here in the US. Umm you have kola nuts. So, I just want to ask, do you….are there staple foods in Jamaica that you see often make appearances in Jamaica or West Indian folktales?
PAIGE: Yes, I mean similarly there’s a story about Anansi which is a Jamaican folk character, a cunning spider. He occurs not only in Jamaican folktales but in Ghanian folktales as well. There’s a story about Anansi and a yam hill. There are multiple stories about bananas and sugarcane, and mainly crops that are found on these islands.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Right! Yeah and a lot of these foods…you know I think we always talk about foods…these are umm foods that may have different names but often are in the same family.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Anyway another element I wanted us to touch on is… you kind of alluded to this earlier but is this realism element, right? So in a lot of these folktales, we see animals and humans talking to each other and understanding each other. Or in other stories you see humans and spirits… you know umm… talking to each other. They may live in their own worlds but there is… umm… interaction and it’s normal. So you have this mixture of the natural and the supernatural worlds coming together and these are umm… you know… this goes back to how all of our cultures celebrate the connection of the natural world to the supernatural world. We often think about our ancestors, we… umm pray to our ancestors, we… umm you know…when you attend ceremonies, we may first… you know have a moment of silence for our ancestors. So I just wanted to…do you have anything to add to this element of realism that is often found in African folktales?
PAIGE: No, yeah I think you’re absolutely right! I think these stories are told in the space where these two worlds collide; umm the spiritual world and the natural world, and I think that it speaks to the larger tradition of… you know mythicism in both African cultures specific to Nigeria and West Indian culture, specific to Jamaica as well.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Right! And in umm… speaking more about… you know how these stories are set up, we do have umm… at least within the Igbo culture we do have, almost kind of a format. These stories follow a specific format where the storyteller would begin… uhh… the story by first setting the scene. This can be done by umm… you know like the common phrase you hear is
“E nwerem akuko nga akoro unu” which translates to “I have a story to tell you.”
And then the audience responds by saying…
“koro anyi ka obi di anyi nma” which translates to “tell us that our hearts may be gladdened.”
So this phrase….these two phrases kind of set up the format, set up the scenes of the stories. But we also have umm… singing….singing is also a common element. You know… we can have singing in the beginning or in the middle of these stories and they are often used to umm…further set up the scene. Or you have a call-and-response similar to what the storyteller would tell the audience. So this is seen in Igbo folktales.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Do you have the same format or do you have the same set up in Jamaican folktales?
PAIGE: Yeah…umm in addition, umm…. we don’t have a specific way to begin stories but we do have a specific way to end stories. And we also do have music. I think music, singing and I think dancing as well in Jamaican culture is used to you know give the story a more colorful kind of presentation and umm the phrase used to end the stories in Jamaican folk tradition is
“Jack Mandora, Mi nuh choose none” and it essentially means “Jack Mandora, I don’t choose you or I don’t choose any.”
And it is said that Anansi, the cunning spider I spoke of earlier, is the god of knowledge and Jack Mandora is the gatekeeper to Anansi. And so this is essentially….it’s almost like a disclaimer of sorts, letting Jack Mandora…you’re telling the story as it’s being heard and you want no harm from the spirit world. We talked earlier about the stories happening on the intersection of the spirit world and the natural world and its almost a phrase closing that gate as to not let anything come through so that’s really the ending of the stories, closing that gate.
THELMA EKEOCHA: So that’s really umm I’m glad that you mentioned that because I..you know like I mentioned earlier, in Nigeria within the Igbo tribe, we start our stories a certain way but I don’t know if we end or have a particular way of ending stories other than saying that “the story has ended” but I like that you have this disclaimer phrase in Jamaica that ..you know… before…it’s almost like you’re telling your listeners that “I have opened you up to this story where you have the natural and the supernatural world colliding but I also..now that I am done telling you this story I am going to…. almost like you said, close the doors to this intersection of worlds as a way to protect the audience.” So that’s really neat to know. That’s definitely something new that I have learned on this episode.
THELMA EKEOCHA: So thank you for sharing that. And before we go do you have anything that you’d like to share with our audience? Do you have anything that you’d like our listeners to know?
PAIGE: Yeah! I think I would just urge people to go and look up folktales from different traditions because a lot of these folktales stretch across traditions, across continents. Off the top of my head I’m thinking about the story of Anansi, and the Tortoise and the Hare. The Tortoise and the Hare is a common children’s story that stretches across continents and cultures. So I think what a lot of these folktales have reminded me is that we are way more alike than we are different.
THELMA EKEOCHA: Right. So this is Paige and Paige I would like to say thank you so much for being on the show. I think our listeners will find your contributions insightful and valuable. And so I just want to thank you for taking the time to talk about folktales with me. Thank you, Paige.
PAIGE: Thank you!
THELMA EKEOCHA: And with that, I’d like to thank you all for listening to this week’s story and thank you to our guest Paige for coming on the show. Please check out the description box for a link to the show’s website where you will find this episode’s show notes and a transcript. Please remember to subscribe and leave a review. Thank you again for listening to Moonlight Tales with me, Thelma Ekeocha. See you next time!
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Read more on The Tortoise and the Hare [from the US Library of Congress]
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