First let me acknowledge once again the Congolese storytellers, Pere Lepoutre who preserved these tales in Lingala, unfortunately increasingly archaic Lingala, and my great translator Stan Hotalen who has dedicated his life to missionary and community development work in the Congo. With these authentic fables I prefer to use a light editing touch, but I wrestled with this one. There was some gratuitous violence that in my opinion marred the story and was not germane. So after going back and forth in my mind, I decided to do some creative editing. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the text is unaltered in any significant way, and I believe the original storyline and moral comes through as intended.
When the Tortoise’s wife became pregnant, the Tortoise did everything he could to please her. One day she said: “None of the foods you’ve brought satisfy me. I have a craving for the heart of a chimpanzee.” Wow, the Tortoise thought, that’s a tall order. How on earth am I going to get one of those? However the Tortoise was a strong animal, much stronger than he looked, but more importantly he was also very very smart, having a great amount of hidden wisdom in his shell. So he thought long and hard until he came up with a plan. He dressed himself up in a costume just like a great and powerful witchdoctor might wear and headed off into the forest. It so happened that an elderly Chimpanzee was very ill, near death, and his sons were out searching desperately for a witchdoctor. The Tortoise and the sons met, and they took him back to their family’s little village. Earlier that day they had moved the sick Chimpanzee from the hot mud brick house and placed him out back on a small bed in the cool shade of a banana tree.
This is perfect the Tortoise thought. The Chimpanzee is dying anyway and can’t put up a fight, and he is already outside where I can slip away quickly. He took the entire family back into the house and instructed them to sing and beat on drums as loudly as they could, never stopping until he was finished tending to the family patriarch. Then he went back outside and quickly cut out the Chimpanzee’s heart and disappeared into the forest with his prize. When the family finally tired of singing and beating on drums, they went outside and saw what had happened. They were stricken will grief. They quickly buried the body and placed a marker on top of the grave. In addition they all vowed revenge against the fake witchdoctor, but they didn’t know where he lived.
As was their custom, the family would mourn for several months, at the end of which they would hold a grand celebration to honor their deceased family member. When the time came for the grand party, everyone was invited, even the animals way out in the countryside, far beyond the Tortoise’s village: the Elephant, the Antelope, the Buffalo, the Leopard, the Squirrel, the Hippopotamus, Snakes of every kind, Crickets, the Porcupine, the Wild Boar, Bees, Mosquitoes, and even the Hyena, just to name a few. And everyone planned to go, except the Tortoise of course, for obvious reasons.
So on the day of the party, the tortoise stayed behind in his village. His best friend, the Eagle, saw him and asked why he wasn’t going to the party. “I can’t go,” the Tortoise replied. “My pregnant wife wanted to eat the heart of a chimpanzee, so I’m the one who killed the father Chimpanzee. If I go, they will see me and kill me.”
“Let’s take a walk and think about this,” the Eagle replied. “I don’t want to leave my good buddy behind.” Now this Eagle was famous in those parts for his magnificent crown of feathers. After they had strolled around the little village, the Eagle announced: “I’ve got a great idea. You can hide in my crown of feathers, and every now and then I will pour some palm wine on my head for you to drink.” At first the Tortoise was doubtful, but the Eagle convinced him that it was a good plan. “Don’t worry so much,” the Eagle said. “It will work out fine. You’ll see.” So the Tortoise climbed up and hid himself in the Eagle’s feathers.
When they arrived, the party was in full swing, and it was clear that several of the animals already had had quite a bit to drink. The Eagle found a place to sit and began drinking. The Eagle loved palm wine. Some of the animals noticed that every now and then the Eagle would pour some on his head, and they asked about it. The Eagle told them that his witchdoctor had recommended it to keep the feathers in his beautiful crown nice and fluffy. “Seems like a waste of good palm wine to me,” someone growled.
Everybody at the party was drinking nonstop, including the Eagle. Because he was no longer thinking clearly, he grabbed a drum and began pounding on it. The Eagle was an accomplished drummer, and the other animals often asked him to send talking drum messages for them. At first the Eagle was just pounding out rhythms, but without even thinking about it he began to drum words. “You … animals … will … never … guess … what … I … have … hidden … within … my … crown … of … feathers.”
The Eagle and the Tortoise were lucky, because talking drums are not that easy to understand even when you are sober, but the other animals became curious and asked what message he was sending. Of course the Tortoise was terrified. Embarrassed by all the attention and realizing what he had almost done to his friend, the Eagle went outside for some fresh air. Once outside and by themselves, the Tortoise said, “Are you trying to get me killed? You’re drunk. I’m going back to my village. You can stay here if you want.” The Eagle apologized and said that he wouldn’t do any more drumming. He pleaded with the Tortoise to stay just a little while longer, and then they would go back together. Perhaps the Tortoise was feeling the palm wine too, because he let the Eagle talk him into staying.
So they went back inside, where the Eagle apologized and explained that he had drank too much and was just pounding out nonsense words. The Eagle began to drink heavily again and soon became restless. Suddenly he jumped up and began dancing and singing loudly, much to the amusement of the other animals. Then he grabbed a drum and began pounding away again. This time the oldest Chimpanzee son, who as the host had drank less than the others, was paying attention. Before long the Eagle was pounding out a message: “Hey … all … of … you … chimpanzee … children … the … Tortoise .. who … killed … your … father … is … hiding … in … my … crown.” Of course the Chimpanzee host yelled for his siblings, and they searched the Eagle’s crown and found the Tortoise.
“It is you, the fake witchdoctor who murdered our father,” all the chimpanzees screamed. “How dare you come here to the scene of your crime and drink our palm wine. You will die today. We will cut off your head.”
“I am guilty,” the Tortoise said, “but I wish no further harm to come to your family because of me. If you take me down to the river and let me stretch my neck out on a log, my family will know that you gave me a traditional tortoise death, and they will not seek revenge.”
That seemed like a good idea, so that is what they did. When the Tortoise stretched his neck out on the log, the other animals moved back a few paces so as not to get splattered by blood. The Chimpanzee raised his knife and slashed downward. At the last second the Tortoise zipped his head back inside his shell. Tortoises can do that very quickly. The knife sank deeply into the log and became stuck. In the confusion, the Tortoise slipped down the river bank into the water and escaped.
Moral: If you are smart, and use your brains, you can get away with a lot.