“How the Tortoise’s Shell Cracked”

Stanley Kalu studies screenwriting at the University of Southern California. He is originally from Nigeria, but has moved several times throughout his life. He spent a significant portion of his life in Nairobi, Kenya and now lives in Los Angeles, California. He recalls hearing a number of stories as he grew up; many of these stories conveyed moral lessons and were told to younger audiences. In the excerpt below, Stanley recounts a folk tale he heard as a child:

Stanley: “So back when I was young, my mom would tell me a story of how the tortoise got his shell cracked. And the story went like this: the tortoise, being the most intelligent animal in the animal kingdom, during a drought said ‘hey birds, let’s go to heaven. You can fly me up there and I’ll talk to God, and everything will be fine, we’ll all get food, it will be fine. But in heaven, we’ll all have different names. So my name will be all of you, right? My name will be all of you.’ And the birds agreed, so they flew him up to heaven. And then, they were talking to God, who brought a huge feast with him. And then God said, ‘this food is for all of you,’ and the tortoise said, ‘oh, that’s me!’ so he ate all of the food, and all the other animals got upset. So, they left him in heaven and he had no way of getting back down to Earth. So he had his wife place a soft pile of feathers on the ground to break his fall, but he missed. Then he cracked his shell and he had to piece it back together. And that is how the tortoise got his cracks.”

Isabella: “Does that communicate any sort of moral lesson?”

Stanley: “Yes—don’t be sneaky.”

The transcript above details a Nigerian folk tale. Stanley recounted the story as we sat at a café after class one day, and he appeared to have the story committed to memory entirely; this suggests that he heard the story frequently as he grew up. The tortoise story warns against deception and “sneakiness” by illustrating the consequences of such behavior. It serves as a template for other tales—the message is universal in a sense and the motifs are interchangeable.