Nigerian Myth: How The Tortoise’s Shell Got Its Cracks

“The story goes (pause). So you know how a turtle’s shell isn’t perfectly symmetrical? Like it isn’t totally round and you know it has cracks everywhere on it. So you know how when a plate is broken you glue it back together but you can still see all of the cracks and stuff but it’s still whole? Well that’s like a turtle’s shell. And this story sort of explains how the shell got this way. Well all of the animals were having a big party in the sky or heaven or whatever and um the turtle, or the tortoise, couldn’t go because he couldn’t fly. So all of the birds gave him some feathers so he could fly up to the party. When he got to the party, the tortoise said that all of the animals should have names and they all agreed to have names. So every animal chose it’s name and whatever and the tortoise said his name was ‘All of You.’ So you know they all had their names and the tortoise was Mr. All of You. So when they started bringing all of the food out for the party and they would say you know who is this for and they would respond ‘All of you’ the tortoise would say ‘Oh, that’s me’ and get all of the food. And when the drinks came out, because you know this was a huge party with drinks and food and all sorts of the things, he would just kind of take it all for himself. And all the other animals started getting really pissed off and angry at him and you know the birds got really angry at him. So when it was time to go home the birds took back all of their feathers and then the tortoise was like ‘well how will I get home?’ and they just didn’t care they were so pissed off. So the tortoise asked one of the birds to tell his wife to get all of the mattresses and blankets and all of the soft things and lay them out. So the bird goes down and finds the tortoise’s wife and tells her that he’s [the tortoise’s] up to something and that she should get all of the hard things out, all of the dishes and plates and pots. So she goes out and lays out all of her dishes and pots and plates and silverware and just all of the hard stuff she could find. And so when the tortoise jumped down he landed on all of that and that’s sort of why his shell is the way it is. And you know the moral is don’t be selfish.”

My informant first heard this myth from his parents in Nigeria when he was a child. His parents would tell him and his siblings stories like this one when they would do things as a family, or, as my informant said, during “long, boring parent-child time.” His parents would repeat this particular myth during my informant’s “selfish stage,” both when he was a young kid and did not want to share with his siblings and as he got older and did not want to spend time with his parents. My informant believes that the myth is told to children to teach them not to be selfish. The story shows, according to him, that if you are selfish and greedy, that in your time of need no one will help you, just like the birds “didn’t give a shit” that the tortoise could not get home from the party in the sky.

I agree with my informant’s interpretation of this myth. This myth seems to be a great way to satisfy a child’s curiosity about the world, by answering a legitimate question about the tortoise’s shell, while teaching two important lessons: one, that actions have consequences and two, that it is better to share than be selfish. My informant has also mentioned to me that he has four siblings, and that where he is from in Nigeria his family is considered small. At my informant’s home, I would imagine, learning to share with others from a young age would have been vital for ensuring a peaceful household. By telling this story, my informant’s parents were trying to teach their children to share and not be selfish, and therefore create a more harmonious home.