Tag Archives: Nigerian

How the Tortoise Got Its Cracked Shell


“There is a lot of animal folklore in Nigeria. I used to hear this one story all the time when I was little. It goes like this:

There was once a great drought in all the land. So the animals gathered to try and make a plan. It was decided that the tortoise, due to his charm and manner of speaking, would fly up to heaven with the birds in order to bring food down. As he flew, he told the birds that at such times it is important to change your name. So he told them his name was “all of you.” They got to heaven (and the feast) and God said the food was for “all of you.” The tortoise gorged himself. The birds got mad and left, but the tortoise begged them to tell his wife to put soft things by his house so that he could jump and fall from heaven safely. The birds told his wife the opposite and the tortoise jumped and broke his shell.

I’ve heard that one a million times. There are many Nigerian folktales about the cunning tortoise.”


This story reminds me of many tales that revolve around how an animal or other natural phenomenon came to be. It is a way of explaining the world around us before science or other explanations came about to replace tales. The cunning tortoise is a recurring character in Nigerian folklore, representing craftiness and outsmarting others, often at his own expense.

The Significance of Yams in Nigeria


My friend grew up in Nigeria before coming to the US for college. He says yams are life in Nigeria.

Friend:“The yam is the staple food and therefore a measure of masculinity and wealth. If a family has a lot of yams, you’re rich because you can feed your family. This makes you a strong man. Yams are equated to life in Igbo culture. Nigeria is the leading producer of yams in the world, so of course they are a big deal to us.”

Me: Do you still have family who farm yams?

Friend: “My father does not farm yams, but my grandfather did, and his father before him. When my grandfather got married, he had to present his yams to my grandmother’s family to prove he could provide for her, which is a fairly typical custom in Nigeria.”

Me: Is there anything specific about how yams are farmed that makes them special?

Friend: “On some farms in Nigeria, the women aren’t allowed to go to the farm until harvest time. Then the women do all of the harvest work. It’s superstition I guess. There are many people today who still grow yams. Yams are featured at any big gathering or at any holiday meal.”


Analysis: Many cultures have some form of staple food. For the Irish, potatoes are an important part of sustenance, and therefore are a large part of how people live. Because of this, a simple food like a potato, or yam, can come to have symbolic meaning.  What a family produces in terms of yams, and how it relates to masculinity is extremely interesting, given that yams are an unpredictable measure of success. One year, the harvest could be plentiful and the weather perfect. The next year, however, bad luck could lead to very few yams. Another aspect of this folklore worth noting is that while the men do the initial farming, the women do the harvesting. Perhaps this relates to the hunter/gatherer trope, but a man’s worth relies on work which is half done by women.

Nigerian Udara Song

This is a recording of my informant’s mom singing a Nigerian folk song about the Udara, a fruit common in Nigeria. Her mom would sing it to her often when she was younger. The story behind it contains the classic evil stepmother and a magical element. The translation is as follows:

My udara, produce fruits

produce fruits, produce fruits, produce fruits

produce fruits for the motherless

produce fruits for the fatherless

My father’s wife bought Udara from the market

Ate all with her children

Gave none to the motherless

gave none to the fatherless

This life is vain

one is born

one is gone

It is from a story about a boy whose mother dies and is left with a stepmother that buys fruits for her children but not for him. He finds an udara tree and begins singing to it, and it produces fruit for him. The stepmother sees this, so when he is gone one day they come and try to sing to the tree and get its fruit. He catches them, and sings to the tree that it carries the one of the children up far away. The stepmother and other children apologize and agree to treat him well in the future, so he sings again and the  tree brings the other kid back down. They never treated him bad again.


For the published version of this story and a longer version of the song, see:

Ebegbulem, Celestine. African Stories by Moonlight. S.l.: Authorhouse, 2014. Print.

Nigerian Lullaby

“So my sophomore year, one of my acting professors was this big crazy guy that did a lot of volunteer work around the world. He was like, really big into using theatre as therapy and stuff like that, and he goes to Nigeria every few years to work with the people there, and give aid, and use theatre to help them deal with the situation over there. And anyway, he taught us this song, which is a Nigerian lullaby, and its a round. And I don’t remember if he actually told us what it meant, no one in the class remembers what it meant, and we might even be singing the wrong words. But we like sing it, the people in my acting class, that took that class with him sing it. We use it as a warm up song before performances, because its pretty gentle on the voice, and also sometimes when we get together, and we’ve been drinking we sing it, because everyone knows the tune, and its a round so it sounds good without people having to know how to create harmonies and stuff like that.”

Nigerian Lullaby


I find it remarkable that the song has really been re-purposed from a lullaby to essentially a drinking song by the group of actors, who really don’t know what the song means, and could be singing the wrong words anyway. I think it’s a testament that certain sounds, like harmonies are almost universally pleasing. I don’t believe the meaning of the song is the reason people in Nigeria still sing it to their children, but rather that the sounds are relaxing and pleasing to the ear. That’s why people from cultures as disparate as Nigeria and the United States can find so much enjoyment in the same tune.