Today an excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus!
“Hei,” Amaka groaned, “This is not a good time for NEPA to take light. I wanted to watch something on TV.”
Obiora moved through the darkness to the two kerosene lamps that stood at the corner of the room and lit them. I smelled the kerosene fumes almost immediately; they made my eyes water and my throat itch.
“Papa-Nnukwu, tell us a folk story, then, just like we do in Abba,” Obiora said. “It is better than TV anyway.”
“O di mma. But first, you have not told me how those people in the TV climb into it.”
My cousins laughed. It was something Papa-Nnukwu said often to make them laugh. I could tell from the way they started to laugh even before he finished speaking.
“Tell us the story of why the tortoise has a cracked shell!” Chima piped up.
“I would like to know why the tortoise features so much in our people’s stories,” Obiora said in English.
“Tell us the story of why the tortoise has a cracked shell!” Chima repeated.
Papa-Nnukwu cleared his throat. “Long ago, when animals talked and lizards were few, there was a big famine in the land of the animals. Farms dried up and the soil cracked. Hunger killed many of the animals and the ones left behind did not even have the strength to dance the mourning dance at funerals. One day all the male animals had a meeting to decide what could be done, before hunger wiped out the whole village.
“They all staggered to the meeting, bony and weak. Even Lion’s roar was now like a whine of a mouse. Tortoise could hardly carry his shell. It was only Dog that looked well. His fur shone with good health and you could not see the bones under his skin because they were padded with flesh. The animals all asked Dog how he remained so well in the midst of the famine. “I have been eating feces like I always do,” Dog answered.
“The other animals used to laugh at Dog because he and his family were known to eat feces. Lion took control of the meeting and said, ‘Since we cannot eat feces like Dog, we must think of a way to feed ourselves.’
“The animals thought long and hard until Rabbit suggested that all animals kill their mothers and eat them. Many of the animals disagreed with this, they still remembered the sweetness of their mothers’ breast milk. But finally they all agreed that it was the best alternative, since they would all die anyway if nothing was done.
“I could never eat Mommy,” Chima said giggling.
“It might not be a good idea, that tough skin,” Obiora said.
“The mothers did not mind being sacrificed,” Papa-Nnukwu continued. “And so each week a mother was killed and the animals shared the meat. Soon they were all looking well again. Then, a few days before it was time for Dog’s mother to be killed, Dog ran out wailing the mourning song for his mother. She had died of the disease. The other animals sympathized with Dog and offered to bury her. Since she had died of the disease, they could not eat her. Dog refused any help and said he would bury her himself. He was distraught that she would not have the honor of dying like the other mothers who were sacrificed for the village.
“Only a few days later, Toirtoise was on his way to his parched farm to see if there were any dried vegetables to be harvested. [..] He was able to see across the bush, and he saw Dog looking up and singing. Tortoise was wondering if perhaps dog’s grief had made him go mad. Why was Dog singing to the sky? Tortoise listened and heard what Dog was singing: ‘Nne, Nne, Mother, Mother.'”
“Njemanze!” my cousins chorused.
“‘Nne, Nne, I have come.'”
“‘Nne, Nne, let down the rope. I have come.'”
“Tortoise came out then and challenged Dog. Dog admitted that his mother had not really died, that she had gone to the sky where she lived with wealthy friends. It was because she fed him from the sky that he looked so well. ‘Abomination!’ Tortoise bellowed. ‘So much for eating feces! wait until the rest of the village hears what you have done.’
“Of course Tortoise was as cunning as always. He had no intention of telling the village. He knew that Dog would offer to take him to the sky too. When Dog did, Tortoise pretended to think about it before accepting. […] Dog sang the song again and a rope descended from the sky and the two animals went up. [..]
“The more Tortoise ate in the sky, the more he wanted, until one day he decided that he would go to the sky by himself so that he would eat Dog’s portion as well as his. He went to the spot by the dry bush and started singing, mimicking Dog’s voice. The rope started to fall. Just then, Dog came by and saw what was happening. Furious, Dog started to sing loudly.
‘Nne, Nne, Mother, Mother.'”
“Njemanze!” my cousins chorused.
“‘Nne, Nne, it is not your son coming up.'”
“‘Nne, Nne, cut the rope. It is not your son coming up. It is the cunning Tortoise.'”
“Right away, Dog’s mother cut the rope and Tortoise, already halfway to the sky, came hurling down. Tortoise fell on a pile of stones and cracked his shell. To this day, the Tortoise has a cracked shell.”
Chima chortled. “The tortoise has a cracked shell!” […]
My cousins and Jaja laughed, and Papa-Nnukwu laughed, too, a gentle chuckle,[…] then leaned back and closed his eyes. I watched them and wished I had joined in chanting the Njemanze! response.