The Tortoise and the One-Legged Man — West African Storytelling, part 2

I thought about Tortoise, and the way they had won the race, and even about Ghana’s son Delight over our New Year’s outing as we stayed near a beach that is part of the federally protected Green Turtle egg laying and hatching zones. There is even a sign there saying “Don’t chop the turtles!” Chop being bush word for eat. I wonder if the Fante, who live in the coastal villages nearby, have stories that featured turtles. The only difference being that turtles live in or near the water and have adapted to swim by holding their breath underwater, while tortoises live primarily in arid regions, and are built for storing their own water supply and walking on sandy ground.

But for whatever reason, the tortoises seem to be a popular tricksters, who show up more frequently, and not only in Akan stories, but also the Igbo of Nigeria who tell of a greedy Tortoise, who tricks the birds into giving him all their food for a feast. When the birds discover what has happened, Tortoise is dropped from the sky, hitting the ground and shattering his once smooth shell. But he is redeemed when a great medicine-man in the neighborhood'” patches Tortoise’s shell together again, and that’s how the Tortoise got his shell.

But perhaps my favorite story, or at least the one I think about the most is of the One Legged Man and the Tortoise, from a collection of West African stories that Hugh Vernon-Jackson collected in the 1950s.

It seems that Tortoise lived near a village where the people were well off, but he himself was not so, one day he prepared a feast and invited the whole village to come. It was a night when the moon was high and round. When they had arrived, he gave them food and then they gathered them in the courtyard. Tortoise played the drum, his children played the flutes and the villagers began to dance, for they could not help themselves. They danced until they were exhausted, and then danced some more until they lost all their senses. At dawn the villagers went home, thanking Tortoise for his kindness.

Weeks later, when his family has run out of food, Tortoise and his wife take the drum and the flutes to the prosperous village where they hide in high grasses and bushes where the people could not see them. When evening came, Tortoise started to play the drum while his children played the flutes.

The villagers heard the drumming and immediately left their work, and whatever they were doing to dance. While they were dancing, Tortoise sent his wife and younger children into their empty houses to take away as much food as they could carry. Then Tortoise and family hurried away in the darkness.

After the drumming and dancing was over, the villagers found that much of their food was missing, and they were hungry.

Again and again Tortoise would come to the village at evening time to play his music, and again and again the villagers could not resist the sound of the drumming and they left everything in order to dance and Tortoise and his family would steal the food from the homes of the villagers.

Finally, the people went to the palace and complained to their King that they were losing their food. The king summoned his councilors and wise men of village to discuss ways in which they might find who was behind the drumming. The village witch doctor was summoned, but the next night, he too got caught up in the dancing. Meanwhile, Tortoise’s family was carrying away the food of the village.

Again the king called his councilors and wise men of village, and invited everyone else. “I will give 100 pounds to the one who finds out who is behind the drumming.”

After he had spoken these words a one-legged man, leaning on a stick, came slowly forward until he was in front of the king. “May your life be long,” he said to the king. “I will find out who is drumming and stealing our food.” The villagers laughed at the one legged man offering to try for the reward, saying he was foolish. But the one-legged man again asked permission to try, and the king said “I wish you success in finding who is drumming and stealing our food.”

On that same night Tortoise again came to the edge of the village. Again he played his drum, and while the people danced, his family began stealing their food. Only the one legged man didn’t dance. He heard the music and wanted to dance, but with only one leg could not. Therefore he went into the tall grass, where he saw Tortoise drumming, and then to the homes where he saw them carrying away the food.

The next day the one-legged man went to the palace. “May your life be long,” he said to the king. “I have discovered who is drumming and stealing your food.”
“Speak,” the king ordered. “Tell us who has caused us such great trouble.”

“Tortoise,” he said. When the villagers heard the news, they were filled with wonder at the trick Tortoise had played on them. They rushed to Tortoise’s house where they drove him and his family away, never to return. The king gave the one-legged man his reward of 100 pounds, and he received the gratitude of a grateful village.
The one-legged man built a house and sent for his family to live with him. He had many children, and came to own many farms, and from that day forward became a councilor to the king and gave wisdom to the village for the rest of his one-legged life.

When I first read that story last year, I wondered what the one-legged man represented. If the village represented the church, and drumming was the temptation to world to dance to its rhythms, but what did this one-leggedness represent? It was his woundedness that saved the village, even when they laughed at him.

I think about a story story called the wounded healer, a Christ figure who sat by the gate of the old city, wounded and wrapped in bandages. He was a healer, but would not unwrap or change his bandages for fear he might be called upon to heal a damaged soul and not be ready. Again, the healing comes from his brokenness, and like the one-legged man, had he been two-legged, the village would have certainly been lost.

A dear friend wrote me after the accident and said: “We are all born good but the Lord provides the great in the form of challenges that we must overcome and learn from.” I wonder if this is my moment of greatness, the test, as it were, and I wonder how I am doing? Is there a village to save, a drummer to find? I have to hope that there is some greater purpose that I can point to some day and say “Ahh, how different my life would have been, and to think I could have missed it, had I not learned and overcome ____.”

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