Ajapa the Tortoise: A Book of Nigerian Folk Tales

Ajapa the Tortoise: A Book of Nigerian Folk Tales

by Margaret Baumann

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Long before people could turn to books for instruction and amusement, they relied upon storytellers for answers to their questions about life. Africa boasts a particularly rich oral tradition, in which the griot — village historian — preserved and passed along cultural beliefs and experiences from one generation to the next. This collection of


Long before people could turn to books for instruction and amusement, they relied upon storytellers for answers to their questions about life. Africa boasts a particularly rich oral tradition, in which the griot — village historian — preserved and passed along cultural beliefs and experiences from one generation to the next. This collection of 30 timeless fables comes from the storytellers of Nigeria, whose memorable narratives tell of promises kept and broken, virtue rewarded, and treachery punished.
Ajapa the Tortoise — a trickster, or animal with human qualities — makes frequent appearances among the colorful cast of talking animals. In "Tortoise Goes Wooing," he learns a valuable lesson in friendship and sharing. Ajapa's further adventures describe how, among other things, he became a chief, acquired all of the world's wisdom, saved the king, tricked the lion, and came to be bald. Recounted in simple but evocative language, these ancient tales continue to enchant readers and listeners of all ages.

Product Details

Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Children's Classics Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.20(w) x 5.30(h) x 0.10(d)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

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Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14968-4


Tortoise Goes Wooing

Tortoise and Pigeon were great friends. One day Tortoise came to Pigeon and said:

"Pigeon, I have fallen in love with a charming maiden named Nyanribo. She lives a good distance from here, but I am going to visit her to-morrow, and I would like you to accompany me."

"With pleasure!" agreed Pigeon; and early next morning they set out.

As they journeyed, Tortoise spent the time describing the charms of his lady-love—her beauty, her elegance, her wit and generosity—until Pigeon began to think she must be the most perfect tortoise in the world.

"Of course she is!" said Tortoise. "That is why I love her. You will see how pleased she is to see me to-day, but it is a pity she lives in such a remote place."

"It is indeed," replied his friend, who began to feel very tired of walking.

Soon afterwards they came to a country that was very rough and stony.

"Alas!" said Tortoise. "It will take me at least two days to walk across this stony ground. Will you not fly with me on your back until we reach a better country for walking?"

Pigeon kindly agreed to carry his friend, and flew with him for a considerable distance, until they saw smooth fields beneath them.

"Now you can walk again," said Pigeon, flying down to the ground.

They had not gone far when they came to a wide river.

"Now," cried Tortoise, "how in the world are we to cross this river, unless you carry me again?"

"I am very tired!" murmured Pigeon; but Tortoise pretended not to hear, and climbed on to his back.

Pigeon flew across the wide river and came down to earth on the other side. But Tortoise refused to dismount.

"You carry me so awkwardly," he said, "that I have terrible cramp and could not possibly walk. You will have to fly the rest of the way."

So poor Pigeon carried him all the way to Nyanribo's house. Now the house consisted of two rooms, and Tortoise left Pigeon in the outer room while he entered the inner room to see his lady-love.

He found Nyanribo waiting with a splendid banquet spread ready. She had prepared so many good things to eat and drink that there was enough for a large family.

"Where is your friend Pigeon?" asked Nyanribo.

"Oh," said Tortoise, "my friend is a funny bird. He is so shy that if you speak to him he will die of fright, and he wishes to remain in the outer room until it is time to depart. Now let us enjoy the dinner you have prepared."

They began to eat, while poor Pigeon waited hungry and thirsty in the other room.

When he had nearly finished all that was on the table, Tortoise said:

"I can see you are a good cook, and I love you very much. Will you be my wife?"

"Yes," said Nyanribo. "If I did not mean to be your wife, I should not have taken so much trouble preparing a feast for you. But I am worried about your friend Pigeon. What will he have to eat?"

"I told you," replied Tortoise, "that my friend is a very strange bird. He never eats when he is away from home, and the only thing he will not refuse is a bowl of water."

Nyanribo at once filled a bowl with fresh water, and Tortoise carried it to his friend in the other room.

"My poor friend," he said, looking very mournful, "Nyanribo mistook the day of our visit, and as she did not expect us until to-morrow, she has nothing in the house to eat, but she sends you this bowl of water. She has been making apologies to me all this while."

Tortoise then quickly returned to the inner room to finish what remained of the feast. Pigeon waited for some time, and then grew so impatient that he could not help peeping into the other room.

There he saw Tortoise and Nyanribo talking and looking well-fed and comfortable, while on the ground were a great number of empty dishes. Seeing this, Pigeon understood the trick which Tortoise had played on him, and went back to the outer room to plan his revenge.

At last Tortoise came to him and said that it was time to depart. They travelled slowly homewards until they reached the wide river.

"You will carry me, dear Pigeon, will you not?" said Tortoise, who had eaten so much that he could hardly walk at all.

"Certainly, dear Tortoise," replied Pigeon, "but I do not wish you to have cramp again, so I will hold one of your feet in my beak instead of carrying you on my back."

When they were half-way across the river, Pigeon dropped Tortoise into the water and flew away.

When he had flown for some time, he saw in the field below him a dead horse, and quickly thought of another trick to play Tortoise, if he managed to escape from the river. He went to a man who lived near by, and asked him to cut off the horse's head, which he then arranged on the ground, and, flying up into a tree, he prepared to watch what might happen.

Now when Pigeon let Tortoise drop from his beak, he did not fall into the river, where he would certainly have been drowned, but on to the back of a hippopotamus which was just swimming to the bank. As the big animal reached the bank, Tortoise climbed off its back and hurried away as fast as he could.

Later on he came to a field where there was a horse's head standing on the ground. Tortoise was so much astonished at seeing this marvel, that he did not go home, but went instead to the King of the country and told him that he knew of a place where horses' heads grew out of the ground just like plants.

The King was delighted, and said that if the story was true he would give Tortoise a basket full of gold, which would make him rich for life.

Tortoise agreed to take the King and all his Court to the place where horses' heads grew like plants, and they all set off, accompanied by drummers, warriors, and a great crowd of people who desired to see this astonishing thing.

But, alas! When they reached the field there was nothing to be seen, for Pigeon had removed the head.

The King was very angry, and ordered Tortoise to be burnt to death for deceiving him. Poor Tortoise pleaded in vain for pardon. The warriors made a great bonfire in the field and flung Tortoise into the flames.

Just at that moment the sky became dark with the wings of birds. Pigeon had watched everything from his perch on the tree, but when he saw that Tortoise would be killed he was sorry, and quickly summoned all the tribe of pigeons and doves to rescue his ungrateful friend. With their wings they beat out the flames, and Tortoise was saved.

Then Pigeon related the whole story to the King, and explained how he had played a trick on Tortoise with the horse's head. At this the King forgave Tortoise, and allowed the two friends to continue their journey together.

But Tortoise was overcome with shame at the thought of Pigeon's goodness after he had been so meanly treated.

"Let us return at once to Nyanribo's house," he said, "and I will order her to make an even more excellent feast, and you shall eat it all yourself."

"I will gladly come back with you," replied Pigeon, "but it would be no pleasure to me to eat the feast alone. True friends find the best enjoyment in sharing their good fortune."

"You are right," replied Tortoise, "and I am sure that when you go wooing, you will not treat your friends as badly as I have treated you!"


Why Women Have Long Hair

In the days when women had short hair just like men, there lived a poor widow called Bisi in a little hut in a village close to the forest.

Every evening the women of the village went in a long row, singing, through part of the forest, with water-pots on their heads, to draw water from a well some distance away. Bisi went with them, and when she returned home she would light a fire in front of her hut, put on a pot, and cook the evening meal for herself and her son.

But one evening when it was time to make the fire, she found that she had no wood. So she ran to the next hut and asked for a few sticks, but her neighbour had none to spare, and, in fact, though she asked in every hut, nobody could give her wood to make a fire.

"Well," said Bisi, "I shall have to go to the forest and cut some wood myself, because my son is away."

She took an axe and went into the forest, but she was very angry at having to waste so much time just when she should have been preparing the meal.

The first tree she came to was the Iroko, which is a magic tree and must never be cut down.

"I don't care," thought Bisi. "I will cut off these low branches and chop them into sticks, so that no one will know I have touched the magic tree."

In haste she did so, and soon returned to the village, carrying a large bundle of sticks, with which she made a roaring fire and cooked a savoury stew for her supper.

Then she went to sleep and forgot all about the wood she had cut, though the wise men declare that: "He who harms the Iroko tree will meet with sorrow in return."

Next evening the women went as usual along the forest-path to the well, and Bisi went with them.

But as she passed by the Iroko tree, a hole suddenly appeared in the ground under Bisi's feet, and she felt herself falling.

"Help me! Save me!" she cried and the other women all dropped their water-pots and rushed to her, seizing hold of her by the hair just as she was disappearing.

They pulled and pulled, but Bisi continued to sink, and so her hair grew longer and longer. At last, when her hair was almost a yard long, they gave an extra hard tug, and managed to pull her up out of the hole.

Then they collected their water-pots and ran back to the village as fast as they could. Bisi ran the fastest of all, but when they questioned her, she was forced to confess that she had chopped some branches from the magic tree to make a fire.

"You have been very wicked, Bisi," said the Chief of the village, "but the Iroko has punished you sufficiently by making your hair grow so ridiculously long."

Everyone laughed at her, and for a long time she was ashamed of her long hair. But one day, looking at herself in a pool of water, she found that her hair was beautiful, so she twined flowers and ornaments into it, and was very proud, forgetting that it was a punishment.

Then the other women grew jealous, and they all wished for long hair. At last they all agreed to dig a deep hole, and each of them in turn jumped in, while the rest held her by the hair until her tresses were stretched to a great length.

In the evening they all returned to the village rejoicing, with long hair twined with flowers and gold ornaments.

And since that time all women have had long hair.


How Tortoise Became a Chief

Tortoise was nothing if not ambitious, and having risen from being a very insignificant creature to be known as a person of consequence, there was one honour which he greatly desired—to become a Chief.

One night he roused Nyanribo, his wife, just as she was falling asleep.

"What is the matter, Tortoise?" she complained. "I am too sleepy to listen to the account of any of your wonderful exploits, and I must really ask you once again to tell me your adventures at a more suitable time."

"My dear," replied Tortoise plaintively, "why do you misjudge me so rashly? I am not about to tell you of my adventures in peril and disaster; I merely wanted to say that unless I soon become a Chief I shall pine away and die. The desire fills my mind the whole time, so that I can neither eat nor sleep. I am worn to a shadow."

"You are a very thick shadow, husband!" retorted Nyanribo crossly. "How can you possibly wear the robes of a Chief on your slippery back? You will make a laughing-stock of us with your silly ambitions."

"All the same," persisted Tortoise, "I simply must become a Chief, and I shall not rest until I have found a way of gaining what I desire."

"Oh, how tiresome you are! Ask the King to make you a Chief, to be sure!" answered his wife, and fell asleep again.

Tortoise thought over her words until at last he had an idea. Then he fell asleep too.

The next day he made his way to the King's palace.

"Your Majesty," he said, jerking his head up and down in salute, "I have come to crave a favour."

"What is your request, O Tortoise?" asked the King.

"Sire," replied Tortoise, "I greatly desire to become a Chief."

At this the King and all his Court were convulsed with merriment.

"I have often heard that Tortoise is ambitious," said the King, "but I never thought he would claim a chiefdom!"

"Sire, next week a great event takes place—your birthday. If I were a Chief I should feel at liberty to present Your Majesty with the most unique gift you have ever received."

The King could not help feeling curious when Tortoise made this cunning suggestion, and asked him what was the nature of the present.

"Alas!" replied Tortoise, "I shall never have the delight of giving the present to you, so why should I arouse your curiosity by describing it? I can only say that it is absolutely unique."

The King could not bear to think of losing such a remarkable present, so he consented to make Tortoise a Chief, and the ceremony took place at once.

Tortoise went home very joyfully, and engaged ten strong labourers, who went out each day and returned at night carrying a heavy burden. This went on for several days, until the morning of the King's birthday dawned.

The King sat under a large white umbrella, and slaves fanned him with woven fans, while all the Chiefs bowed before him and brought him presents of great value. One brought ornaments of gold; another offered him an elephant's tusk carved with praises of the King; another brought a cloak made entirely of lions' manes and bordered with the skin of the rarest snakes.

Only Chief Tortoise was absent.

The King's warriors next performed a dance before him, and the agile acrobats turned somersaults to the pleasure of all beholders.

Still Tortoise was absent. The King's frown grew heavier and heavier as evening came on and no Tortoise appeared.

"If Chief Tortoise remains absent one hour longer," declared the King angrily, "it will cost him his head!"

Now the King was a rather ferocious monarch, and many heads had been sacrificed, both in peace and war, for his pleasure.

The hour passed slowly. The celebrations fell flat; the struggles of the wrestlers, the witty songs of the dancers, and the lively playing of the drummers—all failed to bring even one smile to the King's face.

Then suddenly Chief Tortoise was seen in the far distance, approaching slowly and followed by twenty tall labourers.

The drummers began to play, the dancers clapped their hands and sang:

"Hail to Ajapa, Chief Tortoise! Hail! oh, hail!"

As Tortoise and his labourers approached, it was seen that Tortoise wore upon his back (which was at that time perfectly smooth and flat) a little mantle of gold cloth like a Chief, and that his twenty labourers were bowed low under the weight of large nets which they carried over their shoulders, and which seemed to be full of round, hairy objects.

The King sprang to his feet, crying:

"He has brought me a present of heads! Chief Tortoise, you are welcome. Come and sit beside me."

The twenty labourers laid down their nets some distance away, and Tortoise sat down beside the King, so that all the other Chiefs, who would have liked to sit under the white umbrella where Tortoise was, were filled with envy.

"Illustrious King," said Tortoise, "shaker of the earth, monarch of the forest, ruler of elephants and serpents, we are all assembled here to rejoice in your royal birthday, and I am glad to think that I have brought you a gift which is unique."

"Chief Tortoise," replied the King, "your present fills me with delight. I have never seen a collection of so many heads, and I am sure you must have gone through many perils and adventures to obtain them. I am not ungrateful, and I would like to hear how your present was obtained."

Tortoise cleared his throat as if he were about to tell a long story, but at that moment a certain Chief drew close to the King and cried:

"Sire, the heads which Tortoise has brought are nothing but coconuts!" And he flourished before the King's face a large and shaggy coconut.

The King rushed to the spot where the labourers had put down their nets, and found that truly the nets were filled with a grand collection of coconuts.

"So this is your unique present!" he said grimly. "At least I will have one head—your own!"

"Your Majesty," pleaded Tortoise, trembling with fear, "I crave forgiveness. I am very, very poor, as Your Majesty may perhaps remember, yet I truly desired to find a unique present, and I still claim that I have done so. I am quite convinced that Your Majesty has never before received five hundred coconuts, and if this is the case, then surely you will not desire my death, for I have done what I promised. I never said that I had brought a gift of heads."


Excerpted from AJAPA THE TORTOISE by MARGARET BAUMANN, G. R. DAY. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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