Tortoise and the Magic Drum
A Folktale from Nigeria
When the generous king gives his magical drum to sneaky tortoise, he decides not to reveal the secret of the drum's "juju," or magic, and so tortoise's greed becomes his undoing.
Andrew Lang introduced English readers to this tale from Elphinstone Dayrell's Folktales from Southern Nigeria in 1910, and it was he who points out that many of the tale's elements owe much to ancient Irish and Welsh romances. In African tales, the storyteller often will invite the dummer to set the tone for the tale to come. Once the storyteller senses the vibration of the audience—from their clapping and swaying—she will begin to tell the tale.
Once upon a time a king owned a magical drum. Whenever he beat upon it, a feast appeared. The king invited everyone to the palace to share his wealth, and so the whole land was contented, and no one ever fought.
Now the magic of the drum depended on the owner taking care. He must never step on a fallen branch; if he did, the juju would vanish, and nothing but trouble would come to the owner of the drum.
Time passed. Everyone loved the king—antelopes and farmers, milkmaids and elephants, bakers and baboons and babies, too, for he was very generous.
Now one day Tortoise climbed a tree to collect nuts for his family. "There's never any end to my work," he groaned. Tortoise had begun to feel sorry for himself, and he had begun to envy the king.
As he was working, one of his nuts fell to the ground, and down below a woman heard it fall. She turned, picked it up and ate it.
"You ate my palm nut," Tortoise cried.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "I didn't know it was yours."
Now this gave Tortoise an idea. "I work hard all day, every day and now you've stolen my family's food. I must report you to the king as a thief."
"Oh Tortoise," the woman said, "I am the king's wife, but if you wish to make a complaint, I will take escort you to the palace."
Together they went to see the king, and Tortoise reported the theft.
"So sorry," said the king. "Let us make it up to you. Take whatever you like from the palace."
"I will," Tortoise said, and he wandered around the palace for hours, sniffing this, touching that, and just as the sun was setting, he stopped before the drum.
"I'll take that drum," he said.
The king was a man of his word, so he gave Tortoise the drum. But he didn't tell him about its secrets.
Tortoise hurried home. "We're rich!" he cried, and the family was pleased to hear this.
"Show us how it works," his children begged.
Tortoise beat the drum, and a fabulous spread appeared, and for months the family did little but eat. Tortoise stopped working, and he grew fat and lazy. When he wasn't eating he ambled around bragging about his riches, and one day as he was trundling along, he tripped upon a stick.
Back home, tired and hungry, he beat his drum, but the juju was gone, so instead of a feast, dozens of enemies poured into the house and attacked Tortoise.
"We'll make war on your forever!" they cried.
Terrified, Tortoise gathered his family and raced to the riverbank. There they hid, and there they have lived ever since, feasting on fallen fruits, on slugs and millipedes, on snails and worms.
And that drum? No one knows where it has gone, but everyone searches, and everyone dreams of world peace.