Oh Poor Mr. Tortoise

The tortoise – a wise, cunny and almost-never-outsmarted animal. As an African child, I listened to so many tales about this fascinating creature under many mango and coconut trees. Tales that reinforced the aptness of being ‘small but mighty’. The tortoise had almost always come out on top by outsmarting bigger, more prominent animals in the animal kingdom, from the elephant and lion to man.

You can imagine my joy when one day in 1998, a tortoise somehow made its way to our huge family compound in Northern Nigeria. My sisters and I looked in admiration as our security man picked up this tortoise as it cowered into its shell frightened by our curious eyes and excited fingers. We spent almost all afternoon with the tortoise until our mother shooed us in for the night.

The next morning, we ran out excitedly to the security man’s lodgings to see our ‘pet’ tortoise. Oddly, our security man had a shifty gaze – from our innocent faces to his worn out soup pot on his over used kerosene stove.

“Where’s the tortoise?”, we asked him almost in a sing-song manner. “Oh, the tortoise”, he grinned, showing large teeth. “The tortoise is gone. I made a pot of soup with it last night”.

My sister and I recently visited the Vancouver Aquarium and saw cute African tortoises and we were almost teleported back to that day and time when we looked at our security man with mouths hanging wide open and tears welling in our young eyes.

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