Oral Literature: The Tortoise and his Broken Shell  

There was a famine in a certain town. Every creature in that town was hungry except a dog who knew of a tree in the nearby forest which supplied him with food. No one but the dog knew where he obtained his food.


Now there lived in the town a tortoise and his wife. They were so hungry they would watch the dog to see what he threw away and then they would eat the scraps. Finally, the tortoise and his wife spoke to the dog: “Neighbour dog, we can no longer endure our suffering of hunger. Tell us where you obtain your food.”


After they had begged the dog many times to tell them, he, at last, revealed his secret, on the strict promise that they would tell no one. They promised. The dog showed them the tree in the forest on which the food grew and allowed them to eat there.


But the tortoise and his wife abused their good fortune. They went to the tree when they knew the dog was not there. They ate until they could hardly move and when they did go away, they took with them an enormous basket filled with food.


One day when the dog went to the tree to have his breakfast, he noticed that a great portion of the food was gone. The dog hid and watched to see who might come. As he watched he saw the tortoise and his wife approaching.


The tortoise and his wife were pushing their enormous basket. The dog waited until they began to pick the food from the tree. Then he jumped out at them, barking furiously. “Now I will kill you,” shouted the dog to the trembling tortoise.


The tortoise begged for mercy, then turned and ran until he found a swamp in which to hide. But the dog chased him and taking a big stick tried to catch the tortoise. Every time the tortoise was struck with the stick he sang in pretended joy and every time the dog missed him he cried as if in pain. Then a wise man came to watch the dog and explained the tortoise’s trick. The dog quickly managed to catch hold of the tortoise after that, dragged him out of the swamp and threw him so hard against the side of a very hard tree trunk that his shell was cracked and broken.


The dog left, thinking the tortoise would die. But tortoises are strong little creatures, and the tortoise began to recover. A passing traveller knocked his foot against the tortoise thinking it was a stone. Always cunning, the tortoise cried out, “Look what you have done. You have broken my shell.”


“My job,” said the traveller, “is to repair broken articles.” “If that is your job,” said the tortoise, “you should be able to repair my shell.” The traveller produced his tools from the bag he was carrying. He put together the many pieces of broken tortoise-shell. Even today we can see that the shell of a tortoise is of many pieces which have been put together. 


(Folktale from Zambia – Photo credit: CC BY-SA 4.0/Charles J. Sharp)

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