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The Tortoise and the Three Brothers Abimbola Alao    
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The Tortoise and the Three Brothers

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The Tortoise and the Three Brothers

A Nigerian Story







Once upon a time, there were three orphans, whose names were Otarun, Akope and Awekun. The brothers had reached such an age that it was time to decide what trade they might undertake. In order to advise them on such an important decision, the brothers went to visit Ijapa the tortoise who had been their trusted guardian for many years.

As soon as they arrived, Ijapa offered them kola nuts and they all sat in his front yard under the acacia tree.

‘Now, I’m all ears,’ said Ijapa to his visitors. ‘What brings you here at this time of the day?’

Otarun cleared his throat before speaking. ‘Firstly, my brothers and I wish to thank you for all you have done for us ever since our parents left this world to join our ancestors in the land beyond. Now we have decided to each learn a trade, and we'd like you to advise us in this matter.’

Ijapa listened intently and nodded his head vigorously. Then there was a moment of silence as Ijapa stared up at the acacia tree, apparently lost in his own thoughts. The three brothers sat very still, all wondering what was going on in Ijapa’s mind.

Then the tortoise cleared his throat very loudly and said, ‘I am happy that the three of you are thinking of learning a trade, but my advice to you is that you join me in my business so we can work together.’

The brothers looked at one another in amazement.

Akope was the first to speak. ‘We did not know that you had a business.’

The tortoise laughed, ‘I do, child, I do. However, my business involves a lot of planning and scheming. I use more of my brain than my physical body. You may have noticed that I do not own a farm, neither do I buy and sell. I hold no position in the King’s court, and neither do I answer to any boss. Nevertheless, I eat well and I do not want for anything.’

Each of the brothers looked very shocked at this news. This made Ijapa very uncomfortable and he became angry at the brothers for judging him. ‘Why are you staring at me like I'm holding a machete to your heads?’ he asked. ‘I do not go around forcing people to part with their belongings! I am very cautious in my dealings with people. It’s just that I always find a way of getting whatever I want, by hook or by crook.’

There was another long silence among the group. The brothers did not know what to say to Ijapa. Eventually Otarun stood up and said, ‘We will be on our way now, but we'll think about your proposal and give you an answer tomorrow before sunset.’

The next day, Otarun was the only one who went to visit Ijapa. ‘My brothers and I have thought seriously about your offer,’ he announced to Ijapa, ‘and we want to thank you for thinking about us, but we cannot work for you. We are honest people and we would like honest trades. We want to work with our hands; we do not wish to take from others.’

Ijapa’s eyes narrowed in fury. ‘Is that what you have to say to me after all I have done to support you since the death of your mother and father?’

Otarun felt like a mouse that had just been trapped by a cat, but he stood his ground and answered, ‘I am sorry, but that's the way we feel.’

‘In that case,’ yelled Ijapa at the top of his voice, ‘you and your brothers have just taken on a vicious enemy!’

A few weeks later, the three brothers started learning their various new trades. They worked very hard and applied themselves diligently to their various tasks. They did as they were told; they listened to their bosses intently and soon became very skilled and very well respected among the villagers.

Otarun became the best archer the village had ever known. Akope provided the best palm wine the village had ever tasted. And Awekun became the best fisherman, always catching the biggest haul of fish every morning.

But as the brothers’ fame grew, so did Ijapa’s jealousy. And it was in such a mood that Ijapa formed a plan to destroy the brothers.

One day, he went to the palace and told the King that the three brothers had been boasting of magnificent feats that they could not even possibly perform. The cunning tortoise feigned a great sadness, saying to the King, ‘I am concerned that people will start to believe what the brothers are saying because of their so-called good reputation. If this happens, I am afraid our village will be in a very good deal of trouble.’

‘How do you mean?’ asked the King.

‘Your Highness, if people ask the orphans to perform these great feats, feats which I know will be very impossible, what damage will that do to the reputation of our lovely village? We will be known near and far as the village of liars. People will say that we boast of things that are not possible! I think you should do something to stop this!’

The King became very angry as he listened to Ijapa’s speech. After all, a village was nothing without its good reputation, and it seemed that the orphan brothers were threatening the King’s good name.

‘Leave it with me, Ijapa. I know exactly what to do.’

That same day, the King ordered the three brothers to come to his palace. As soon as they arrived, the King began to shout, ‘You are evil men! Before you destroy my kingdom I will destroy you! In exactly one week I want you to return to my palace and prove to me that you are capable of these impossible feats that you have been boasting about all over the village.’

The brothers were about to protest their innocence, but the King held up his hand to silence them. Then the King declared that each brother perform a task of his choosing.  ‘Otarun, you must throw an arrow that will touch the sky! You, Akope, will climb the highest palm tree without a climbing frame! And, Awekun, you must swim the length of the Odan River. I am giving you a chance to perform these feats so that all of us might see if you are telling the truth. If you are not able to do as I have instructed, then you will be jailed for life!’

‘Your Highness, we did not claim such feats!’ cried out Otarun.

But the angry King did not listen to Otarun’s protest, instead he ordered his guards to escort the brothers from the palace and cast them out into the street.

The brothers were devastated. They sensed that Ijapa was the brain behind their predicament, but they did not know what to do. For many days they could not eat or drink or sleep. They tried to think of what they might do, but could find no solution to their problem. To make matters worse, they could not run away from the village because the King had assigned armed guards to watch over their every move. The brothers were not allowed to leave their house at any time.

Early one morning, the three brothers were roused from their sleep by a strange and beautiful sound. They opened a window to see a beautiful bird perched on the wall outside of their house. The bird was singing a solemn tune that went...  

Omode meta nsere
Ere o ere ayo

Omode meta nsere
Ere o ere ayo

Okan l’ohun o ta’run
Ere o ere ayo

Okan l’ohun o ga’gbon
Ere o ere ayo

Okan l’ohun o we’kun
Ere o ere ayo

O ta’run, O ga’gbon, O we’kun
Ere o ere ayo

O ta’run, O ga’gbon, O we’kun
Ere o ere ayo

O ta’run, O ga’gbon, O we’kun
Ere o ere ayo

The orphan brothers were mesmerised by the beautiful song: the call and response of the verse, the gentle rhythm and haunting lyrics; and then, when the song had finished, the bird flew quite suddenly into the sky and left the brothers in a gentle silence.

It was then that Otarun noticed the bow and arrow sitting on the wall. And next to the bow, a magical climbing rope. And next to the rope, a golden arm band.

Each of the brothers took the instrument that related to his trade, aware that they were the only ones who could see the bow, or the rope, or the golden arm band. These magical gifts would remain invisible to all others.

Later that morning, they made their way to the palace where the King and his chiefs were already seated in readiness for the feats to be performed. Ijapa was also perched confidently beside the King, a wry smile grazing the corners of his mouth.

As the brothers entered the courtyard, a thrilling hush swept through the crowd and the King’s words rang out loud and clear like the agogo bell.

‘Otarun, you claim to be able to throw an arrow up into the skies. Show us this impossible feat of yours.’

Otarun, who had his invisible bow strapped to his back, took an arrow, drew back his arm, and threw the arrow with all his might. The arrow soared high up into the sky and disappeared among the clouds above.

The crowd went mad with joy, cheering and clapping for Otarun. The King, however, began to sweat profusely. He had never seen such a thing in his entire life. Next he called Akope to climb the tallest palm tree in the centre of the courtyard without a rope or a climbing frame.

Akope, who had already tied his magical rope around his waist, began to climb the tree. He climbed very fast and without hesitation. He scaled the tree as easily as any man might walk along a path, and he reached the top in no time at all.

The crowd shouted out praise and clapped and cheered for Akope.

By now the King was growing quiet, and Ijapa too was looking very uneasy. The King called upon Awekun to lead the group to the great Odan river.

Awekun was wearing his golden arm band, but this band remained visible only to himself and his brothers. And so Awekun led the crowd to the river’s edge and plunged straight in. Once in the river he did not hesitate, he moved his arms and kicked with his legs and swam the length and breadth of the great river, darting to and fro with the speed of lightning.

The villagers went wild; the drummers began to beat on their drums; they were clapping and cheering and the villagers hoisted the brothers up onto their shoulders and carried them back to the palace.

Now Ijapa knew his end had come, so the cunning tortoise tried to escape from the palace by sneaking through the assembled crowd as quickly as his sluggish little legs would carry him.

Just as Ijapa was sure of his escape, one of the King’s guards spotted him and cried out, ‘Not so fast, you mischievous old devil! Where do you think you’re going?’

The guard hoisted Ijapa up onto his shoulders and carried him back into the palace to be dealt with by the King.

The King called the orphan brothers to sit beside him on his throne as he addressed the people of the village. ‘I want to apologise to these brave young men,’ the King announced. ‘I am so sorry for falsely accusing them of being deceitful, and I apologise for the pain that I might have caused them.’ The King turned to the three brothers. ‘I would like to honour you today by inviting you to be my chiefs.’

The crowd erupted into more clapping and cheering and drumming as the brothers accepted the King’s generous offer. ‘As for you, Ijapa,’ said the King, turning to the cunning little tortoise. ‘You will be locked up in prison to serve the sentence you wished served upon the three brave brothers.’

The villagers all approved of the King’s judgment as Ijapa was led away by the royal guards.

As you can imagine, dear reader, the three brothers lived happily ever after. 

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