Wednesday, May 5, 2010


STARTING WITH HIS FIRST NOVEL, THINGS FALL APART, Chinua Achebe incorporated traditional oral folktales into his writing. It was instrumental in how he shaped a distinctly African voice in modern African literature written in English. In that book, the longest spoken story is "Tortoise and the Birds," in which the tortoise tricks the birds into allowing him to come with them to a feast in the sky where he then, through wordplay, manages to claim the entire feast for himself. The tortoise, in Igbo and other African traditions, is a trickster animal, a deceitful character who breaks traditional norms either for his own gains or simply for the fun of it. Consistent with his belief that an African writer's responsibility is to rekindle an appreciation of African culture, Achebe turned to the tortoise again in one of two adaptations of Igbo folktales for children that he published in 1977, The Drum.

"Long, long ago, when the world was young, all the animals lived together in one country. In those days there were not as many tortoises as there are today but only one tortoise, Mbe, the ancestor of all tortoises..."

In this idyllic world, a time of famine comes. Tortoise, in desperation, journeys out in search of food. At last he comes upon a palm tree with "thrice four hundred" ripe palm fruits. Atop this palm tree, one of the fruits slips from Tortoise's hand. Unwilling to give up even one of these succulent fruits, Tortoise descends. But the fruit has fallen into a hole, and Tortoise follows.

Tortoise has found his way into the Spirit World, where a spirit child has just eaten his fruit. Tortoise demands recompense and in payment, and the spirits give Tortoise a drum. Upon returning home, Tortoise finds that the drum can provide an endless supply of food.

After a week of feasting, at last certain that the food will not run out, Tortoise decides to share his riches under the condition that the animals make him king. So starved are the animals that they agree. Tortoise, who has decided that beating a drum is beneath a king's dignity, assigns elephant to beat the drum at his coronation ceremony. But the elephant beats the drum too hard.

The drum is broken. And with no drum, no king. "'What's the good of a king without a food drum?'"

So Tortoise returns to the Spirit World. He tricks the same spirit child into eating another of his palm fruits, and then parlays that insult into another drum. But this time, the spirits allow him to choose his drum from many. Tortoise chooses the largest drum, of course.

Upon his ascent, Tortoise tests the drum, and "masked spirits with bundles of whips appeared from nowhere and began rushing and jumping around and hitting at everything in their way." They are followed by wasps and bees. Tortoise is badly beaten and stung; it takes days to recover.

When Tortoise regains consciousness, he chooses to share his new "gift" as he did his old. He makes a big show out of holding back the drum until the time is right, but his "subjects" chant, "We! Want! It! Now!! The! King! Of! Drums!!" Tortoise, after locking himself safely in his hut, complies. "As for the animals, what they saw that evening has never been fully told. Suffice it to say that they dragged themselves out of Tortoise's compound howling and bleeding."

IN "ACHEBE ON EDITING," an interview that first appeared in World Literature Written in English, Achebe says that The Drum is a story from tradition that "I decided to make a political making the tortoise want to use the power that he has over the other animals to attempt to become their king." In this way, Achebe makes Tortoise a prototypical post-colonial leader who may initially have good intentions, but in the end is corrupted by power, and brings only terror to his people. Achebe goes on:
I don't think I have altered the meaning and flavour of the story. In my own estimation what I have done is to make it applicable to our situation today. And I believe that this is what the makers of these traditions intended to do - to tell stories that would be applicable to that day...

To see all of Anne Nwokoye's illustrations for The Drum, see my Flickr set here. For other books by Chinua Achebe, see Chike and the River and How the Leopard Got His Claws.

Tomorrow: Chinua Achebe's The Flute

Background on Achebe's composition of The Drum, including quotes from "Achebe on Editing," came from Chinua Achebe: A Biography by Ezenwa-Ohaeto and The Chinua Achebe Encyclopedia by M. Keith Booker.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

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