In Yoruba folklore, the tortoise was a mischief-maker, always up to something.
As such, more often than not, he was on the run from someone or something.
At times it was even an entire group of someones!
Sometimes, however, he served as the source of solutions, often giving cunning but useful advice to enable friends get out of tricky situations.
This is a story that tells of Ijapa in his second capacity as problem-solver. In this tale, Ijapa helps an ailing King avoid death. Of course, he achieves this through great mischief. Enjoy.
Once upon a time, when the earth was young, animals walked on two feet and spoke like men, and there were two kingdoms. The animal kingdom and the human kingdom. In the human kingdom, which happened to be a short distance from the animal kingdom, the king, Kabiyesi, fell terribly ill.
All the medicine men were called, and sacrifices upon sacrifices were made, but all to no avail.
With each day that passed, the king grew progressively weaker.
As the days became weeks the flesh fell off his frame, until a once robust, barrel-chested man became a sack of bones and loose flesh. It was a terrible thing.
The people were seriously worried as Kabiyesi was a just and kind king to his subjects, and the chief priest, acknowledging that this was far beyond his powers, gathered a few strong men in the community and set off to find the world’s greatest herbalist- Ifagbemi.
After kissing their wives and children goodbye, they got provisions and set out, determined to get the King a cure or perish in the effort.
They crossed seven rivers, climbed seven mountains and endured a multitude of hardships before they found Ifagbemi and they pleaded with him to return with them to save their king. After listening to their tale, he agreed and followed them back to their kingdom.
When they got home, the King was unconscious and at the brink of death. Quickly, the herbalist administered a herbal concoction and Kabiyesi was revived. Then Ifagbemi locked himself in a room for seven days, with intense divination to find out the source of the King’s ill health, and the cure, if any.
During this seven days, Kabiyesi’s condition did not deteriorate, but also, it did not improve.
On the morning of the eighth day, Ifagbemi the herbalist came out of the room and proclaimed that the cure for Kabiyesi’s condition was to be found in the heart of an elephant.
Instantly a royal edict went out, decreeing that all hunters were to be on the lookout for elephants, to kill them and harvest their hearts.
Any hunter able to do this, was to receive a large monetary reward, and also marry any one of the princesses born to the royal family.
There was a particular hunter with the name Ogunyemi who set his mind on getting the reward. He went into the bush and after days and days of searching, was unable to find any elephant to kill. Dejected, he sat on a stone to think and worry, and it was in this state that his friend Ijapa met him.
Ijapa who despite his numerous failings, could nonetheless prove a wonderful friend picked up on Ogunyemi’s dark mood. He asked his friend to reveal his problem, but he was rebuffed. Not to be turned away, he asked again and again until the hunter opened up and revealed that he was searching for the heart of an elephant. But despite his efforts, he had not come across even an elephant’s shadow, not to talk of killing it and obtaining it’s heart.
Ijapa told him to cheer up, that he would procure an elephant’s heart for him. With that assurance, Ogunyemi soon cheered up and soon was roasting corn for himself and his friend Ijapa to eat.
After much merriment, it was time to for Ijapa to return to his home in the animal kingdom.
Ijapa before leaving, told Ogunyemi to sharpen his machete, dig a big hole at the market square the next evening, cover it with mats and wait there for the elephant’s heart.
The hunter agreed to do this.
Ijapa then went home. Upon getting back to the animal kingdom, he went straight to the home of Erin, the elephant.
When he got there he prostrated himself with his face to the floor and greeted the elephant saying
“Kabiyesi, live forever.”
The elephant, surprised, asked the tortoise what he meant.
The crafty tortoise then asked if he knew of the humans and their current search for an elephant.
Erin responded in the affirmative, but admitted that he did not know why they wanted him, and that he wanted nothing to do with the humans and their fire-sticks.
Ijapa laughed and told him that they were searching for a king, as the old one had died, and the Kingmakers had declared that the next king was to come from the animal kingdom.
Claiming to have been there when the old king passed away, Ijapa then spun a beautiful tale of how he had suggested an elephant and successfully convinced them to appoint him as the kingmaker supreme. As such it fell to him to produce the king. And having gotten that task, he had come to invite Erin to his coronation ceremony so he could be crowned as king.
The vain elephant was pleased to hear this, and agreed to follow the tortoise to the land of humans to be crowned, the following afternoon.
The next day, the tortoise came to fetch the elephant and with drumming and singing and lots of fanfare, they set of for the human kingdom.
Soon they arrived at their destination, and Ijapa led the unwary elephant to the hole covered with mats. With a sign, he gestured for the elephant to take his seat.
The elephant who at this time was exhausted from so much dancing, walked up to the mats and flung himself down to take his seat. With a whoosh, the mats fell from under him, and Ogunyemi quickly came out from his hiding place to kill the elephant and get his heart.
He then took this to the palace where the remedy was made for Kabiyesi.
Soon enough, Kabiyesi recovered fully and gave Ogunyemi his reward…