Kopechele, The Grama Tortoise
A long time ago, before the world grew old and crusty~
Esi was a young woman, the eighth wife of the village chieftain, in a town of mud huts thatched with straw and palm leaves. Each man's house had a mud wall surrounding his family's compound. The compound included his wives houses, and each wife had a garden she tended to feed her children and her husband.
Esi had no children, and though the other wives scorned her for her barrenness, which brought shame to the shameless chieftain's home, her garden provided the best vegetables in the savannah. She also cooked better than anyone alive, so their husband, the local Chieftain, allowed only her to cook for him and serve him his meals.
The co-wives hated her, would not talk to her, and called her a witch.
One day, as Esi served her husband breakfast, the Chieftain complained of impending war with a neighboring tribe, which claimed the nearby border-lands.
"My lord, why don't you talk to these enemies," Esi suggested, "And convince them we can share the disputed lands. You are prized all over the savannah for your wit and skill with words."
But the Chieftain snorted. He was not comfortable with his eighth wife. He blamed her for her barrenness, and if she hadn't been such a good gardener and cook, he would have traded her back to her people for a fertile woman. "Esi be silent," he grunted, "You know nothing, woman. Only by strength and fighting can I keep the other tribes from crushing us."
Esi continued to plead, and the Chief became angry, and ordered her to stay in her hut all day.
The next day, Esi walked through the village to fetch water from the town well. As she carried the water on her head past the open door of a compound, she heard a child crying, and a mother weeping.
Esi leaned in the door and said she had some herbs, and might be able to help the sick child. "Out, you barren witch!" shrieked the crying mother. "You will curse us!" And she pushed Esi away and slammed the door.
Sad, Esi carried her water home and stayed in her hut all day.
The third day, Esi again walked through the village, carrying water on her head from the town well. She heard a fight, and went to see what was happening. A starving man bent, covering his head with his hands. He wore rags and his knees bled from scrapes.
A woman shouted, "He stole from me!" as she struck him about the head with a yam pole. "He stole food from me! He must be taken to the Chieftain and punished!" The others standing about in the village square did not seem too eager to punish the beggar.
Esi approached and said, "He is starving. If you were starving, you would steal food. We should all take some food to the man's home, and help him and his family."
The woman with the yam pole shrieked, "What? Feed this man my food, so he can breed more thieves? You are insane! You witch!" And suddenly, incensed at Esi's proposal, the others leapt into action and carried the beggar to Esi's compound, to ask for punishment from the Chieftain.
Esi did not want to go home with the fierce crowd waiting by the entrance to her husband's compound. She turned and carried her water out of town, into the dry grasslands, wishing she might just be lost, and never find her way back.
Far from the village, she knelt, put down her water, and poured it on the ground, praying to Ala, the goddess divine, giver of life. "Please mother," she prayed, "Help me. Take this water."
A tortoise approached from the scrub, tipped her head down, and drank the water. She was a very large and ancient tortoise, covered in mosaic designs, beautiful, as if an artist spent a lifetime painting fabulous intricacies on her shell. Esi recognized this tortoise was Kopechele, the kind grandmother of the gods.
"Esi," The tortoise Kopechele said, "You are a young woman gifted with so many abilities. You see into the hearts of men and women. You are a healer, a cook, and you can cause plants to flourish no matter how much water or sun they receive. Who could give you grief, child? You must be celebrated in your village, and your family must be fat and happy."
"Grandmother tortoise," Esi said, "Please help me." And Esi told the tortoise all her miseries.
The tortoise raised her shriveled head and blinked. "They do not see who you are. Take this necklace, and wear it, and my blessings will go with you."
Esi took the necklace from the tortoise, put it around her neck, and returned to the village.
When Esi approached her family compound, the angry villagers and the starving thief still waited by the door in the compound wall. The Chieftain also stood there, about to deliver his verdict. And the co-wives stood nearby, in a group, all consoling the mother of the sick baby.
The villager's eyes popped and their mouths hung open. They pointed at Esi. "A spirit approaches! A spirit approaches!" they cried, flinging themselves on the ground. "Please mighty spirit! Tell us what you wish of us!" they cried.
The co-wives shrank back, in a protective group around the mother and sick child.
The Chieftain alone stood straight, but Esi could see he shook in his royal robes. "Spirit," he addressed her, "what say you to the plight of this thief?"
Of course Esi wished they would stop acting like fools. She did not know what she looked like, but she felt sure she looked like herself with a nice necklace on.
She raised her voice and said, "Let the villagers depart, and leave the thief to me."
The villagers scattered, but did not go home. They hid and watched nearby, behind every tree and bush and garden wall.
Esi gave the thief a sack of yams from her garden, and told him these were magic yams, that one planted could fill his garden with plants. The others he and his family must eat and they would be healthy and strong.
Thanking her, he bowed and left.
The villagers muttered from their hiding places, "What wisdom the spirit has! What generosity! What love!"
Seeing Esi's mercy, the mother of the dying infant rushed forward and dropped to her knees, clutching her child to her bosom. "Oh great spirit! Please help my child!"
Esi gave the woman an herb from her garden and told her if she fed the child a tea from this plant, the infant would recover. Sobbing, the mother took the herb, thanked her many times, and backed away.
The co-wives cowered together, not daring to speak.
The Chieftain steeled himself. "Spirit," he said, "Will I win in this conflict? Will my warriors defeat our enemy utterly?"
"War cannot be won, war is loss," she said. "You must talk with the neighboring clan. They are your friends and neighbors. Eat and drink with them. Play games with them. Do not fall prey to jealousy and greed."
The Chieftain bowed his head and muttered, "If the spirits say so, I must obey. There must be some way I can convince the enemy we can be brothers again."
For the first time, Esi thought she might be able to love this man. And she slipped the necklace off and into her pocket. "It's me! It's me! It's Esi, your wife!"
The Chieftain swelled with anger. "Esi! You tricked me! How could you pretend to be a spirit and frighten me! Disguised as a spirit, your words were not wisdom, they were the same foolishness you always speak! The other wives are right, you are a witch! Out! You are banished from my house and my yard and my village! Out! And never come back!"
The co-wives saw her, and shouted the same thing. "You are no spirit! You are just Esi! You deceived us! How could you? Get out, witch!"
The villagers crept from their hiding places. "What?! This is no spirit! Now the thief we caught today has been set free for nothing! You tricked us, you bad woman!"
Esi ran crying. Esi ran into the bush, her bare feet padding silently on the dry dusty soil. She ran miles and lost herself in the savannah. When she had cried in one place until a pool of tears had formed, a tortoise appeared, and drank from her tears.
"Grandmother Tortoise," Esi sobbed, "What am I to do?"
"You should never have taken the necklace off, my dear," the tortoise said, "You were never meant to be among the mortals, as I am not. When you wore the necklace, you appeared to them as you truly are - a beautiful goddess, and my granddaughter."
The tortoise gave Esi a house with a high garden wall that no one could climb and she lives there still today. Her garden is thick as a forest with strange and fantastic plants. A wild dog guards the gate, and only those who defeat the dog are allowed inside. There they find Esi, with a horrible torn face, old now, and bent with hundreds of years of magic. When they see the necklace however, they know she is the powerful goddess they have journeyed and sought after. She will help those who withstand the perilous journey to reach her, and those sisters in the world today who, like her, are mistrusted and rejected for being women of power.