In fairness, dear reader, there’s a part of this story that might break your heart.
There again, there’s also a piece of this tale that may lift your spirits to that gentle place of all things wise and wonderful.
Djembe (pronounced Jim-bay) was a 29-pound African tortoise that lived at a small elementary school in Forest Acres for the past six years. He roamed the playground, made his way inside classrooms when he took a notion, loved to eat strawberries.
He also loved the children at Harmony School on Covenant Road and they loved him back.
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“I’ve known Djembe about six years and he’s meant a lot to me,” said Arron Robertson, a fifth-grader at Harmony. “I liked seeing him grow and I liked learning a lot about him. A lot of schools don’t get to have a tortoise.”
No, they don’t, but at Harmony, Djembe was one of many creatures that make the school home – several snakes, a bearded dragon lizard, seven tarantulas, three birds, fish, a hedgehog, two cats and a dog named Scout.
Djembe belonged to teacher Jennifer Mancke. Her brother-in-law is South Carolina naturalist Rudy Mancke. She teaches a combined classroom of first-, second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders at Harmony.
“Tortoises,” she said, “are really good in a school situation because they are so even tempered. Djembe was very wise when it came to being around people. He put up with little children really well. He lived here full time, on the playground. He just trundled around. A group of kids would be playing and he would just walk through them. They would draw on his shell, using sidewalk chalk. He was just a part of the spirit of Harmony.”
But that spirit was ever so broken earlier this week.
Saturday, Djembe accidentally got out of the fenced-in playground.
“We didn’t know he was out because it was the weekend,” Mancke said.
In the ensuing days, Djembe was discovered by a construction worker who turned him over to a city of Columbia employee in the water department. Mancke managed to find all this out and on Monday afternoon, she went to the water department – where she discovered that Djembe had been put in the Congaree River.
“The worker was going to take him to the pound but changed his mind and took him to the river instead,” Mancke said.
The worker meant well, but sadly, tortoises – unlike turtles – do not live in the water and Djembe drowned.
Mancke found Djembe’s body, floating in the river, not far from where he had been put in.
“I went out to him and I got him,” Mancke said, wiping away a tear.
Mancke brought Djembe to her home. She and her husband put him in a burlap sack and Wednesday, students at Harmony dug a grave for Djembe on the school grounds and placed him in it.
On top of the grave, they planted African cacti.
“There were a lot of tears,” Mancke said.
While digging the grave, the students discovered clay that they later used to mold small figures of Djembe.
Fifth-grader Kate McInnis took a lot of care of Djembe when he was alive. She said he loved to eat strawberries.
“When he ate strawberries, it looked like he had red lipstick on. When we would have red polish on our toes, he would come and nibble at them thinking our toes were strawberries.”
Mancke said Djembe was “a unique character.”
And a remarkable teacher.
“It was such a unique experience for these children to be around something like Djembe. As a teacher, I like to surround my students with other living things, with things that don’t look and act like us. They learn to care for other beings. They learn to overcome their fears of differences.”
And they learn about friendship, about what it means to be one of many bright and beautiful creatures in this world.
“Djembe taught me that a friend doesn’t have to be a human,” said third-grader Macy How. “He was always really quiet, so I could talk to him. He was a good listener. It was really hard saying good-bye.”
I’m sure it was.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer. Her novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the early 1960s. Ms. McInerney may be reached by emailing email@example.com.