We have collected and put the best Zulu Folktales. Enjoy reading these insights and feel free to share this page on your social media to inspire others.
Zulu people (amaZulu) are an Nguni ethnic group in Southern Africa. The Zulu people are the largest ethnic group and nation in South Africa with an estimated 10–12 million people living mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.
The Zulu oral traditions are based on those of the whole sub-continent, but also constitute significant innovations due to the Nguni’s contacts with the Khoisan peoples and to the history that has shaped their reasoning processes. Zulu folktales have daily life and all that is important for its sustenance as their frame of reference. Folktales are an artistic reflection of the people’s culture, history, way of life, attitudes to persons and events, springing from the observation of nature and of animal and human, behaviour, in order to create a “culture of the feelings” on which adult decisions are based.
Why The Cheetah’s Cheeks Are Stained
Long ago a wicked and lazy hunter was sitting under a tree. He was thinking that it was too hot to be bothered with the arduous task of stalking prey through the bushes. Below him in the clearing on the grassy veld there were fat springbok grazing. But this hunter couldn’t be bothered, so lazy was he! He gazed at the herd, wishing that he could have the meat without the work, when suddenly he noticed a movement off to the left of the buck. It was a female cheetah seeking food. Keeping downwind of the herd, she moved closer and closer to them. She singled out a springbok who had foolishly wandered away from the rest. Suddenly she gathered her long legs under her and sprang forward. With great speed she came upon the springbok and brought it down. Startled, the rest of the herd raced away as the cheetah quickly killed her prey.
The hunter watched as the cheetah dragged her prize to some shade on the edge of the clearing. There three beautiful cheetah cubs were waiting there for her. The lazy hunter was filled with envy for the cubs and wished that he could have such a good hunter provide for him. Imagine dining on delicious meat every day without having to do the actual hunting! Then he had a wicked idea. He decided that he would steal one of the cheetah cubs and train it to hunt for him. He decided to wait until the mother cheetah went to the waterhole late in the afternoon to make his move. He smiled to himself.
When the sun began to set, the cheetah left her cubs concealed in a bush and set off to the waterhole. Quickly the hunter grabbed his spear and trotted down to the bushes where the cubs were hidden. There he found the three cubs, still to young to be frightened of him or to run away. He first chose one, then decided upon another, and then changed his mind again. Finally he stole them all, thinking to himself that three cheetahs would undoubtedly be better than one.
When their mother returned half-an-hour later and found her babies gone, she was broken-hearted. The poor mother cheetah cried and cried until her tears made dark stains down her cheeks. She wept all night and into the next day. She cried so loudly that she was heard by an old man who came to see what the noise was all about.
Now this old man was wise and knew the ways of the animals. When he discovered what the wicked hunter had done, he became very angry. The lazy hunter was not only a thief, he had broken the traditions of the tribe. Everyone knew that a hunter must use only his own strength and skill. Any other way of hunting was surely a dishonour.
The old man returned to the village and told the elders what has happened. The villagers became angry. They found the lazy hunter and drove him away from the village. The old man took the three cheetah cubs back to their grateful mother. But the long weeping of the mother cheetah stained her face forever. Today the cheetah wears the tearstains on its face as a reminder to the hunters that it is not honourable to hunt in any other way than that which is traditional.
The Daughter of the Ostrich Egg
Ohale was a man who had no possessions, neither had he a wife. He lived apart from Mother men, and to keep himself from starving he hunted field-mice. He lived upon their flesh, and clad himself in garments made from their skins.
One day when he was out hunting he found an ostrich egg lying upon the ground, and instead of eating it then, he carried it to his hut, where he hid it, saying, “When the wind blows from the North I will eat this egg.”
Next day when he returned from the chase, bringing only a few miserable little mice, Mohale saw with astonishment that a meal of bread and beer was spread for him, just as if he had left a wife at home.
“Mohale,” said he to himself, as he sat down to eat, “can it really be true that you have no wife? For if so, who can have baked the bread and brewed the beer?”
The next day also when he returned a meal was spread, and again the next day and the next.
This continued until one night when as Mohale was resting after his supper, he heard the sound of something cracking, and from the ostrich egg hidden at the back of the hut there stepped forth a young and beautiful girl.
Mohale gazed at her in delight and wonder, and seeing that she was fair and kind, he asked her to be his wife. She consented, but she said: “Mohale, you must promise me that even when you have drunk too much beer, you will never call me ‘Daughter of the Ostrich Egg.'”
Mohale promised, and he and his wife lived happily together. One day toward sunset she said to him: “Mohale, would you not like to become a great Chief and rule over a tribe of warriors?”
He answered: “Surely, I should wish to be a Chief.”
Thereupon his wife rose, and going to the spot where a fire had been burning, she took a stick and stirred the ashes.
Next morning when Mohale woke from sleep he heard the sound of many voices outside the hut, as if a great concourse of men had assembled, and the lowing of many cattle. As he looked round him, he saw to his surprise that the poor hut in which he slept had become like a royal dwelling, while at his side lay a mantle of rich fur, such as is worn by kings. Springing to his feet, he went to the door, and there he saw the assembled men, who came forward, saluting him and crying, “Hail! Great Chief. Hail!”
So Mohale found himself the ruler of a great people, and he lived in plenty and content, loving the wife to whom he owed so much.
But one day a quarrel arose between them, and he reproached her because she had crossed his will. Not knowing what he said, for he had drunk too freely of beer, he broke the promise that he had made her.
“Did you call me the Daughter of the Ostrich Egg?” asked the woman.
“Yes,” said Mohale, “I did.” And he repeated it. His wife made no answer, but turned and left him.
That night Mohale lay down as usual, wrapped in his mantle of rich fur; but toward dawn he woke shivering. Putting out his hand, he found that his fine mat had disappeared. He lay upon the bare ground, with nothing to cover him but the wretched cloak made of the skins of mice which he had worn when he was a poor man. He called to his wife, but no answer came.
At daybreak he rose, and going to the door saw that the village over which he ruled had disappeared, with all his men and their cattle. Turning back to his hut he found that it had shrunk from a royal dwelling to the poor habitation he had known before. Henceforth until his death Mohale lived alone in poverty, hunting field-mice that he might not hunger.
Where Stories Come From
Once, a very long time ago, so long ago that it must have been close to the time when the First Man and the First Woman walked upon the earth, there lived a woman named Manzandaba (mah-nzah-ndah’-bah) and her husband Zenzele (zay-nzay’-lay).
They lived in a traditional home in a small traditional village. They had many children, and for the most part, they were very happy. They would spend the day working, weaving baskets, tanning hides, hunting and tilling the earth near their home. On occasion they would go down to the great ocean and play under the sun in the sand, laughing at the funny crabs they would see scuttling along there and rejoicing at the way in which the birds would dip and dive in the sea breezes. Zenzele had the heart of an artist and loved to carve. He would fashion beautiful birds out of old tree stumps. With his axe he could make the most wonderful impala and kudu bucks from stone. Their homestead was filled with decorative works by Zenzele the carver.
But in the evenings when the family would sit around the fire before going to sleep they would not be so happy. It was too dark for weaving or carving, and yet too early to go to sleep. “Mama,” the children would cry, “Sifuna izindaba!” (see-foo’-nah ezee-ndah’-bah) “We want stories! Tell us some stories, Mama!” Manzandaba would think and think, trying to find a story she could tell her children, but it was of no use. She and Zenzele had no stories to tell. They sought the counsel of their neighbours, but none of them knew any stories. They listened to the wind. Could the wind be trying to tell them a story? No, they heard nothing. There were no stories, no dreams, no magical tales.
One day Zenzele told his wife that she must go in search of stories. He promised to look after the home, to care for the children, to mend and wash and sweep and clean, if only she would bring back stories for the people. Manzandaba agreed. She kissed her husband and children good-bye and set off in search of stories.
The woman decided to ask every creature she passed if they had stories to share. The first animal she met was Nogwaja (noh-gwah’jah) the hare. He was such a trickster! But she thought she’d better ask him all the same. “Nogwaja, do you have any stories? My people are hungry for tales!” “Stories?” shrieked Nogwaja. “Why, I have hundreds, thousands, no–millions of them!”
“Oh, please, Nogwaja,” begged Manzandaba, “give some to me that we might be happy!”
“Ummm….” Nogwaja said. “Uhhhh…well, I have no time for stories now. Can’t you see that I am terribly busy? Stories in the daytime, indeed!” And Nogwaja hopped quickly away. Silly Nogwaja! He was lying! He didn’t have any stories!
With a sigh Manzandaba continued on her way. The next one she came upon was mother baboon with her babies. “Oh, Fene! (fay’-nay) ” she called. “I see you are a mother also! My children are crying for stories. Do you have any stories that I could bring back to them?”
“Stories?” laughed the baboon. “Do I look like I have time to tell stories? Hawu! With so much work to do to keep my children fed and safe and warm, do you think I have time for stories? I am glad that I do not have human children who cry for such silly things!”
Manzandaba continued on her way. She then saw an owl in a wild fig tree. “Oh, Khova (koh’-vah),” she called, “please will you help me? I am looking for stories. Do you have any stories you could give me to take back to my home?”
Well, the owl was most perturbed at having been woken from her sleep. “Who is making noise in my ears?” she hooted. “What is this disruption? What do you want? Stories! You dare wake me for stories? How rude!” And with that the owl flew off to another tree and perched much higher, where she believed she would be left in peace. Soon she was sound asleep again. And Manzandaba went sadly on her way.
Next she came upon an elephant. “Oh, kind Ndlovu (ndloh’-voo),” she asked, “do you know where I might find some stories? My people are hungry for some tales, and we do not have any!”
Now the elephant was a kind animal. He saw the look in the woman’s eye and felt immediately sorry for her. “Dear woman,” he said, “I do not know of any stories. But I do know the eagle. He is the king of the birds and flies much higher than all the rest. Don’t you think that he might know where you could find stories?”
“Ngiyabonga, Ndlovu!” she said. “Thank you very much!”
So Manzandaba began to search for Nkwazi (nkwah’-zee) the great fish eagle. She found him near the mouth of the Tugela River. Excitedly she ran toward him. She called out to him as he was swooping down from the sky, talons outstretched to grab a fish from the river. “Nkwazi! Nkwazi!” she called. She so startled the eagle that he dropped the fish that had been his. He circled around and landed on the shore near the woman.
“Hawu!” he barked at her. “What is so important that you cause me to lose my supper?”
“Oh, great and wise Nkwazi,” began Manzandaba. (Now fish eagle is very vain. He liked hearing this woman refer to him and great and wise. He puffed out his feathers as she spoke.) “Nkwazi, my people are hungry for stories. I have been searching a long time now for tales to bring back to them. Do you know where I might find such tales?” She gave him a great look of desperation.
“Well,” he said, “even though I am quite wise, I do not know everything. I only know of the things that are here on the face of the earth. But there is one who knows even the secrets of the deep, dark ocean. Perhaps he could help you. I will try and call him for you. Stay here and wait for me!” So Manzandaba waited several days for her friend the fish eagle to return. Finally he came back to her. “Sawubona, nkosikazi!” he called. “I have returned, and I am successful! My friend, ufudu lwasolwandle, the big sea turtle, has agreed to take you to a place where you can find stories!” And with that the great sea turtle lifted himself out of the ocean.
“Woza, nkosikazi,” said the sea turtle in his deep voice. “Climb onto my back and hold onto my shell. I will carry you to the Land of the Spirit People.” So the woman took hold of his shell and down they went into the depths of the sea. The woman was quite amazed. She had never seen such beautiful things before in her life. Finally they came to the bottom of the ocean where the Spirit People dwell. The sea turtle took her straight to the thrones of the King and Queen. They were so regal! Manzandaba was a bit afraid at first to look at them. She bowed down before them.
“What do you wish of us, woman from the dry lands?” they asked.
So Manzandaba told them of her desire to bring stories to her people.
“Do you have stories that I could take to them?” she asked rather shyly.
“Yes,” they said, “we have many stories. But what will you give us in exchange for those stories, Manzandaba?”
“What do you desire?” Manzandaba asked.
“What we would really like,” they said, “is a picture of your home and your people. We can never go to the dry lands, but it would be so nice to see that place. can you bring us a picture, Manzandaba?”
“Oh, yes!” she answered. “I can do that! Thank you, thank you!”
So Manzandaba climbed back onto the turtle’s shell, and he took her back to the shore. She thanked him profusely and asked him to return with the next round moon to collect her and the picture.
The woman told her family all of the things she had seen and experienced on her journey. When she finally got to the end of the tale her husband cried out with delight. “I can do that! I can carve a beautiful picture in wood for the Spirit People in exchange for their stories!” And he set to work straight away.
Manzandaba was so proud of her husband and the deftness of his fingers. She watched him as the picture he carved came to life. There were the members of their family, their home and their village. Soon others in the community heard about Manzandaba’s journey and the promised stories and came also to watch Zenzele’s creation take shape. When the next round moon showed her face Zenzele was ready. He carefully tied the picture to Manzandaba’s back. She climbed on the turtle’s back and away they went to the Spirit Kingdom. When they saw the picture the King and Queen of the Spirit people were so happy! They praised Zenzele’s talent and gave Manzandaba a special necklace made of the finest shells for her husband in thanks. And then they turned to Manzandaba herself. “For you and your people,” they said, “we give the gift of stories.” And they handed her the largest and most beautiful shell she had ever seen. “Whenever you want a story,” they said, “just hold this shell to your ear and you will have your tale!” Manzandaba thanked them for their extreme kindness and headed back to her own world.
When she arrived at the shore, there to meet her was her own family and all the people of her village. They sat around a huge fire and called out, “Tell us a story, Manzandaba! Tell us a story!”
So she sat down, put the shell to her ear, and began, “Kwesuka sukela….”
And that is how stories came to be!
The Lost Beads
Seven maidens set out one morning to draw water from the river, and when their pitchers were filled, six sat down on the bank to wait for the seventh, who had gone a little farther on. Whileshe was absent her companions took of their beads and hid them in the sand, saying, “When our sister comes back, let us tell her that we have thrown them into the river, and see if she will do likewise.”
So when she returned, they called out: “Sister, we have thrown our beads into the river! Do you likewise, and see what will happen!”
Feeling curious, the girl flung hers into the water, when immediately her companions dug up theirs from beneath the sand, and, laughing, went homeward, carrying their water-jars upon their heads.
The girl was in deep distress at losing her beautiful ornaments for nothing, so she went to the edge of the water, crying, “Pool, Pool! Show me my beads, which I flung into your depths.”
The pool answered: “Pass on.”
The girl followed the river bank till she came to another pool, larger and deeper than the one she had left, and gazing into it, she cried again: “Pool! Pool! Show me my beads.”
At first there was no answer, but when she spoke once more the waters of the pool divided, and a voice said: “Enter! Your beads are here.”
The girl dived from the bank and beneath the waters she found a hut with a piece of ground in front of it. Out of the hut came a poor old woman, hopping on one leg. She had only one arm and was covered with with sores. The girl looked at her with pitying eyes as the poor creature stood in front of her.
“Why do you not laugh at me, little sister?” asked the old woman. “See how miserable I am.”
“I am sorry for you,” answered the girl.
“Then come and dress my Wounds,” said the woman; and while the girl did this she told her that she was the slave of a cruel Dimo who hunted for human beings and devoured them.
“He has eaten my arm and one leg,” said she, “but he does not kill me entirely because he needs me to cook for him. If he catches you, he will kill you and eat you, but because you have been kind to me, little sister, I will protect you.”
When the girl had dressed her wounds, the old woman fetched food and set it before her, saying, “Eat this, and when you have finished, hide behind this wall, for the Dimo will soon be here, and if he has caught nothing for supper he will be furious and devour you. Beware when you hear a light wind rise, and a few drops of rain fall. These are the signs of his coming.”
The girl had not long been in hiding when the wind rose and a few raindrops fell pattering on to the earth. Then came the Dimo, and he was indeed terrible to look upon, for his mouth was red, and he had tusks like a wild pig, while over his shoulders fell long matted hair. He had brought nothing back from his hunting, and he was hungry. As he entered the hut, he said to the old woman: “I smell a human being. Where are you hiding him?”
“I am hiding nobody,” said the old woman. “You can finish eating me, if you like; there is nobody else in the house.”
Now, hungry as he was, the Dimo did not wish to eat the old woman, so he lay down and went to sleep, snoring so that he shook the hut. Next morning he was awake early, and went off hunting again.
As soon as he had gone the old woman went to the girl and adorned her with beads far more lovely than those she had thrown into the pool. She gave her beautiful brass rings for her ankles, and bracelets of fine workmanship, wrapping round her a rich mantle of skins fit for a royal princess. Then she put into her hand a small round stone, which she bade her keep carefully until she was a mile from the pool, when she must throw it over her shoulder without looking back.
“If you do as I bid you,’ said the old woman, the Dimo will not catch you; but beware of looking backward, or you will be lost. Go in peace,” she went on, blessing the girl, “and may the rain fall upon you!”
When the young girl was a mile away from the Dimo’s pool, she threw back the stone which the old woman had given her. She had now reached the pool into which she had flung her beads, and there, sitting on the bank, was her younger sister, who sprang up with joy at sight of her whom she had given up as lost.
“We have sought you everywhere,” she cried, “and we feared you were dead.”
“Give me water from your pitcher,” said the elder girl; and when she had quenched her thirst they set out on their homeward way.
There was great rejoicing when she entered the village, and the girls who had persuaded her to throw away her beads crowded round her, glad to see that the trick which they had played her had not caused her death.
But when they saw how richly she was dressed, some were jealous, and asked her whence came all the fine things she wore. Then the girl told them what had happened to her, and how the old woman had saved her from the Dimo.
When she had finished her story the six girls talked among themselves, saying, “It is just like her luck. It would never have happened to any of us.”
“Why not?” asked one. “Let us go to the pool, and perhaps the old woman will give us beads and ornaments of brass.”
Early next morning, when all but they in the village were still sleeping, the six maidens set out, and by and by reached the Dimo’s pool. But when the old woman came hopping out on one leg, they laughed at her rudely. “Come dress my wounds,” said she; but at this they only laughed the more.
While they were mocking the poor creature, a light wind rose and drops of rain began to fall. The Dimo was coming, but the old woman did not warn the cruel girls of his approach.
When he saw them standing there before his hut, the monster caught first one and then the other, till all six were his prisoners. Then he carried them into his hut, and killed and ate them. Because they had been so cruel to her, the old woman did nothing to save them from their fate.
Jabu and the Lion
There was a young herdboy named Jabu (jah’-boo). He took great pride in the way in which he cared for his father’s cattle. And his father had many cows – over 25! It was quite a task to keep these silly creatures out of trouble, away from the farmers mealies (corn) and out of the dangerous roads. Jabu had some friends who also kept their fathers’ cattle, but none of them had even half the herd Jabu did! And none of them were as careful as Jabu. It was a sign of Jabu’s father’s pride in his boy that he entrusted such a large herd to such a young boy.
One day as he sat atop a small koppie (hill) watching the animals feed and braiding long thin strips of grass into bangles for his sisters, Jabu’s friend Sipho (see’-poh) came running to him. “Have you heard the news, my friend?” panted Sipho. Before Jabu could even answer, Sipho rushed on to tell him. “Bhubesi, the lion, has been seen in these parts. Last night Bhubesi attacked and killed one of Thabo’s (tah’-boh) father’s cows. The men of the village are already setting traps for the beast!”
Jabu wasn’t surprised by this news. His keen eyes had seen the spoor of the lion — his left-over kill, his prints here-and-there in the soft earth, his dung. Jabu had respect for the king of the beasts. And since Bhubesi’s pattern was to hunt at night when the cattle was safely within the kraal (/krawl/ “corral”), Jabu had seen no reason to alert the village of Bhubesi’s presence. But the killing of a cow! “I wonder,” thought Jabu to himself, “if the cow was not left out of the kraal?” Thabo was known to be a sloppy herdboy, a fellow who ran with his head in the clouds. He had been known to forget a cow or two before.
“Woza, Ngane!” (woh’-zah ngah’-nay “Come, friend!”) Sipho urged, “come and put your cows away for the day and watch with me as the men set the traps!” Jabu slowly shook his head as he looked at Sipho and smiled. “You know me, friend,” he returned Sipho’s address. “I cannot put the cattle back into the kraal so early in the day! They need to be driven to the river before they go home.”
Sipho smiled. “Yes, I thought you would say this. But I wanted to tell you anyway. I will see you later, friend, perhaps by the fire tonight!” And Sipho ran toward the village with a final wave to Jabu.
Jabu began to gather the cows together. He waved his intonga (ee-ntah’-gah “staff”) and gave a loud whistle. Each cow looked up, then after a moment’s pause, slowly started to trudge toward Jabu. With a grin Jabu began to take them to water.
Jabu bathed his feet in the cool refreshing river as the cows drank their fill. It was a fine sunny Autumn day, and if his mind had not been so busy thinking about the lion and the traps the men were setting, Jabu would probably be shaping the soft river clay into small cow figurines for his young brother. Then Jabu heard a sound that stole his breath from him. “Rrrrroar!” came the bellow. The cows all froze, a wild look coming into their eyes. “Rrrroarrrrrrr….” It was Bhubesi, and he was near! There was no time to drive the animals home; the lion was much too close. Jabu slowly rose, looking carefully around, his hand clenched on his staff. He walked purposefully, trying not to show the fear that made his knees tremble, pulling the cattle together into a tight circle. The cows trusted him and they obeyed. “Rrrrroarr…oarr..oarr…aaa!” Jabu listened. Bhubesi was not declaring his majesty or might….it sounded more like a cry for help. Several more bellows and Jabu knew, Bhubesi was in trouble. Somehow this took most of the boy’s fear from him. Gripping his staff, Jabu quietly began to walk toward the lion’s cry.
Yes, indeed, the lion was in trouble. Jabu found him in a small clearing several metres across the river. He was caught in on of the traps laid by the men of the village. His head was firmly wedged in the barred structure, and the more he struggled, the tighter the snare became. Jabu stood and stared. Never before had he seen the king of the animals so near. He truly was a majestic animal. And a large part of his heart was sore for the creature. Then the lion saw the boy. “Hawu! Mfana! (hah’woo mfah’nah “Oh! Boy!”) It is good that you are here. Please, help me. I am caught in this stupid trap and I cannot free myself. Please, please, will you come and pull up on the bar that is holding my head here. Please!”
Jabu looked into Bhubesi’s eyes. He could not read them, but he could hear the desperation in the animal’s voice. “Please, Mfana! Please! Before those hunters come and kill me. Please release me!”
Jabu had a tender heart, but he was no fool. “I would very much like to free you, Bhubesi! But I am afraid that as soon as I did so you would make me your dinner.”
“Oh, no, Ngane wami! (ngah’nee wah’me “My friend”) I could never eat someone who set me free! I promise, I really promise with full sincerity, that I will not touch a hair on your head!”
Well, the lion begged and pleaded so pitifully that Jabu finally decided to trust him and set him free. Gingerly he stepped over to the trap and raised the bar that held the lion’s head. With a mighty bound the lion leapt free of the trap and shook his mane. “Oh, thank you, Mfana! I really owe you something. My neck was getting so stiff in there, and I fear it would have been parted from by body by the hunters if you hadn’t come along. Now, please, if you don’t mind, Mfana, one last thing…. I have become so thirsty from being in that thing, I would really like a drink of water. Can you show me where the river is? I seem to have become confused with my directions.”
Jabu agreed, keeping a wary eye on the lion, and led the lion upstream from where he had come, away from his father’s cows, since Bhubesi had made no promise about not eating them! As lion drank he watched Jabu with one eye. He was thinking to himself, “Hmmm….nice looking legs on that boy! Hmmm….and those arms are good looking too! Pity to waste such an excellent meal!” When the lion raised his head from the river, both eyes were on Jabu, and this time the boy could see what was reflected there. Jabu began to back up.
“You promised, Bhubesi,” Jabu began. “I saved you from the hunters, and you promised not to eat me!”
“Yes,” said Bhubesi, slowly walking toward the retreating boy. “You are right, I did make that promise. But somehow now that I am free it does not seem so important to keep that promise. And I am awfully hungry!”
“You are making a big mistake,” said Jabu. “Don’t you know that if you break your promises that the pieces of the broken promises will come back to pierce you?”
The lion stopped and laughed. “Hah! What nonsense! How can such a flimsy thing pierce me? I am more determined than ever to eat you now, boy,” and he started stalking Jabu once more, “and all this talk is just serving to make me hungrier!”
Just then an old donkey happened across their path. “Ask the donkey,” said Jabu to the lion. “Ask him and he will tell you how bad it is to break a promise.”
“He, wena! (hay, way’nah “alright, you!”) You are certainly dragging this thing out! So I will ask the donkey.” The lion turned to the old creature. “I want to eat this boy,” he addressed the donkey. “Isn’t that okay?”
Jabu broke in, “But he promised to let me go after I freed him from the snare,” Jabu added.
The donkey slowly looked at the lion and then at Jabu. “I say,” the donkey started, “that all my life these stupid humans have beat me and forced me to carry things. Now that I am old they turn me out and leave me to waste away all alone. I do not like humans.” He turned back to the lion. “Eat the boy!” and the donkey moved on.
“Well, that settles that,” said the lion as he began to approach the boy once more. Just then Mpungushe the jackal stepped between the two.
“Oh, terribly sorry,” he said, “to have disturbed you. I’ll be on my way…”
“No!” shouted Jabu. “Wait and tell the lion how bad it is to break a promise.”
“A promise?” asked the jackal. “Well, I suppose it depends upon the promise, doesn’t it? Why? Did one of you make a promise?”
Lion sat down and rolled his eyes up toward the heavens.
“Yes,” Jabu said. And he told Jackal how he had freed the lion from the trap, and how Lion had promised not to eat him, and how now Lion was intent upon doing that very thing!
“Oh, what a silly story!” said Jackal. “My nkosi, the great king of all the animals, stuck in a little trap made by humans? Impossible! I don’t believe it.”
“It is true,” said Bhubesi. “It is a strong and terrible trap!”
“Oh, I can’t believe anything is stronger than my king. I must see this thing! Please, will you take the courtesy before your dinner to show me this trap that you are speaking about. Please! Then you can eat your meal in peace!”
So the lion, keeping Jabu in front of himself, led Jackal to the trap. “But you can’t tell me that this little thing could actually hold your head! Never! I just can’t imagine it. Nkosi, would you mind just sticking your head there so I can see how you looked when the boy found you?”
“Hawu. You are taxing me with your questions. This last thing I will do for you and then you must be on your way and leave me to my dinner in peace.” So Lion stuck his head back between the bars just the way he had been when Jabu had found him. Then, quicker that lightning, Jackal threw the top bar in place. Lion was caught fast once again!
“Yes,” said Jackal, ” now I see how you were trapped. What a pity that you are so trapped once more. But the boy is right, Nkosi. Broken promises always catch up with you!”
Lion roared in anger, but the sound trap held him well. Jabu thanked the jackal and ran back to his cows, who were all patiently waiting for their shepherd’s return.
Jabu drove them home and into the kraal. What a day he had had! “Jabu, Jabu,” Sipho came running from behind Jabu. “The lion has been caught in the trap near the river! You and your cows missed all the adventure!”
Jabu turned and smiled at his friend. “We have had all the adventure we need for one day,” he said. And as Sipho headed back to the hunters to hear the story once again of the mighty lion caught in the trap, Jabu greeted his mother in the cooking house and sat down with a sigh.
Clever Jackal Gets Away
“Hawu, hawu, hawu, my children,” Gogo began one evening. “You know, cleverness is a very important thing to own! Why, cleverness has helped Nogwaja out of the cooking pot more than once!”
“The Jackal is also a clever animal, isn’t he, Gogo?” asked little Sipho (see’ poh), who was quite proud that his nickname was Mpungushe (mpoo-ngoo’-shay = “jackal”). Gogo, in fact, had given him that name because of the loud howl he had made as a baby. Sipho liked to think it was because he was quick and agile as the Jackal.
Gogo laughed and looked at the child at her feet. “Yes, my boy! You are right! Jackal is a very clever animal. Sometimes too clever for his own good!”
“I remember how he helped Jabu the herdboy by tricking Bhubesi back into the snare. Tell us another tale about Jackal, Gogo!” begged Sipho.
“Yes, Gogo,” her other grandchildren chorused. “Please tell us….”
“Alright, my children. But listen and learn!” Gogo settled her round self down more comfortably upon the tree stump. “Kwasuka sukela . . .”
One day long ago, Jackal was trotting through a narrow, rocky pass. As he often did, he kept his nose to the ground as he ambled along, to catch the odd scent. “Never know when I’ll happen upon my next meal, ” he thought to himself, although it was highly unlikely that he would find a rat out in the midday heat. But perhaps he could catch a lizard or two.
Suddenly he was aware of a movement ahead of him in the pass. “Oh, no!” Jackal moaned and stopped dead-still in his tracks. Lion was coming toward him. Realising that he was too near to escape, Jackal was filled with fear. He had played so many tricks on the great Bhubesi in the past, he was sure that lion would take this opportunity to get his revenge. In a flash Jackal thought of a plan.
“Help! Help!” cried Jackal. He cowered down on the cliff path, looking above at the rocks.
Lion stopped short in surprise.
“Help!” Jackal howled, using the fear he felt in the middle of his chest to accentuate his cry. Jackal glanced up at Bhubesi. “Oh, great Nkosi! Help! There is no time to lose! See those great rocks above us? They are about to fall! We shall both be crushed to death!!!! Oh, mighty Lion, do something! Save us!” And Jackal cowered even lower, his paws covering his head.
Lion looked up, most alarmed. Before he even had a chance to think, Jackal was begging him to use his strength to hold up the overhanging rock. So Lion put his brawny shoulder to the rock and heaved.
“Oh, thank you, great King!” yelped Jackal. “I will quickly fetch that log over there to prop under the rock, and we will both be saved!” With that Jackal bounded out of sight.
Lion was left all alone to struggle under the weight of the unmoving rock. How long he remained there before he realised that it was another trick, we will never know. But this much we do know: Jackal continued to live by his wits!
The Spirit in the Tree
There was once a Zulu girl whose mother had died, and whose stepmother was very cruel to her.
One day, when she was crying at her mother’s grave, she saw that the earth of the grave have parted and a stalk start to grow out, which grew into a sapling and soon into a tree.
The wind rustled its leaves and the tree whispered to the girl, telling her that her mother was near and that she should eat the fruits of the tree. The girl did and the fruits were very tasty and made her feel much better.
This happened every day from then on, but as soon as the cruel step-mother discovered what was happening, she went to her husband, the girl’s father, and insisted that he had the tree cut down.
The tree lay withering and the girl wept on its maimed trunk for a long time, until she heard a whisper and saw a lump growing up from the trunk. It grew and grew until it was a pumpkin.
There was a hole in it, from which leaked a trickle of juice. The girl licked up a few drops and found them very nourishing, but again her stepmother soon found out and, one dark night, cut the pumpkin off and threw it on the dung heap.
The next day, the girl wept and wept until she heard a trickling sound and saw a little stream, which whispered, ‘Drink me, drink me!’ She did, and felt much refreshed, but now the step-mother made the girl’s father throw sand in the stream and bury it.
The girl went back to the grave where she cried and cried.
She had been sitting there a long time when a man appeared from the bush.
He saw the dead tree and decided it was just what he needed to make a bow and arrows, for he was a hunter.
He talked to the girl, who told him that the tree had once grown on her mother’s grave.
He liked her and decided to go to her father and ask for her hand in marriage.
The father consented on condition that the hunter killed a dozen buffalo for the wedding feast.
The hunter had never killed more than one buffalo at a time – that was difficult enough.
But this time, taking his new bow and arrows, he had not been in the bush long when he saw a herd of a dozen buffalo resting in the shade.
Setting one of his new arrows to his bow, he let fly. The first buffalo sank down dead. And the second, and the third. An hour later the hunter came back to tell the father to send men to bring the meat to the village.
There was a big feast, when the hunter married the poor girl who had lost her mother.
For it is said: It does not matter how hard the day, or dark the time. It all will pass, if you belief in the spirit in the tree.
The Curse of the Chameleon
Gogo breathed deeply of the cool evening air. She paused beneath the darkening sky, hands pressed into her back.
“Woza, Gogo!” called little Methembe, who, although he seemed to have unlimited energy, always waited for his granny. “Come on!” he encouraged as he turned and dashed up the final rise toward the homestead. Gogo chuckled, shook her head slowly and forced her feet to continue up the path. “Hawu!” she thought to herself. Soon she would no longer be able to make it down to the river and back. By the time Gogo came within sight of the evening fire, the children had put away the washed clothing and deposited the firewood where it was stored. They were now squatting in a tight circle, the older ones rocking on their heels, waiting for their elders to finish eating that they might then have their dinner.
After everyone had eaten and the pots were filled with water to soak, Gogo and the children settled down before the fire. “Gogo,” asked Methembe rather tentatively, choosing to look into the fire rather than at his beloved granny, “why do people grow old and die?” The old woman looked lovingly at her grandson and smiled. She knew his unspoken fears.
“Ahh, my little Hope,” she answered, looking into the fire herself. “That is a very interesting tale! Shall I tell you, my children, the story of why people must grow old and die?”
“Yebo, Gogo! Yes!” they all answered as if one.
“Alright then…” And Gogo began. “Kwasuka sukela….”
After God the great Creator finished making all things, he sat back and took a long look at the world he’d made. He smiled and decided that it was very good. He was especially pleased with the people, the first man and woman. They, after all, were the most like himself. “Yes,” he thought, “this is good! Very good!”
But as time went on the Creator noticed that man and woman kept injuring their bodies. Oh, the skin would heal with time, but it always left scars. And after many years the first man and woman’s bodies were looking old and tatty indeed! “Hmmm,” thought Creator, “these bodies are wearing out! Time, I think, for new ones!”
So Creator called Chameleon to himself. “Listen, Chameleon,” said Creator, “I have a package that I want you to deliver to man and woman. It is most urgent, so do not delay. Go straight to the people, tell them I sent you, and give them this parcel from me!” With that he pushed a small package into Chameleon’s hands. “I trust you, Chameleon, for you are loyal and swift. Go now!”
So Chameleon set off to do as his Lord bid. In those days Chameleon was fast as lightning. He sped toward Earth, the parcel neatly tucked beneath his arm. When he reached the great river he paused to take a drink. And this proved to be his undoing!
Snake just happened to be drinking at the same time. “Hello, Cousin Chameleon,” he hissed. “My, you are in a great hurry today! What are you about?”
Chameleon looked up. “Ah, yebo! Sawubona, Nyoka!” he politely replied. (sah-woo-boh’-nah nyoh’kah = “Yes, I see you, Snake!” or “Hello, Snake!”) “I have a package to deliver for Creator. Something for the people.”
Now Snake hated the people. They walked so far above the ground, often treading on Snake and his family members without even noticing. And Creator seemed to pay so much more attention to them than he did to the other animals. Snake was bitterly jealous of people, and when he heard that Chameleon was taking a gift to them from Creator, Snake began to scheme. How could he make sure that people did not receive this gift?
“Oh, dear Cousin Chameleon,” Snake hissed, edging closer to Chameleon and the parcel. “It is so good to see you again! My family has missed you a great deal! All of our other relatives come often to share a meal. But you never seem to have time for us! One would tend to think that perhaps you thought yourself too good to associate with your close kin!”
Now Chameleon was a sensitive fellow. It worried him to think that Snake might have something against him. “Oh, no, dear cousin Nyoka,” pleaded Chameleon. “I assure you that I hold you in high regard! I would be honoured to come for a meal sometime!”
“Well,” Snake answered quickly, “why not now? My wife is at this very moment waiting lunch for me. She would be pleased beyond words to see you dine with us!”
“Oh, dear!” answered Chameleon, looking at the parcel still tucked beneath his arm. “I really have an urgent errand for Creator at the moment. Ummmm….perhaps some other time?”
“Yes, yes,” hissed Snake turning away with a hint of disgust in his voice. “Just as I thought. Too good for the likes of us! Well, run along then with your all-important business.”
Chameleon looked at the sun. It was still high in the sky. He could have the mid-day meal with Snake’s family and have plenty of time left to deliver the package. Perhaps he was being too hasty. “Wait, Snake,” Chameleon spoke quickly. “I was being too abrupt. I beg your pardon. I really would love to have a meal with you. To prove it I will dine with you now and do my business after the meal!”
Snake smiled to himself before he turned back toward Chameleon. “Oh, Chameleon,” Snake replied, sounding quite humble indeed, “Thank you! It is we who will be honoured by your presence, I assure you!” And with that he led Chameleon off to his burrow.
Snake’s wife had really outdone herself, as usual. She’d prepared a huge and sumptuous meal and truly was delighted to see that Chameleon had come to share it with them. She encouraged him to have more and more, and as it was so delicious, Chameleon helped himself until he was almost too full to move. He was having such a good time, and was especially enjoying Snake’s outstanding utshwala (oo-chwah’-lah = a traditional Zulu beer brewed from sorghum), that he forgot all about his special mission. Snake smiled slyly as he watched Chameleon’s head nod and his eyelids droop. Snake laughed aloud as Chameleon fell asleep with a satisfied little grunt.
“What is so funny, my husband?” asked Snake’s wife, accustomed to the ways of nature to rest after the mid-day meal in the hottest hours of the day. She saw nothing strange or funny about Chameleon’s behaviour. It was actually a compliment to her as a hostess, that she had made her guest so comfortable and welcome.
“Look here,” Snake hissed, as he gently lifted the package from under Chameleon’s arm.
“What is that?” she asked.
“A gift for us from Creator,” Snake laughed. And with that Snake tore open the parcel. “Look, my good wife,” he exclaimed, lifting something from the box. “Creator has sent us new skins! New skins, so that whenever our old ones wear out we can change into new ones!” Snake laughed again, louder this time, waking his guest. Chameleon took one look at the parcel and immediately knew what had happened.
“No, Snake!” Chameleon pleaded, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Those are not for you! They are for people. You know that! Give them back!” Chameleon stretched out his hands toward the skins. “Please, Nyoka! Give them back!”
But Snake just laughed, holding the skins beyond Chameleon’s reach. “No, my cousin. These are my skins now!” And with that Snake slithered away.
As the sun went down Chameleon was sick with sadness for the way in which he’d been betrayed and for the way in which he had disobeyed. He hid away from Creator in the braces of the trees, clinging to the limbs, moving slowly so as not to be detected. He was too afraid to face Creator.
“And so, you see, my children,” finished Gogo, “how it was that people were cheated out of new skins by Snake. To this day snake will shed his old skin and don a new one whenever he is feeling his age.”
“But that’s not fair, Gogo!” cried Methembe. “Creator should make Snake return the skins!”
“Ah, well, my boy,” Gogo looked at him and placed a hand on his head, “Life is not always fair. But while Snake got the skins, Creator did not stop the people from standing on Snake from time-to-time. In fact, when most people encounter Snake these days they give him what they think he deserves: a sound thrashing! And, of course, Chameleon is still hiding away in the trees, moving so slowly that he usually goes undetected. And as for people, well, Creator gave them another gift that was better than new skins!”
“What was that, Gogo?” the children asked
“Oh, my children,” Gogo replied with a smile, “That is a story for another time! Now my weary old bones tell me that it is time for a good night’s rest!”
And with a great heave Gogo lifted herself from her stump by the fire and walked slowly toward her hut.
“Lalani kahle, bantwana!” (lah-lah’-nee kah’-hlay bah-ntwah’-nah = “Sleep well, children!”)
The children sat before the fire slowly licking their fingers for the last of the sticky sweetness. “Ah, Sibonelo!” Gogo smiled. “You are a good one for finding a ripe hive! We shall have honey at least until the new moon!”
Sibonelo grinned back at his granny. “It was easy, Gogo! I just followed the Honeyguide.”
Gogo looked at him thoughtfully. “I hoped you remembered to leave the little bird his portion!”
“Oh, yes, Gogo! I would never think of cheating Ngede out of his share!” Sibonelo knew that the Honeyguide would search for a human helper whenever he found a hive that was ready for harvest. While Honeyguide did not care for the honey, he loved to eat the bee grubs and wax from the nest. But poor Honeyguide was ill-equipped to get the food for himself. He therefore relied upon a two-footed friend to pull down the nest. “I remember what happened to Gingile, the greedy one, when he took all the honey for himself!”
“What happened to Gingile, Gogo?” asked some of the younger children who had not heard or had forgotten the story. Now that their tummies were full, it was time to satisfy the soul.
“Alright, my children,” laughed Gogo. “I think a story about little Ngede is appropriate after feasting upon the honey he helped bring to our table!” She took a deep breath and began, “Kwasuka sukela…..”
There once was a greedy young man named Gingile. He rarely shared with anyone, preferring to keep the meat from any of his kills to himself, hoarding every mealie pip (kernel of corn) that grew in his small garden.
One day while Gingile was out hunting he heard the honey call of Ngede. Gingile’s mouth began to water at the thought of the sweet treat. He stopped and listened carefully, searching until he found the little fellow among the branches above his head. “Chitik-chitik-chitik,” the little bird rattled, like the sound of a matchbox shaken lengthwise. When Ngede saw that he had an interested partner he quickly began moving through the branches toward the nest. “Chitik, chitik, chitik,” he continued, stopping several times to be sure that Gingile followed.
After thirty minutes or so they reached a huge wild fig tree. Ngede hopped about madly among the branches. He then settled on one branch and cocked his head, looking at Gingile as if to say, “Here it is! Come now! What is taking you so long?” Gingile couldn’t see anything from his place on the forest floor, but he knew Honeyguide’s reputation for finding big, ripe nests flowing with sweet honey. Gingile deposited his hunting tools at the foot of the tree. He then gathered some dry twigs and made a small fire. As soon as the flames were well established, Gingile put a long dry stick into the heart of the fire. This wood was especially known to make lots of smoke while it burned. As soon as he was sure it was properly burning, he began climbing, the cool end of the branch clamped in his mouth.
Soon he could hear the loud buzzing of the busy bees. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “I can almost smell the sweetness in the air. How I love the taste of honey!” When he reached the place of the hive he quickly thrust the burning, smoking end of the branch into the hollow. The bees came rushing out, angry and mean. When most of them were out, Gingile pushed his hands into the nest. He took out handfuls of the heavy comb, dripping with rich honey and full of fat, white grubs. He ignored the few stings he received, placing the comb carefully in the pouch he wore around his neck and chest. When the nest was empty, Gingile slowly made his way back down the tree.
Ngede watched all of this activity with a great deal of anticipation. He fidgeted nervously, waiting for the moment when Gingile would walk once again on the forest floor and leave, as was the custom, a fat piece of honeycomb as a thank-offering to the Honeyguide. Ngede loved the juicy larval bees and the waxy comb. He flittered from branch to branch, closer and closer to the ground. Finally Gingile reached the forest floor. Ngede flew to a rocky perch near the man and patiently waited for his share. But, Gingile put out the fire, picked up his tools and started walking home, obviously ignoring the little bird. Ngede chirped indignantly. He flew before Gingile and landed on a rock in front of the hunter. There he faced the man and crossly called in a high-pitched voice, “VIC-torr! VIC-torrr!” Gingile stopped, stared at the little bird and laughed aloud. “You want some of the spoils, do you, my friend? Ha! Who did all the work and received all of the stings? Why should I share any of this lovely honey with you, you little nothing? Be off and find yourself another supper!” And with a wave of his arm in dismissal, Gingile set off for his homestead.
Ngede was furious! How dare this man break the long-time custom and refuse to show his gratitude! But little Ngede was not powerless. He would get his satisfaction! Ngede waited and watched the man for several moons before he sought his revenge.
One day several weeks later Gingile again heard the honey call of the Ngede. Remembering how sweet and wonderful the last harvest had been, Gingile eagerly followed the little bird once again. After making his way around the edge of the forest, Ngede suddenly stopped his characteristic “Chitik-chitik-chitik,” and came to rest in a great umbrella thorn. “Ahh,” thought Gingile. “The hive must be in this tree.” He quickly made his small fire and began his ascent, the smouldering branch in his teeth. Ngede sat and watched.
Gingile climbed, wondering why he didn’t hear the usual buzzing. “Perhaps the nest is deep in the tree,” he thought to himself. He was concentrating so much on his climbing, and was daydreaming about the sweet taste of honey, when he found himself face-to-face with a leopard. Poor leopard was taking her usual mid-day nap in her favourite tree, exhausted after a long night of hunting, when she was suddenly awakened by a scream. Leopard was first startled and then angry at having her sleep so rudely interrupted. She narrowed her eyes, opened her mouth to reveal her very large and very sharp teeth and took a quick swipe at the man, raking her claws across his forehead. Gingile rushed down the tree, half-falling. He landed with a heavy thud on the ground, breaking several of his bones. Lucky for him that Leopard was still so tired, or she might have decided to pursue the man. Never-the-less Gingile departed as fast as his broken bones would allow him. And he wore the scars of Leopard on his forehead the rest of his life.
Ngede had his revenge, and Gingile never followed a Honeyguide again. But the children of Gingile, and the children of the children of Gingile, heard the story of Ngede and had respect for the little bird. Whenever they harvest honey, they are sure to leave the biggest part of the comb with the juiciest grubs for Ngede!
King of the Birds
“Gogo?” Thobeka was the first to break the silence around the fire this night.
Gogo looked at the most inquisitive of her grandchildren with a broad smile.
“Yes, my dear one,” she answered.
“Gogo, I know that the mighty Lion, Bhubesi, is king of all the animals. Is he King also of the birds?”
“Ah, that is an interesting question, Thobeka.” The children sensed a story coming and drew even closer together. “You are right when you say that Lion is the king of all the animals. And as for the birds, well, I will have to tell you about the time they decided to have a leader of their own. . . Kwasuka sukela. . . .”
Some time after the Creator had finished making the beasts of the sea, land and sky, as He was busy putting the finishing touch to His work by creating People, Nkwazi (nkwah’-zee), the great Fish Eagle, called a meeting of all the birds. And they came, from the Flamingo to the Weaver, from the Warbler to the Owl, they came.
“Ah-hem,” Nkwazi began by clearing his throat. The chatter died down as everyone turned their gaze on the magnificent eagle. “I have asked you all to be here for a very important reason. As you all know, Lion, the great Bhubesi, is the king of all the beast of the land. But he hardly dare speak for us, the great winged creatures of the air! It is my suggestion that we chose from among our number a bird to be our sovereign leader!” A ripple of chattering began again as the birds turned to one another to discuss the idea. “Ah-hem!” Nkwazi cleared his throat once more. He waited until he had the attention of all present. “As I am the most majestic and regal bird present, I suggest that I, Nkwazi, be the King of the birds!”
A great deal of mumbling began from all corners of the gathering. Then one voice rose above the others, demanding attention.
“Yes, Nkwazi, you are indeed majestic.” It was the giant Eagle Owl, Khova (koh’-vah) speaking. “However I actually think that it is I who should be the King of the winged animals. You see, I have the largest eyes of any of the birds. I can see everything that happens, and therefore am very wise. It is wisdom we need in a leader more than stateliness.”
Again a low murmur went through the crowd until a third voice demanded attention. “I acknowledge Khova’s wisdom and Nkwazi’s regal bearing, however I would propose that I be King of the birds.” Kori Bustard, Ngqithi (ng*ee’-tee) walked to the centre of the circle as he spoke. “I am the largest of all the winged kingdom. Certainly strength is an important factor in leadership!”
All the birds began to speak at once. Some threw their support behind the Eagle, some believed the Owl should be the King, while others liked the Kori Bustard. Finally after a long period of arguing, a little voice was heard rising above the din.
“Excuse me. Excuse me, please!” It was Ncede (n~ay’-day), the tiny Neddicky (a small, quick-moving southern African warbler). He was so small and insignificant looking that he was easily overlooked. Finally the crowd became silent and allowed the little bird his say. “If we are going to elect a King of the birds, well, I think it should me !”
Everyone broke into laughter. Surely this miniature warbler was jesting! Ncede, King of the birds! Unthinkable! Silly creature for even thinking it! What, the audacity of this little thing! What arrogance! What impudence!
“And what reason would you give for having us elect you as our King?” asked Nkwazi staring into Ncede’s eyes.
“Well,” began Ncede, “no real reason, besides to say that I should be given every bit as much opportunity as anyone else!”
While they laughed at Ncede’s suggestion, the assembly was impressed with the little fellow’s courage!
“What we need is a competition!” decided Nkwazi. “We will have a contest to see who is fit to be our King!” Everyone seemed to like this idea. It was agreed that on the first day after the full moon the birds would again gather. They would meet on the open veld when the sun was high in the sky. And when the sun touched the tallest tip of the mountain, the birds would become airborne. The one who could then fly the highest and touch the hand of God would become the King.
On the appointed day the birds assembled. Patiently they watched the sun make her way down from the sky. At the exact moment she touched the tallest peak of the mountain, the birds all rose into the air. It was a magnificent sight to see.
Now, little Ncede was there. He was determined to prove that he had just as much right as anyone else to the kingship. But he knew that his little wings could not lift him very far. He had therefore made a special plan. Just before the birds took off, Ncede silently crept underneath the wing of the mighty Fish Eagle. He carefully pushed his way deep down into the raptor’s largest feathers. Nkwazi was so busy concentrating on the descent of the sun, he didn’t feel a thing.
Higher and higher the birds soared. The little ones fell out of the race after a short time. Slowly they drifted back down to earth to watch the others. Soon all but three of the birds had dropped out of the competition. Eagle, Owl and Bustard fought to see who would claim the prize. They were so tired, but they pushed on, higher and higher. The strain was too much for owl, and with a resigned “Hoo-hoo” he dove back toward firm ground. Now it was Nkwazi and Ngqithi. Up and up they went, closer and closer to the hand of God. But no matter how much he tried, the feat was too much for the heavy Bustard. After a final pull with his mighty wings, he called to Nkwazi. “Ah, my friend, it seems you are the winner. I can go no further.”
That confession seemed to temporarily strengthen the almost spent Eagle; he gathered his last bit of strength and climbed beyond the Bustard.
“Wheeeee-whee-whee!” The victorious sound of Nkwazi’s call filled the sky.
“Not so fast, Nkwazi!” chirped Ncede, and he shot out from under one of the mighty bird’s feathers. “You have not won yet!” And with that Ncede rose above Nkwazi to touch the hand of God. No matter how hard he tried, Nkwezi just didn’t have the strength left to climb any farther. With a groan he allowed himself to begin gliding down to earth.
Now, all the birds below had watched this and were angered by Ncede’s trickery. As Ncede returned to the soil he did not find the kingly welcome he expected. Instead every bird in the kingdom was ready to pluck the feathers from little Ncede’s back. But the quick little bird saw their anger and quickly flew into a deserted snake hole.
“Come out, Ncede!” snapped the bustard. “Come out and get the prize that you deserve!”
“Yes!” echoed all the other birds. “Come on, Ncede! Where’s your brave face now?”
But Ncede stayed hidden. The birds guarded the hole until long after sunset, waiting for Ncede to show his face. All through the night they waited, thinking that Ncede had to come out for food or water soon. In the morning Ncede had still not appeared. “Listen,” said Nkwazi, “I am faint from hunger. We do not all need to guard the hole. I suggest we take turns until the little jokester decides to come out!” Everyone agreed, most of them being terribly tired.
“I am not yet weary or hungry,” volunteered the owl. “I do not mind taking the first watch. Just mind that someone comes back in an hour or two to relieve me!”
A quick roster was drawn up and everyone but owl went off to sleep or hunt for food. Owl was used to being still and waiting for his prey. He waited and waited it seemed to him forever. Finally he decided to close just one of his eyes. “After all,” he thought, “even one of my eyes is bigger and can see better than both eyes on any other bird!” He closed his right eye and peered into the dark hole with his left eye. Several minutes later Owl decided to switch and so he open the right eye and closed the left. This went on for quite a while, until one time Owl forgot to open the right eye when he closed the left. There he was, both eyes closed! And he fell fast asleep.
Now this was the moment for which Ncede had been waiting. Before the opportunity was lost, Ncede shot out of the hole and disappeared into the forest. Eagle, who was on his way to relieve Owl, saw the little creature leave and cried out. He went to owl and found the bird in a deep sleep.
“Wake up, you fool!” he shouted at owl. “You fell asleep and Ncede got away!”
Well, Owl was so embarrassed by his mistake, to this day he sleeps during the day and does his hunting at night so that none of the other birds will bother him about having been caught sleeping on the job. And Ncede, he hides out in the forest, flittering from here to there, never stopping anywhere long enough to be caught.
“So,” Gogo,” asked Thobeka when several moments of silence had elapsed, “who then became the king of the birds?”
“That, my child,” Gogo looked at her granddaughter with a smile, “no one knows. I think they are arguing to this day about the position!”
Why the Warthog Goes About on His Knees
“Oh, Gogo,” little Sipho asked one evening, “could you tell us the story of clever Jackal again?” Sipho, whose nickname was Mpungushe “jackal,” never tired of hearing tales of his beloved namesake.
“Hawu, Sipho,” moaned several of his siblings, “Not again, little Jackal! You will wear out our ears with stories of Mpungushe!”
Gogo laughed her deep, round laugh. Soon each of her grandchildren were laughing along with her.
“I, too, love the stories of the Jackal!” Gogo looked at Sipho. “But we do not want to cause your brothers and sisters to become deaf. I think there is another tale that I can tell you of an animal who tried to be as clever as Jackal!”
Kwasuka sukela . . .
Wart hog had made himself a lovely, spacious home in an old termite mound that an aardvark* had cleared out. He had built it up and made a wide entrance. He thought it was the most magnificant home in Africa and would often stand at the entrance of his dwelling with his snout in the air as the giraffe, wildebeest** and zebra passed to the watering hole. “Hah,” he thought to himself, “no one has such a fine home!”
One day as he looked out from the entrance of his cave he was horrified to see a huge lion stealthily stalking toward him. He started to back away, but because he had made the entrance to his place so grand, the lion would have no difficulty in following Wart Hog right in. “Ahhhh,” panicked Wart Hog, “Bhubesi will eat me in my own lounge! What will I do?”
Wart Hog decided to use an old trick he’d heard Jackal bragging about. Wart Hog pretended to be supporting the roof of his hole with his strong back, pushing up with his tusks. “Help!” he cried to the lion, “I am going to be crushed! The roof is caving in! Flee, oh, mighty Bhubesi, before you are crushed along with me!”
Now Lion is no fool. He recognized Jackal’s old ploy straight away (“Do you remember that story, children?”), and he wasn’t going to be caught out again. He roared so fiercely that Wart hog dropped to his knees, trembling. Wart hog begged for mercy. Luckily for him Lion was not too hungry. So he pardoned the wart hog and left, saying, “Stay on your kness, you foolish beast!”
Lion laughed to himself and shook his shaggy head as he walked away. Imagine, slow-witted Wart hog trying to copy Jackal’s trick! Wart hog took Lion’s order to heart. That is why, to this day, you will see Wart hog feeding on his knees, in a very undignified position, with his bottom up in the air and his snout snuffling in the dust.
*”aardvark” comes from Afrikaans and literally means “earth pig.” It is a South African eutherian mammal which is nocturnal and feeds mainly on termites.
** “wildebeest” is a South African antelope that has a large ox-like head. It is often also referred to as a “gnu” because its call sounds like “gnu…gnu…gnu.”