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Inkathaso Tales



Southern Africa

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The Cannibal's Wonderful Bird








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Inkathaso Tales includes a range of stories that originate in Southern Africa. South African

Folklore is firmly rooted in an oral, historical tradition. It is tied to the region’s landscape and fauna, with fantastic creatures playing an important role in these stories. Music and song is often used to tell the story and the tales' values are usually firmly African, with community and sharing being key.

Most of the sources that I have access to stem from the great tradition of the 19th century collectors, anthropologists and philologists, with much of the literature focused on the San people (Bushmen), nomadic hunter-gatherers who live in South Africa and in the neighbouring countries of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Their focus is typically on animal stories and, in particular, stories about the jackal, a dangerous and comical trickster figure.

We also have some significant entries in this collection from the later tribal communities that formed in advance of European colonisation in the south.

There are also many stories about the lion and his family, along with tricky little rabbits, and other familiar animals such as doves, tortoises, and snakes, plus distinctively African animals like the ostrich and the eland. There are tales of tiny animals too, like the many different kinds of ants who live in fear of the dreaded anteater, or the little ‘tink-tinkje" (finch) who has always wanted to be king of all the birds.

As in most folktales, there is a strong supernatural element where animals, reeds or trees take human form or assume human characteristics, gods take human women as brides, and thunder can deliver messages. Because the stories spring from an oral tradition, they often feature music, song and dance as an integral part of the plot, meaning that the refrains would have been known to the audience, who would have joined in with the storyteller.

The stories can, of course, be brutal and often contain death and disaster. In this, too, they reflect a certain African reality, although collectors and regular readers of folklore and fairy tales will recognise that brutality as a common theme in cautionary tales the world over.


The Cannibal's Wonderful Bird

A number of girls once went away from their homes early in the morning for the purpose of getting imbola, which is a red dye used to colour their bodies and clothes.

Among them was the daughter of a chief, a very pretty girl. After they had collected the imbola, they were about to return home, when one of them proposed that they should bathe in a large pool of water that was there.

To this they all agreed, and so they went into the water and played about in it for a long time.

At last they dressed themselves again, and set out for home, but when they had gone some distance, the chief's daughter noticed that she had forgotten one of her ornaments, which she had taken off when they went to bathe.

So she asked her cousin to return with her to get it. The cousin refused. Then she asked another girl, and another, but one and all refused to go back. She was thus obliged to return to the water alone, while the other girls went home.

On arriving at the pool, a big ugly cannibal with only one leg came up to her, caught her, and put her in his bag. She was so frightened that she lay quite still. The cannibal then took her round to the different villages and made her sing for him. He called her his bird.

When he came to a village he asked for meat, and when it was given to him he said "Sing, my bird." But he would never open the bag so that anyone could see what sort of a bird he had.

When the girls reached home, they lied to the chief saying his daughter had reached the age of ntonjane, and then they selected one of themselves and shut her up in a hut to pretend that she was the chief's daughter.

The chief believed that story, and so he killed a large ox and said the people must eat. That day they ate fat beef, and were very merry. The boys took meat, and went away from the village to eat it.

The cannibal, who did not know that the girl's father was chief at this place, came there just at this time. He said to the boys if they would give him meat he would make his bird sing for them. So they gave him meat, and he said, "Sing, my bird."

The girl's brother was among those boys, and he thought the bird sang like his sister, but he was afraid to ask the cannibal to let him see. He advised the cannibal to go to the village where the men were, and told him there was plenty of meat that day.

The cannibal then went to the village and made his bird sing. The chief wanted very much to see the bird, but the cannibal would not open the bag. The chief offered him an ox for the bird, but the cannibal declined the offer.

Then the chief made a plan. He asked the cannibal to go for some water, and said he would give him plenty of beef when he returned. The cannibal said he would go if they would promise not to open his bag while he was away. They all promised not to touch the bag.

They gave the cannibal a leaky pot to carry the water in, so that he was gone a long time. As soon as he was out of sight the chief opened the bag and took his daughter out.

At first he could not believe it was his daughter, for he thought she was observing ntonjane. But when he knew how those other girls had deceived him he said they must all die, and so they were killed. Then he put snakes and toads in the bag, and tied it up again.

When the cannibal came back he complained about the leaky pot, but they gave him plenty of meat to satisfy him, so he picked up his bag and went away. He did not know what had happened while he was absent.

When he came near his own house he called to his wife, "Make ready to cook."

He called all the other cannibals to come to a feast, and they came expecting to get something nice. He let them wait a little to get very hungry.

Then he opened his bag and thought to take the girl out, but found only snakes and toads in it. The other cannibals were so angry when they saw this, that they killed him and made their feast of him.

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