Kaffir Folk-Lore [Xhosa] | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in October 2018 with all known ATU Classifications. Kaffir has acquired a negative connotation but is unfortunately the title of this book. The Kaffir referenced in the book in modern times is best known as Xhosa.

Story of Sikulume, The

THERE was once in a certain village an old man who was very poor. He had no children, and only a few cattle. One day, when the sky was clear and the sun was bright, he sat down by the cattle-fold. While he was sitting there, he noticed some birds close by which were singing very joyfully. He listened for a while, and then he stood up to observe them better, They were very beautiful to look upon, and they sang differently from other birds. They had all long tails and topknots on their heads. Then the old man went to the chief and told him what he had seen.

               The chief said: "How many were they?

               The old man replied: "There were seven."

               The chief said: "You have acted wisely in coming to tell me; you shall have seven of the fattest of my cows. I have lost seven sons in battle, and these beautiful birds shall be in the place of my seven sons. You must not sleep to-night, you must watch them, and to-morrow I will choose seven boys to catch them. Do not let them out of your sight by any means."

               In the morning the chief ordered all the boys of the village to be assembled at the cattle-fold, when he spoke to them of the birds. He said: "I will choose six of you, and set my son who is dumb, over you, that will make seven in all. You must catch those birds. Wherever they go, you must follow, and you must not see my face again without them." He gave them weapons, and instructed them that if any one opposed them they were to fight till the last of them died.

               The boys set off to follow those beautiful birds. They chased them for several days, till at last the birds were exhausted, when each of the boys caught one. At the place where they caught the birds they remained that night.

               On the morning of the next day they set out on their return home. That evening, they came to a hut in which they saw a fire burning, but no one was there. They went in, and lay down to sleep. In the middle of the night one of those boys was awake. He heard some one saying: "There is nice meat here. I will begin with this one, and take this one next, and that one after, and the one with small feet the last." The one with the small feet was the son of the chief. His name was Sikulume, for he had never been able to speak till he caught the bird. Then he began to talk at once.

               After saying those words the voice was still. Then the boy awakened his companions, and told them what he had heard.

               They said: "You have been dreaming; there is no one here how can such a thing be?"

               He replied: "I did not dream; I spoke the truth."

               Then they made a plan that one should remain awake, and if anything happened, he should pinch the one next him, and that one should pinch the next, till all were awake.

               After a while the boy who was listening heard some one come in quietly. That was a cannibal. He said the same words again, and then went out for the purpose of calling his friends to come to the feast. The boy awakened his companions according to the plan agreed upon, so that they all heard what was said. Therefore, as soon as the cannibal went out, they arose and fled from that place. The cannibal came back with his friends, and when the others saw there was no one in the hut, they killed and ate him.

               As they were going on, Sikulume saw that he had left his bird belaind. He stood, and said: "I must return for my bird, my beautiful bird with the long tail and topknot on its head. My father commanded that I must not see his face, again unless I bring the bird."

               The boys said: "Take one of ours. Why should you go where cannibals are?"

               He replied: "I must have the one that is my own."

               He stuck his assagai in the ground, and told them to look at it. He said: "If it stands still, you will know I am safe; if it shakes, you will know I am running; if it falls down, you will know I am dead." Then he left them to return to the hut of the cannibals.

               On the way he saw an old woman sitting by a big stone. She said: "Where are you going to?" He told her he was going for his bird. The old woman gave him some fat, and said: "If the cannibals pursue you, put some of this on a stone."

               He came to the hut and got his bird. The cannibals were sitting outside, a little way back. They had just finished eating the owner of the hut. When Sikulume came out with his bird they saw him and ran after him. They were close to him, when he took some of the fat and threw it on a stone. The cannibals came to the stone, and began to fight with each other.

               One said: "The stone is mine."

               Another said: "It is mine."

               One of them swallowed the stone. When the others saw that, they killed him and ate him. Then they pursued again after Sikulume. They came close to him again, when he threw the remainder of the fat on another stone. The cannibals fought for this also. One swallowed it, and was killed by the others.

               They followed still, and Sikulume was almost in their hands, when he threw off his mantle. The mantle commenced to run another way, and the cannibals ran after it. It was so long before they caught it that the young chief had time to reach his companions.

               They all went on their way, but very soon they saw the cannibals coming after them. Then they observed a little man sitting by a big stone.

               He said to them: "I can turn this stone into a hut."

               They replied: "Do so."

               He turned the stone into a hut, and they all went inside, the little man with them. They played the"iceya" there. The cannibals came to the place and smelt. They thought the hut was still a stone, for it looked like a stone to them. They began to bite it, and bit till all their teeth were broken, when they returned to their own village.

               After this, the boys and the little man came out.

               The boys went on. When they reached their own home they saw no people, till at length an old woman crept out of a heap of ashes. She was very much frightened, and said to them: "I thought there were no people left."

               Sikulume said: "Where is my father?"

               She replied: "All the people have been swallowcd by the inabulele" (a fabulous monster).

               He said: "Where did it go to?

               The old woman replied: "It went to the river."

               So those boys went to the river, and Sikulume said to them: "I will go into the water, and take an assagai with me. If the water moves much, you will know I am in the stomach of the inabulele; if the water is red, you will know I have killed it." Then he threw himself into the water and went down.

               The inabulele swallowed him without tearing him or hurting him. He saw his father and his mother and many people and cattle. Then he took his assagai and pierced the inabulele from inside. The water moved till the inabulele was dead, then it became red. When the young men saw that, they cut a big hole in the side of the inabulele, and all the people and the cattle were delivered.

               One day Sikulume said to another boy I am going, to the doctor's; tell my sister to cook food for me, nice food that I may eat." This was done.

               He said to his sister: "Bring me of the skin of the inabulele which I killed, to make a mantle." She called her companions, and they went to the side of the river. She sang this song:--

I am sent for you
By Sikulume, Inabulele."

               The body of the inabulele then came out. She cut two little pieces of the skin for sandals, and a large piece to make a mantle for her brother.

               When he was a young man, Sikulume said to his friends: "I am going to marry the daughter of Mangangezulu."

               They replied: "You must not go there, for at Mangangezulu's you will be killed."

               He said: "I will go."

               Then he called those young men who were his chosen friends to accompany him. On the way they came to a place where the grass was long. A mouse came out of the grass, and asked Sikulume where he was going to.

               He replied: "I am going to the place of Mangangezulu."

               The mouse sang this song:--

"Turn back, turn back, Sikulume.
No one ever leaves the place of Mangangezulu.
Turn back, turn back, O chief."

               Sikulume replied: "I shall not turn back."

               The mouse then said: "As it is so, you must kill me and throw my skin up in the air."

               He did so.

               The skin said: "You must not enter by the front of the village; you must not eat off a new mat; you must not sleep in a hut which has nothing in it."

               They arrived at the village of Manggangezulu. They entered it from the wrong side, so that all the people said: "Why is this?"

               They replied: "It is our custom."

               Food was brought to them on a new mat, but they said It is our custom to eat off old mats only."

               An empty hut was given to them to sleep in, but they said: "It is our custom only to sleep in a hut that has things in it."

               The next day the chief said to Sikulume and his companions: "You must go and tend the cattle."

               They went. A storm of rain fell, when Sikulume spread out his mantle and it becarne a hut as hard as stone, into which they all went. In the evening they returned with the cattle. The daughter of Mangangezulu came to them. Her mother pressed her foot in the footprint of Sikulume, and he became an eland.

               The girl loved the young chief very much. When she saw he was turned into an eland, she made a great fire and drove him into it. Then he was burned, and became a little coal. She took the coal out and put it in a pot of water, when it became a young man again.

               Afterwards they left that place. The girl took with her an egg, a milksack, a pot, and a smooth stone. The father of the girl pursued them.

               The girl threw down the egg, and it became mist. Her father wandered about in the mist a long time, till at length it cleared away. Then he pursued again.

               She threw down the milksack, and it became a sheet of water. Her father tried to get rid of the water by dipping it up with a calabash, but he could not succeed, so he was compelled to wait till it dried up. He followed still.

               The girl threw down the pot, and it became thick darkness. He waited a long time till light came again, when he followed them. He could travel very quickly.

               He came close to them, and then the girl threw down the smooth stone. It became a rock, a big rock with one side steep like a wall. He could not climb up that rock, and so he returned to his own village.

               Then Sikulume went home with his wife. He said to the people: "This is the daughter of Mangangezulu. You advised me not to go there, lest I should be killed. Here is my wife."

               After that he became a great chief. All the people said: "There is no chief that can do such things as Sikulume."


The game called Iceya is mentioned in this story as being played in the rock that became a hut. The games with which Kaffir boys are accustomed to amuse themselves are, as a rule such as require a large amount of exertion of legs, arms and lungs. In the European towns, and at Mission stations, they have generally adopted the English game of cricket, but at their own kraals they still practise the sports of their ancestors.

               At a very early age they commence trials of skill against each other in throwing knobbed sticks and imitation assagais. They may often be seen enjoying this exercise in little groups, those of the same age keeping together, for there is no greater tyrant in the world than the big Kaffir boy over his younger fellows. Commencing with an ant-heap at a distance of ten or fifteen yards, for a target, they gradually become so perfect that they can hit an object a foot square at double and even treble that distance. The knobbed stick and the imitation assagai are thrown in different ways, the object of the first being to inflict a heavy blow upon the mark aimed at, while that of the last is to pierce it. This exercise strengthens the muscles of the arms, and gives expansion to the chest. The result is that when the boys are grown up and become men, they are able to use their weapons without any further training. When practising, they keep up a continual noise, and if an unusually successful hit is made the thrower shouts the common Kaffir cry of exultation, Tsi! ha! ha! ha! ha! Izikali zika Rarabe! (The weapons of Khàkhàbay).

               Kaffir boys above the age of nine or ten years are fond of shamfighting with sticks. They stand in couples, each with a foot advanced to meet that of his antagonist, each with a cudgel elevated in the right hand. Each fixes his eye upon the eye of his opponent, and seeks to ward off blows as well as to inflict them. In these contests pretty hard strokes are sometimes given and received with the utmost good humour.

               A game of which they are very fond is an imitation hunt. In this, one of them represents a wild animal of some kind, a second acts as a hunter, and the others take the part of dogs in pursuit. A space is marked off, within which the one chased is allowed to take breath, when he is said to be in the bush. He tries to imitate as closely as possible the animal he is representing. Thus if he is an antelope he simply runs, but if he is a lion he stands and fights.

               The calves of the kraal are under the care of the boys, and a good dcal of time is passed in training thern to run and to obey signals made by whistling. The boys mount them when they are eighteen months or two years old, and race about upon their backs. When the boys are engaged in any sport, one of the number is selected by lot to tend the calves. As many blades of grass as there are boys are taken, and a knot is made on the end of one of them. The biggest boy holds the blades between the fingers and thumb of his closed hand, and whoever draws the blade with the knot has to act as herdsman.

               They have also a simple game called hide and look for.

               If they chance to be disinclined for active exercise, they amuse themselves by moulding clay into little images of cattle, or by making puzzles with strings. Some of them are skilful in forming knots with thongs and pieces of wood, which it taxes the ingenuity of the others to undo. The cleverest of them sometimes practise tricks of deception with grains of maize. They are so sharp that although one is sure that he actually sees the grain taken into the right hand, that hand when opened will be found empty and the maize will be contained in the left, or perhaps it will be exhibited somewhere else.

               The above comprise the common out-door sports of boys up to the age of fourteen or fifteen years, At that time of life they usually begin to practise the different dances which they will be required to take part in when they become men. These dances differ one from another almost as much as those practised by Europeans.

               The commonest indoor game of the Kaffirs is the one called Iceya. This can be played by two persons or any number exceeding two. The players sit in a circle, and each has a little piece of wood, a grain of corn, or something of the kind. It must be, so small that it can easily be concealed in a folded hand, and no player must have more than one. If there are many players they form themselves into sides or parties, but when they are few in number one plays against the rest. This one conceals the toy in either of his hands, and throwing both arms out against an opponent he announces himself either as an Inhlangano (one who meets), or an Ipambo (one who evades). His opponent throws his arms out in the same manner, so that his right hand shall be opposite the first player's left, and his left opposite the first player's right. The clenched hands are then opened, and if the toys are found to meet, the first player wins if he has called himself an inhlangano, or loses if an ipambo. If the toys do not meet, the case is reversed. When there are many players, one after another is beaten until two only are left. This part of the game is called the Umnyadala (the winding up). Those two then play against each other, and the one who is beaten is said to be left with the umnyadala, and is laughed at. The winner is greeted as the wearer of the tiger skin mantle. In playing, the arms are thrown out very quickly, and the words are rapidly uttered, so that a stranger might fancy there was neither order nor rule observed. Young men and boys often spend whole nights playing the Iceya, which has the same hold upon them as dice upon some Europeans.

               Next to the Iceya, the most popular indoor game with Kaffir children is the Imfumba. One of the players takes a grain of maize, or any other small substance, in his hands, and pretends to place it in the hands of the others, who are seated in a circle around him. He may really give it to one of them, or he may keep it himself. One is then selected to guess in whose possession it is. [1]

               The last of the Kaffir indoor games is called Cumbelele. Three or four children stand with their closed hands on top of each other, so as to form a column, They sing "Cumbelele. cumbelele, pang-alala," and at the last la they draw their hands back sharply, each one pinching with his thumb nail the hand above.

               Toys, as playthings, are few in number. Bows and arrows are sometimes seen, but generally boys prefer an imitation assagai.

               The nodiwu is a piece of wood about six or eight inches long, an inch and a half or two inches wide, and an eighth or a quarter of an inch thick in the middle. Towards the edges it is bevelled off, so that the surface is convex, or consists of two inclined planes. At one end it has a thong attached to it by which it is whirled rapidly round. The other end of the thong is usually fastened to a small round piece of wood used as a handle. The nodiwu, when whirled round gives forth a noise that can be heard at a considerable distance. Besides the use which it is put to by the lads, when a little child is crying inside a hut its mother or nurse will sometimes get a boy to make a noise with a nodiwu outside, and then induce the child to be still by pretending that a monster is coming to devour it. There is a kind of superstition connected with the nodiwu, that playing with it invites a gale of wind. Men will, on this account, often prevent boys from using it when they desire calm weather for any purpose. This superstition is identical with that which prevents many sailors from whistling at sea.


[1] A Kaffir who went with the mission party from Lovedale to Lake Nyassa, and remained there several years, informs me that he found the Imfumba the commonest game of the children in that part of Africa. When he had learned the language of the people there, he was surprised to hear many of the common Kaffir folklore stories told nearly as he had heard them related by Gaka women when he was a boy.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Story of Sikulume, The
Tale Author/Editor: Theal, Georg McCall
Book Title: Kaffir Folk-Lore [Xhosa]
Book Author/Editor: Theal, Georg McCall
Publisher: S. Sonnenschein, Le Bas & Lowrey
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1886
Country of Origin: South Africa (Xhosa)
Classification: unclassified

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