The curious case of the Keiskamma river monster

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

Folklore and legend play an important part in Xhosa history and tradition, and, consequently, in the cultural landscape of Buffalo City and the wider Eastern Cape.

Some legends, of course, are more fantastical than others - and few match the mythical magnificence of the inabulele, the river monster that swallowed an entire village, but who was eventually defeated by a brave young boy, Sikulume.

Preserved and handed down from generation to generation through oral history, the legend was eventually written down and published.

It was further immortalised on 6 November 1987, when the then-Ciskei government issued a series of first-day cover stamps and postcards, which were postmarked Keiskammahoek, graphically depicting scenes from the legendary story in the area generally believed to have been the site of the legend.

While rooted in mythology, there have been many accounts over the decades of a real serpent monster living in the Keiskamma River, a la the more famous Loch Ness Monster. (The Amathole Museum has published an interesting account here).

Fact or fiction, the Story of Sikulume remains one of the Eastern Cape's most beloved folk tales:

The Story of Sikulume

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?"