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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?"

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:-

"Inabulele, Inabulele, 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."

Source: Sacred Texts Online

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