USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’
Legends
Narrative

Elsie the Cow

Item:

“During the Anglo Boer war my great grandmother (Dirkie Joubert) was a young married woman living on a typical farm of the time;  in the old Transvaal province of South Africa. It was the year 1900. The Anglo Boer war that started in 1899 had been continuing for a couple of years. This was the war between the British and the Afrikaners rebellion against British rule.

The men have all gone to fight on the battle field, leaving the woman and children behind, alone on the farms. As the woman continued with keeping the farms going they could supply the Afrikaner fighters with fresh supplies whenever they were in the area.

The British soon discovered this source of supply and started burning the farms, removing the supplies for self-use including the live stock.

My  great grandmother had a cow called Elsie. She was a very clever cow and very quickly caught on to what was happening. She became so smart that whenever she saw the dust from the approaching British troops she would run and hide and wait until they were gone to re-appear and help keep my family alive.”

Context:

The three items of folklore I collected from this informant were the only three out of all the items in my collection that were not a result of face to face interaction. The text above was sent to me, from the informant, via email. I also corresponded with the informant over the phone to receive the context behind her stories. That said, the informant’s  great grandmother lived until she was 94. The informant, who lived most of her life in South Africa (she moved to Dallas, Texas with her family in the 90’s), used to go her house after school. The informant had a very special bond with hear great great grandmother, and used to hear this story from her all of the time. Her  great grandmother had five children, and during the course of this war, she and four of her children were taken from their farm and put into a concentration camp. The oldest son went off to fight in the war. In the concentration camp, her four children died. It was not until she was older that the informant learned of this terrible reality; her great grandmother would never talk of the concentration camp.

Analysis:

That the informant’s  great grandmother would tell the story of Elsie the cow and not any of the darker stories of what happened during the war, show that it was a happy story for her. The story is a light anecdote that occurred during a very dark time, and whether or not it actually happened, it most likely helped her get through some very tough years after her traumatic experience in the concentration camp. The informant told the same story to her own kids when they were young, ensuring that this positive story from their family’s history would be passed down.

Folk Beliefs
Narrative

How the Leopard Got Its Spots

Item:

“The Leopard used to live on the sandy-coloured High Veldt. He too was sandy-coloured, and so was hard for prey animals like Giraffe and Zebra to see when he lay in wait for them. The Ethiopian lived there too and was similarly coloured. He, with his bow and arrows, used to hunt with the Leopard.

Then the prey animals left the High Veldt to live in a forest and grew blotches, stripes and other forms of camouflage. The Leopard and the Ethiopian were hungry and consulted Baviaan, the wise baboon, who said the prey animals had “gone into other spots” and advised them to do the same. So they went searching and came to the forest. They could smell Giraffe and Zebra there but could not see them. When night came, they managed to catch Giraffe and Zebra by sound and scent. Asked why they looked so different, the two prey animals demonstrated how easily they could disappear against the forest background.

So the Ethiopian changed his skin to black, and marked the Leopard’s coat with his bunched black fingertips. Then they too could hide. They lived happily ever after, and will never change their colouring again.

The second version is told by the native Africans and goes as follows:

The leopard used to be as white as snow. It was always difficult for the leopard to catch its prey and had to work very hard at it. After the hard work it would go and rest in the shade of the tree.

The wart hogs used to love playing and rolling in the mud in the nearby waterhole. They still do this today.

One day they were playing like this and heard the roar of a lion. They got such a fright and ran right over the leopard leaving little brown spots on the beautifull white coats.

At first the leopards were very upset but then they realized it was much easier to catch their prey and to this day they have kept their spots.”

Context:

The three items of folklore I collected from this informant were the only three out of all the items in my collection that were not a result of face to face interaction. The text above was sent to me, from the informant, via email. I also corresponded with the informant over the phone to receive the context behind her stories. That said, the informant, who lived most of her life in South Africa (she moved to Dallas, Texas with her family in the 90’s), heard both of these variations of this classic African legend when she was a child. She recalls hearing them in elementary school and listening to a version of the story on a cassette player. She likes the second version of the story better because of its depiction of how animals actually congregate around watering holes in real life.

Analysis:

From my research of this tale, I discovered that the first version of the story the informant related is a variation of a Rudyard Kipling story entitled “How the Leopard Got His Spots.” That said, I theorize that Kipling’s version of the story became the canonized version from which all future stories referred to and grew out of.

Both variations of the tale focus on the relationship between predator and prey, reflecting the age of the story. The first variation of the story, in particular, features a human as a hunter. That said, the story might be as old as the hunter gatherer society it depicts.

Here is a link to Rudyard Kipling’s “How the Leopard Got His Spots”:  http://www.sff.net/people/karawynn/justso/leopard.htp

Folk Beliefs
Myths
Narrative

The Baobab Tree

Item:

“The Baobab tree, also known as the upside-down tree, is a strange looking tree that grows in low-lying areas in Africa and Australia. The Baobab is also called the upside-down tree because when bare of leaves, the spreading branches of the Baobab look like roots sticking up into the air, as if it had been planted upside-down. Legend holds that god Thora took a dislike to the Baobab growing in his garden, so he threw it out over the wall of Paradise on to Earth below, and although the tree landed upside-down it continued to grow. Another story goes that when the Baobab was planted by God, it kept walking, so God pulled it up and replanted it upside down to stop it moving. Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions, because there are spirits in the flowers. When water is drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, this serves as protection from crocodiles and the drinker will be mighty.”

Context:

The three items of folklore I collected from this informant were the only three out of all the items in my collection that were not a result of face to face interaction. The text above was sent to me, from the informant, via email. I also corresponded with the informant over the phone to receive the context behind her stories. That said, the informant, who lived most of her life in South Africa (she moved to Dallas, Texas with her family in the 90’s), heard all of these stories about the Baobab trees from the trackers who would lead the safaris she went on in South Africa. The trees did not grow where she grew up near Johannesburg.

Analysis:

In the first two stories about the tree, I see an expression of the traditional subject of minor myths; explaining why things are the way they are. In the folk beliefs of the bushmen, however, I see an intense tie to their surroundings. The tree, for them, is an extremely important part of their relationship with nature. In addition to these stories, the informant sent me some factual information about the tree: “The Baobab has a special role in Africa. Elephants, monkeys and baboons depend on its fruit (the vitamin C content of one fruit is the equivalent of 4 oranges); bats pollinate them by crashing into the flowers while chasing insects; bush babies also spread the pollen; the pollen can be used as glue; the seeds are rich in protein, calcium, oil and phosphates – they can also be roasted and ground like coffee beans; young leaves have a high calcium content and can be used as spinach; the trunk is fibrous and can be woven into rope mats and paper; beer and tea can be made from the bark, but you need a strong constitution to drink either.” These facts demonstrate the many ways in which the tree is used, by humans and animals alike. That said, all of these things the tree does augments the tie between it and the bushmen that is expressed in the stories.

Folk Beliefs

The Tokoloshe

Interview with informant:

“Okay, so this is from South Africa. The tokoloshe is this creature type thing. The way it works is he’s like this creature thing and it rides on this bicycle, or no it’s like this unicycle. And, like, you’ll just be like walking down the street and you’ll see a unicycle with just like shoes on it, like going down the street. Like the shoes themselves are pedaling the unicycle, and it’s weird as shit. And that’s the tokoloshe, right. And it’s this thing that no one can describe how it looks, you know, it’s invisible, it just has shoes or whatever. And, uh, it appears to children who put hot pap, which is like grits, but like not really. It’s like slightly different, it’s like, you know, cornmeal-type stuff. But if you put it—and it’s hot—you put it under your bed the tokoloshe will appear to you the next day or some shit. And he comes up to little kids and he’s like ‘Hey do you want to play marbles?’ and he starts playing marbles with them, right? And if you say yes, you want to play marbles, then, uh, you know, you’re never seen again. And that’s it.”

Very weird folk creature from South Africa, likely used by many parents to frighten children. Cautionary tale type stuff used to discourage unwanted behavior, whether it be playing with marbles or perhaps other frowned upon activities. Putting hot food under the bed to attract it could mean food is supposed to be eaten entirely. Like, hiding part of a meal causes the Tokoloshe to seek retribution. As to the invisible unicycle aspects, I haven’t the foggiest. Something very sinister about an empty pair of shoes.

Annotation: The tokoloshe gets several mentions in the 2003 film The Bone Snatcher, a British-Canadian horror movie. Though the creature in the film isn’t explicitly a tokoloshe (but rather a swarm of ants that join to form a body using the bones of their victims) but it is referenced, which is to be expected as the director, Jason Wolfsohn, is South African.

 

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