Fairy Tales from South Africa [VOLUNTEER PROJECT] | Annotated Tale

This book was proofed and edited by volunteers in 2020. Please see the notes for each tale for credit to the individual proofers. Thanks to everyone who contributed!


NOW in this story there is neither Fairy nor Inzimu, nor does any one win a kingdom by secret spells. Some little bags of python-skin are indeed just mentioned, but you will see that they have no effect on any one. The only magic used in this story is a woman’s wit and kindness of heart, the oldest charms in the world.

                Long years ago there lived a Chief who had many wives. Two of these were more distinguished than the others, for each had a most beautiful daughter. Indeed their families were exactly alike, for each had a son and two daughters, one very pretty and the other plain. I cannot tell you what became of the plain daughters. No doubt they each had a history, but this tale concerns only the two beauties. The name of one was Inkosesana, which means “the Young Lady.” Her mother was very proud of her from the first, and expected her to marry a very great Chief, and Inkosesana was as conceited as possible in consequence. The name of the other was Lalhiwe, which only means “Thrown Away.” As you may suppose from her name, she was a much quieter and more modest girl than Inkosesana. But as time went on and both girls grew up to womanhood suitors began to arrive, and each mother hoped for great things for her daughter. The rivalry between the two families became more and more bitter, till at last it was all they could do to keep the constant quarrels from coming to the ear of the Chief.

                One morning Lalhiwe’s mother awoke and went to see about the Kafir corn for the day’s provisions. To her horror she found under the grinding-stone the blood of some animal and several little bags of python-skin filled with charms.

                “Lalhiwe!” cried the mother, “come and look at these!”

                Lalhiwe nearly fainted with fright. “It is witchcraft,” said she, “it must be some wickedness devised by Inkosesana and her mother. They will never rest till we are ruined. Those charms are meant to cast a spell over us, so that we may fall ill and die.”

                Lalhiwe then ran quickly to a neighbour who was a Wise Woman, and begged her to come and give charms to counteract the evil influence of her rivals. When all was done she sat down and said, “Dear mother, I am tired of all this. What do I care about beauty? It has only brought us endless quarrels and wretched jealousy. Give me some baboon-skins. They are the ugliest disguise of all, and I will wrap myself up in them and retire from life till Inkosesana is married. In that way we shall all have peace.”

                That very day she asked her brother to get two baboon-skins for her, and to bring them with the heads and limbs still on them. As soon as they were ready she made herself a complete disguise. She joined the two skins at the shoulders and again at the heads. Then she slipped them on so that the two baboons’ heads covered her face and hair before and behind. Her bright eyes peeped through the two eye-holes, but her face was completely hidden. All that was visible was the mask of a grinning ape. The two skins hung from her shoulder to her knee, back and front. One could still see that her limbs were pretty and well turned, but her laughing face and ivory teeth were hidden completely, and so were her graceful shoulders. In fact she looked like a girl afflicted with some great deformity, who is obliged to hide herself from the gaze of men.

                As soon as her rival’s mother heard of her decision, she laughed heartily and said, “This is the best news I have heard for many a long day. What a fool that girl is, to be sure! She must be mad.”

                All the women in the kraal were of the same opinion. They had never heard of any one hiding a pretty face before, and could not believe that Lalhiwe did it all to have peace and save her family from calamity. In spite of all the remarks that were made she never faltered, but wore her ugly baboon-skins every day, and never once showed her face even to her girl friends. Great peace reigned in the kraal after the first few days; there were no more quarrels, everyone was quite happy, and Inkosesana remained the undisputed beauty of the country-side.

                But one day, when Lalhiwe had worn the baboon-skins many months, there was a great stir in the kraal. Two councillors had arrived from a very mighty Chief, seeking not one bride but two for their master. Both must be beautiful; the Chief was very rich, and would make a magnificent marriage-gift to the father of a really lovely maiden. The two councillors sat long in conversation with the head of the kraal, while the women stood in little knots and talked excitedly. Presently they were asked to come forward and the demand of the great Chief was made known. The mother of Inkosesana at once advanced with an air of triumph. “Here,” said she, “is the bride you are looking for,” and she showed them Inkosesana, who did indeed look charming. She had thrown aside her cloak and appeared decked in all her prettiest beads, which set off her beautiful skin and graceful figure to full advantage. The councillors both said at once: “This is the most beautiful girl we have yet seen. We accept her with pleasure; our King could not wish for a more lovely woman.” Then turning to the father they said, “Have you another pretty daughter, so that we may see her?”

                The father said nothing, but the mother of Inkosesana, mad with gratified pride and longing to triumph yet further, called out, “Yes, there is another daughter, but she is always wrapped in baboon-skins, and is of no consequence at all.”

                “Let us see her,” said the councillors, who felt curious at once.

                Lalhiwe stepped forward very reluctantly, holding her skins tightly round her. But nothing could take away from the grace of her pretty limbs, and the councillors walked round her and longed to see her face.

                “What are you hiding under those skins?” said they. “You have very pretty limbs and you walk gracefully. What is wrong with you? We beg you to show us your face.”

                “No,” said Lalhiwe. “He who marries me must marry me for myself alone, not for my beauty.”

                “Are you deformed, then? Or are you very ugly?”

                “I did not say so,” answered Lalhiwe quietly. “All I said was that he who marries me must marry me for myself alone.”

                “But why do you do this strange thing?”

                To please myself,” said Lalhiwe.

                “You must be deformed,” said one councillor, hoping to make her angry.

                “I did not say so,” answered the girl; and although the councillors did all they could to provoke her and make her throw off her skins, she did not get angry or speak rudely to them.

                They confessed themselves beaten, and held a long consultation. Should they take Lalhiwe as well as the beautiful Inkosesana and risk it? Both of them admired her wit and her good temper, and at last they decided to ask for her also, in the hope that all would be well. Before they went back to their master they saw the brothers from the two families. They told the brother of Inkosesana to make a big kraal to receive the cattle in payment for his sister, as there was no doubt their master would be delighted with her. To Lalhiwe’s brother they said nothing; and he, fearing his sister would not be welcomed, made only a little kraal, sufficient for some twenty cattle.

                The councillors then returned to the King. He was pleased with the reports they brought of Inkosesana, but when he heard the tale of the second bride who wore baboon-skins, he was very angry indeed. “No girl,” said he, “who had a pretty face would hide it. Without doubt she is absolutely hideous; and remember, if that is the case, you pay the penalty of death. To think that I should have sent such fools!”

                The councillors were very sad, and awaited the coming of the brides with much fear, for they could not be sure they had guessed rightly, and the King always kept his word. As a precaution the King only sent twenty cattle for each bride. “We can easily send more if both are acceptable,” said he; “and if there is trouble (for I will not have an ugly wife on any account), then we need not ask for a return of the marriage-gift. These forty cattle will then be the due payment for Inkosesana.”

                At the appointed time the two brides said farewell to the kraal, and set out on their long journey. They walked for many days, each attended by her bridesmaids. At length they reached their future home and appeared before the great Chief. He was pleased at once with Inkosesana, but looked with puzzled eyes on Lalhiwe, who still remained muffled in her baboon-skins. He admired her graceful bearing, and longed the more to know her secret.

                “I beg of you,” said he, “let me see your face.”

                “No, great King,” said Lalhiwe in her usual quiet voice; “I show my face to no one until the wedding morning.”

                The two brides then retired with their maids, each to her own hut, until the preparations for the wedding-feast were made. You can imagine how eagerly they were discussed among the women of the kraal. Inkosesana was much admired, but Lalhiwe found no supporters. “She must certainly be hideous,” they said, “or she would show her face.”

                When the great day arrived the brides each left her hut and went down to the river to bathe. They went to separate pools, and neither saw the other.

                Lalhiwe descended with her maids to a deep pool under a great rock. The sun just touched the top of the highest tree, tall white lilies grew on the banks, and in every cranny and nook were great clusters of green fern, fresh with dew. Lalhiwe slipped off her skins, rolled them in a tight bundle and buried them deep in a great ant - bear hole. Then she and her maidens bathed in the clear pool, laughing and chattering, till it was time to array themselves for the great day. The bridesmaids decked themselves out in all their most wonderful bead-work, but Lalhiwe, as befitted a bride on her wedding-morning, wore the deep black kilt of ox-skins which is the dress of married women only, and for ornament just a girdle of white beads round her waist and an assegai in her hand. But when she stood in the sun, surrounded by her maids, they all cried, “Lalhiwe, you are more beautiful than ever! You are far more lovely than Inkosesana! “

                And indeed it was true. All these months Lalhiwe had been hidden from the sun she had grown in beauty, her skin was as smooth and soft as satin, and every movement was a joy to behold.

                The bridesmaids placed her at their head, and all together they ascended the path towards the kraal. They sang a song as they went, but the song was sad. It was their farewell to a friend who would play with them no more in the old home, and who had come to a strange life in a distant land.

                At the gate of the kraal they met Inkosesana, who proudly stepped before them and was the first to meet the glances of the wedding-guests. All clapped and greeted her with great approval, but their eager eyes looked beyond her to the mysterious sister. When Lalhiwe appeared in all her perfect grace, shouts of joy and surprise were heard on all sides.

                “She is lovely!” cried all the guests. “There is no one so beautiful in all our land!”

                When the two brides appeared before the King and danced in the great cattle-kraal according to custom, he was struck dumb with amazement, and never took his eyes from Lalhiwe. When the wedding was over he called the two councillors and gave them each twenty beautiful oxen. “You have shown yourselves wise and trusty councillors,” said he. “Lalhiwe is beautiful beyond belief. Choose all my finest cattle, let them all be young, and send them as a marriage-gift to her father’s kraal. Let the first herd be the marriage-gift for Inkosesana, but let Lalhiwe have such a dowry as has never been seen before in our land.”

                The King’s commands were carried out. Great was the rejoicing and wonder of Lalhiwe’s mother when the marvellous herd of cattle arrived. She had never expected such honour to come upon her child. But her rival hid herself in her hut, filled with bitter disappointment. She sulked alone for months, nor did she ever recover her old position in the kraal.


A Swazi Tale.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Baboon-Skins
Tale Author/Editor: Bourhill, Mrs E. J., and Mrs J. B. Drake
Book Title: Fairy Tales from South Africa [VOLUNTEER PROJECT]
Book Author/Editor: Bourhill, Mrs E. J., and Mrs J. B. Drake
Publisher: Macmillan and Co.
Publication City: London
Year of Publication: 1908
Country of Origin: South Africa

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