Today, February 2nd, is a day steeped in legend. In the United States people gather around groundhog burrows, waiting to see their behaviour as they emerge after the long winter because what the groundhog does is said to indicate whether or not winter is really over. Groundhog Day is a day that celebrates how we can look to animals and cues in nature to know about coming weather patterns. Legend has it that the day the groundhog comes out of its hole, after a long winter sleep, it looks for its own shadow. If it sees it, it regards it as an omen of six more weeks of bad winter weather and returns to his hole. If the day is cloudy and, hence, shadowless, it takes it as a sign of spring and stays above ground.
Here at Londolozi, the Shangaan people also have a rich culture and similar folklore where they look to animals and birds to tell them what is to come. I had a chat with Renias Mhlongo, who grew up on this land, had this information passed onto him from his fore-fathers and has watched these patterns over the decades. What he had to say was fascinating.
The first animal he referred to was the fork-tailed drongo. Renias says that they have their typical “happy call” but that if it is going to rain or be windy, the bird will sit atop the tallest of trees and call a very different call. A lizard buzzard is another bird he referred to. Apparently when the lizard buzzard flies very high, circles in the sky repeatedly and begins its peculiar call between 9am and 10am, then you know you’re in for a scorcher of a day.
Another one that I have heard from quite a few of the trackers is that rain patterns can be predicted according to red-billed quelea nesting behaviour. Because these are tiny birds that build rather flimsy nests during the summer period, they prefer not to nest when big storms are likely to strike. Apparently if a colony of queleas choose to nest, you can be sure that the next two weeks will be dry and no rain will come. How these birds can know this, we can’t be sure.
Not only can these animals indicate weather patterns but the Shangaan people also have a lot of superstitions relating to animal behaviour too. Renias made me laugh as he regaled a story of the black-chested snake eagle. He says with complete conviction and authority that if you see this bird sitting close to the road at the top of a tree it means that there are police out and about. The black of the bird’s head represents the cap a policeman wears and the white of its body is like that of the uniform. If you plan to speed, drive without a license or disobey the law in any way, know that the police will catch you. Renias says this has been proven to him on countless occasions and he now takes serious credence of this omen.
Two other birds and two animals that can warn you about your coming luck are the golden-tailed and bearded woodpeckers as well as the slender mongoose and steenbok. The golden-tailed woodpecker has two calls, one of which is a high-pitched weea. When you hear this call, it is a terrible omen and it means something dangerous is coming. If you are tracking something or planning to go on a trip somewhere, cancel those plans because on that path you are likely to come across something bad. On the other hand, the bearded woodpecker has a call, which means good luck for you. It is a series of variable wik-wik-wik notes that increase in tempo and resemble the sound of laughter. “If you’re tracking an animal and hear this sound you must know that you will find the animal,” says Renias. “The bird has been right every time”.
Related to this is the direction in which a steenbok and slender mongoose run across your path. If these animals run from right to left then you’re in luck, if it’s the other way around then know that your luck is about to change. It seems that this belief comes from a time when the Shangaan people lived directly off the land and hunted the animals to feed their families. A majority of people are right-handed and Renias says it is much easier to throw a spear at and kill one of these animals if it runs in front of you from right to left than the other way around.
We are fortunate enough to have a team rich in Shangaan culture who carry this knowledge from their fore-fathers with them and who are in touch with this natural intuition. So often I have looked to the tracker I work with as the storm clouds build and the meteorologists predict rain, and asked him what he thinks. He shakes his head, knowing that the queleas won’t have got it wrong. So although on the other side of the world, people look to groundhogs for their weather predictions, we honour the day by listening out for the drongo and the woodpecker and celebrate February 2nd in true Shangaan style.