African tribes have traditionally believed many strange and wonderful things about birds. The Zulu people call a bird an ingonyi, the Sesotho and Tswana people call birds ngonyani. These African words mean ‘fat’ or ‘fattening’. The African people believed that birds were the bringers of fertility, just like the animal herds that used to traverse over the face of the continent. They believed that the great bird migrations which arrived at certain times of year brought fertility, essentially ‘fattening’ the land. A bird’s migration is due to them following resources; the large movements to an area are usually during the summer months when there is a lot more rain and thus more growth, new life and hence more food around.
Many African tribes believed that the bird was the highest state of perfection and form of life. In other words, when a human soul reaches the highest state it becomes a bird. After having been reincarnated seven times on Earth, either as a human or animal, you are raised by the Gods to the state of a bird. The bird is the freest creature in the world for it is a friend to the air, to the land and to the water. The ingonyi is the freest of beings; it is the fattener and fertilizer.
Many tribes had strict laws in place to protect birds. The Batswana, ba-Pedi and Northern speaking people would never cut the umbrella shaped Acacia tortilis or Mosu tree down, for these trees are used by many migratory birds to rest on when they come down to Southern Africa in the summer months. If one was caught hunting more birds than was needed for food, the punishment was a savage fine. There were many guidelines laid down to prevent the exploitation of birds and other animals. For example, you were only allowed to hunt two guineafowl a day; thus, to make the meat last longer, it was dried. The most terrible sin, of course, was breaking the eggs of a bird. If you committed this sin, you and your family would be cursed for seven years.
All over Africa, in various languages, you find a saying “if you kill a tree, you are killing a bird”. “Setklara seswala kinyona” in Setswana and “ummuthi uzalwanyone” in Zulu both mean “the tree is given birth to by the bird”. This comes about from noticing that the migratory birds perch on branches of big trees and excrete or drop the seeds of strange trees from afar, hence creating new trees and new life. The Bakgatla people say that if you shave the great Earth Mother’s green hair, she will lose her feathered lice… if you destroy trees, birds will no longer come to bring fertility.
Two of my favourite bits of bird folklore or significance involve species that we find right here at Londolozi.
The magpie shrike is a black bird with white feathers on his wings and a very long tail. This bird was King Shaka’s favourite bird, and was known as ‘the scatterer of enemies.’ King Shaka’s warriors were determined not to return from any battle without having won a victory; each would wear the long tail feathers of the magpie shrike in their headdress and around their upper arms. The feathers of the magpie shrike were also very important in the celebrations after winning a battle and conquering another tribe. The magpie shrike was known as ‘the scatterer of enemies’, the ‘bird of victory’, the ‘one who reigns supreme’, the ‘king of kings’ and the ‘emperor’. I always think of this when I see these noisy little birds emitting their loud whistles out in the bush.
One of my other favourites is about the yellow-billed hornbill or umkolwana was known as a bird that brings laughter and light to one’s heart. It is a bird of faith. The bird has a few comical features: the long and curved yellow bill, the polka dot white spots on black wings, the inquisitive eyes… Umkolwana means “believer”. When the hornbill sits on the branch of a tree it always seems to look up at the sky as if it sees something or as if someone is up there. Over centuries, the African people started to see the bird as a symbol of faith and, specifically, of human faith in a better tomorrow. The umkolwana is an optimist who says that ‘all shall come right in the end’. Even when there is the biggest drought, you will never see the umkolwana’s beak drooping earthwards; it is always facing upwards, because it has hope for the future.
The world of African folklore is one that fascinates us guides and many guests too. The privilege for us at Londolozi is that we are working with and living in amongst many local Shangaan people, many of whom still hold these traditional beliefs. Because all of us here live in one small village in the bush, we have a brilliant opportunity to ask questions and to truly involve ourselves in the world of African folklore. I’ll be putting up more posts in future about other birds and the traditional beliefs surrounding them.
Are there any in particular that you’d like to hear about?