Imvubu Newsletter

Fabulous River Monster

© Hirst, M. 2006 Imvubu 18: 3, 3.

On 20 June Mr Norushe, a regional manager at the Civic Centre in King William’s Town, visited the museum, where he related the following anecdotal information. He said that he owns a farm near the Keiskamma River and is interested in developing the area through tourism. He thought that the story he had to tell would be a huge tourist attraction. He said that he grew up in Zingcuka, near the Keiskamma River, below Hogsback. Apparently, a huge snake, which has a light on its head, lives in the river. And neither animals nor people come near it.

According to Mr Norushe, the snake must have ‘something like an aura’ because the ‘cows’ hairs stand on end’ when they approach the river. Apparently, humans, too, feel the effects of its aura ‘in the middle of the forehead’. Mr Norushe said that his mother, who was born in 1927, has observed the huge snake from the 1950s. “You can only see its light,” he said. “[The snake] is so big that it can stop the water from flowing.” Apparently, the people living near the river can hear the silence when the snake stops the water from flowing. “Soon after, one can hear the water when it whooshes down again.” Apparently, the huge snake’s movements are unpredictable. “There are bones on the river banks,” Mr Norushe said, “but it [the snake] has never killed a human.” So, presumably, the huge snake must consume animals of one sort or another. “Sometimes you can see its light just before dawn,” he went on to say. “It only moves down the river at night, and its wife lives about 2 km away.”

Theal (1882: 74-83) records ‘The Story Of Sikulume’ in his well-known volume on Xhosa folklore. In the tale there is a river in which a fabulous monster called inabulele lives. It swallows up all the people, who are eventually rescued by the hero, Sikulume, when he goes under the water and kills it. As is usual in such folk-tales, no mention is made of any distinguishing features of the landscape including the Keiskamma River, which is quite understandable because why spoil a good story by cluttering it up with a plethora of realistic details. The implication is that the story itself could apply to any particular river and equally, to no particular river at all. Of course, fabulous monsters exist, but fortunately they exist only in folklore and the imagination, rather than reality.

On the 6 November 1987 the Ciskei government issued a series of first-day cover stamps and postcards, which were postmarked Keiskammahoek, graphically depicting episodes from Theal’s Sikulume tale as well as featuring the tale itself. It is only in connection with the Ciskei first-day cover series that the link is made between the inabulele fabulous monster and the Keiskamma River. What the intention of the Ciskei government was at the time is by no means clear, but the story was never used to promote tourism along the Keiskamma River. Perhaps, it was one of L. L. W. Sebe’s indirect messages to the independent Transkei Bantustan and his political rivals in the quest for ‘Homeland’ kudos, the Matanzima brothers, because Southern Nguni oral tradition has long associated the original abode of inabulele with the Umzimvubu River in Mpondoland. How the tale came to be transplanted in Ciskei is unclear, but there is little doubt that Theal’s version is one of the Xhosa versions of the tale. Unfortunately, there is no information available as to where he recorded it.

Source: Somine van der Merwe, personal communication.