‘We are all bridegrooms, Kenkebe’

This is applied to anyone who will not readily share his food, and it means ‘We are all entitled to a portion, you greedy one.’  When eating, a Xhosa is accustomed to sharing his food with any person present.  This is the story which gave rise to the saying.  .   .  .

There was once a great famine in the country.  As their crops had failed, the people were obliged to eat anything they could find and they dug up any insects, weeds, or roots they could lay their hands on.  A woman in the village spoke to her husband, Kenkebe, saying, ‘Go once more to my father, Kenkbe, he has helped us before, maybe he has a little corn he could spare.’

So Kenkebe rose up early in the morning and walked until he came to his father-in-law’s village, where he was received with every kindness.  An ox had just been killed, and he ate voraciously.  ‘What is the news with you, my son?’ asked his father-in-law when Kenkebe had satisfied his hunger.

‘It is terrible, father,’ said the man.  ‘We have not a bite left in the house and we are starving.  Will you spare us a little corn, for we are dying.’  His father-in-law generously gave him seven bags of millet, and his sisters-in-law went with him to carry them.  When they reached the valley close to his home he told the women to put down the bags and return to their father.  ‘I am so near home now that I can manage on my own,’ he said.  So the girls left him and went home.

He carried the bags, one by one, to a cave, where he hid them under a big rock.  He took some of the millet, ground it very fine and shaped it into little cakes like a nongwe root.  Next, he dug out some real nongwe roots which he put in his bag and then went home to his wife.  ‘Alas!’ he exclaimed to her.  ‘There is also great famine on your father’s side of the land.  I actually found the people there eating themselves, they are so famished!’

He told his wife to make a fire.  Then he pretended to cut a piece of flesh from his own thigh.  ‘This they are doing in your father’s village.  Now, my wife, let us do the same.’  His wife cut a piece from her own thigh and roasted it on the fire, unaware that Kenkebe was really roasting some ox meat that he had brought with him.

Then Kenkebe’s small son said, ‘Why does my father’s piece of meat smell so nice as it is roasting, while my mother’s does not?’  Kenkebe answered, ‘Because it is taken from the leg of a man.’  After this he gave his wife some nongwe roots to cook while taking for himself the cakes he had made with millet.  His little boy asked, ‘Why do my father’s nongwes smell so nice while they are roasting, and my mother’s do not?’  Kenkebe replied, ‘Its is because they were dug by a man.’  As Kenkebe rose to leave

the hut, one of his nongwes rolled off his lap, and dropped unseen to the floor.  The boy furtively snatched it up for he was still hungry.  Breaking is in half, he ate one half and gave the other to his mother.  ‘This is no root!’ she said.  ‘This nongwe is made of millet!’

Early the next morning Kenkebe awoke and, taking the cooking pot, went quietly out of the hut to cook himself some millet.  But he was not unobserved,  His son and wife got up and followed him soundlessly.  They saw him go to the cave and between them pushed a large boulder toward the selfish man. 

When he heard the noise of the boulder, Kenkebe looked up, leaped away in terror, and rushed down the valley with the stone rolling after him.  Into the river and out again, dripping wet, he sprinted over hill and dale, the boulder always close behind.  This continued all that day.  At night he staggered up to the door of his own hut, and there the stone also stopped.


His wife was at work grinding the millet from one of the bags she had fetched down.  ‘Why do you cry as if you were a child?’  she asked him. ‘I cry because I am very tired and very hungry,’ he moaned. ‘I have lost my bag and mantle in the river, and my clubs and everything that was mine.’  Then his wife gave him his mantle which she had picked up from the river bank. ‘You have behaved like a bad and selfish scoundrel,’ she said, ‘and there is no food for you tonight.’

The following day Kenkebe took his spear and his two dogs (who names were Tumtumse and Mbambozozele) and went off to hunt.  He was lucky enough to capture an eland cow with a young calf, which he drove to his home,  He cut an ear from the calf and roasted it in the fire.  It was fat and he liked it so much that he cut the other ear, and cooked that too.  As small indulgences lead to large ones, he started to hanker after the calf itself.  ‘But,’ thought he, ‘if I kill the calf, the eland cow will not let down her milk for me.’  So he called to his two dogs.  First he said, ‘Tumtumse, if I kill the calf, will you imitate it and suck the eland cow for me?’  The dog replied, ‘No, I will bark like a dog.’

‘Get out of my sights, you miserable cur!’  Kenkebe shouted angrily, aiming a stone at it.  Tumtumse ran off.  Turning to the second dog, he appealed, Mbambozozele, my dog, if I kill this calf, will you suck the eland cow for me?’  This dog, who was fond of milk, agreed. So Kenkebe killed the calf and roasted and ate it,  Maybe he even threw a little of the offal to Mbambozozele.  The virtuous Tumtumse had long since gone to seek a less corrupt master.  Kenkebe then took the skin of the calf and wrapped it round Mbambozozele so that the eland thought that it was her own calf, and let her milk flow.  

However, the dog was greedy like his master, and wanted to suck too long, which annoyed Kenkebe.  Kenkebe struck him with a stick which made Mbambozozele howl, and at once the eland cow saw how she had been fooled, and charged Kenkebe with her sharp horns.  He ran this way and that, but the eland was always close behind him.  Just then his wife came back from the fields.  ‘Quickly Kenkebe!’ she called.  ‘Jump up on that big rock!’  Following her advice, he did so, and the animal, not being able to check her charge, rammed her head with such fury against the rock that her neck was broken, and she fell down dead.

Thereupon the couple thought they might as well cook and eat her, but their fire had gone out, and the nearest fire to be found was at a village of cannibals, over the hill and down in the next valley.  ‘Go, my son,’ said Kenkebe who was too much of a coward to go himself.  ‘Fetch some fire from the cannibals for us, but do not take any meat with you or they will smell it.’


The boy went, but disobeying his father, he hid a bit of meat in his kaross.  When he got to the first hut in the valley he asked the old woman for fire.  She gave him some in a gourd, and in return he gave her the piece of meat.  ‘Do not eat it until I am long gone,’ he said.  As soon as the boy had gone, however, she put the meat on the fire and started roasting it.  At once the other cannibals’ nostrils began to twitch, and they ran to the hut.  So avid were their appetites that not only did they swallow the meat, but the old woman too, and the fire, and even the ashes!

Snuffling about, the cannibals smelt out the path that Kenkebe’s son had taken.  Hearing them hot on his trail, the boy ran to his own house, shouting, ‘Hide yourselves!  The cannibals are coming!’  How they scattered!  The mother jumped into a thick bush, the grandmother covered herself in ashes, Kenkebe climbed up a tree (sill clutching the breast of eland), and the boy slipped into an antbear hole near the path.  Up panted the cannibals.  After they had devoured the eland, their leader said ‘Where the fire is warm there must be the people who kindled it.  Search beneath the ashes.’  They soon found the grandmother, and down their throats she went.  They continued to snuff and sniff like wolves and, in no time at all, caught the scent of the eland breast, and saw Kenkebe huddled in the tree.  He cried and pleased with them, but to no avail and (accompanied by the eland breast), he went the way of the old grandmother.  Then the cannibal chief suggested they look in the bushes.  There they found Kenkebe’s wife, but by this time they were replete.  ‘We will take her with us, they said, ‘and eat her when we grow hungry again.’  They took her back to their village without discovering the boy shivering in the antbear hole.

The quick-witted woman immediately planned an escape.  That evening she brewed the cannibals such delicious beer that they became roaring drunk, then sleepy.  While they snored, she tiptoed out, made the door fast and set fire to the hut.  It went up like a torch and every cannibal was burned alive.  The woman then left the village to find her son and they had a reunion.


 Stories and pictures reproduced from the book ‘Myths and Legends of Southern Africa’ told by Penny Miller