Honeyguide’s Revenge (A Traditional Zulu Story)

The children sat before the fire slowly licking their fingers for the last of the sticky sweetness. “Ah, Sibonelo!” Gogo smiled. “You are a good one for finding a ripe hive! We shall have honey at least until the new moon!”

Sibonelo grinned back at his granny. “It was easy, Gogo! I just followed the Honeyguide.”

Gogo looked at him thoughtfully. “I hoped you remembered to leave the little bird his portion!”

“Oh, yes, Gogo! I would never think of cheating Ngede out of his share!” Sibonelo knew that the Honeyguide would search for a human helper whenever he found a hive that was ready for harvest. While Honeyguide did not care for the honey, he loved to eat the bee grubs and wax from the nest. But poor Honeyguide was ill-equipped to get the food for himself. He therefore relied upon a two-footed friend to pull down the nest. “I remember what happened to Gingile, the greedy one, when he took all the honey for himself!”

“What happened to Gingile, Gogo?” asked some of the younger children who had not heard or had forgotten the story. Now that their tummies were full, it was time to satisfy the soul.

“Alright, my children,” laughed Gogo. “I think a story about little Ngede is appropriate after feasting upon the honey he helped bring to our table!” She took a deep breath and began, “Kwasuka sukela…..”

There once was a greedy young man named Gingile. He rarely shared with anyone, preferring to keep the meat from any of his kills to himself, hoarding every mealie pip (kernel of corn) that grew in his small garden.

One day while Gingile was out hunting he heard the honey call of Ngede. Gingile’s mouth began to water at the thought of the sweet treat. He stopped and listened carefully, searching until he found the little fellow among the branches above his head. “Chitik-chitik-chitik,” the little bird rattled, like the sound of a matchbox shaken lengthwise. When Ngede saw that he had an interested partner he quickly began moving through the branches toward the nest. “Chitik, chitik, chitik,” he continued, stopping several times to be sure that Gingile followed.

After thirty minutes or so they reached a huge wild fig tree. Ngede hopped about madly among the branches. He then settled on one branch and cocked his head, looking at Gingile as if to say, “Here it is! Come now! What is taking you so long?” Gingile couldn’t see anything from his place on the forest floor, but he knew Honeyguide’s reputation for finding big, ripe nests flowing with sweet honey. Gingile deposited his hunting tools at the foot of the tree. He then gathered some dry twigs and made a small fire. As soon as the flames were well established, Gingile put a long dry stick into the heart of the fire. This wood was especially known to make lots of smoke while it burned. As soon as he was sure it was properly burning, he began climbing, the cool end of the branch clamped in his mouth.

Soon he could hear the loud buzzing of the busy bees. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “I can almost smell the sweetness in the air. How I love the taste of honey!” When he reached the place of the hive he quickly thrust the burning, smoking end of the branch into the hollow. The bees came rushing out, angry and mean. When most of them were out, Gingile pushed his hands into the nest. He took out handfuls of the heavy comb, dripping with rich honey and full of fat, white grubs. He ignored the few stings he received, placing the comb carefully in the pouch he wore around his neck and chest. When the nest was empty, Gingile slowly made his way back down the tree.

Ngede watched all of this activity with a great deal of anticipation. He fidgeted nervously, waiting for the moment when Gingile would walk once again on the forest floor and leave, as was the custom, a fat piece of honeycomb as a thank-offering to the Honeyguide. Ngede loved the juicy larval bees and the waxy comb. He flittered from branch to branch, closer and closer to the ground. Finally Gingile reached the forest floor. Ngede flew to a rocky perch near the man and patiently waited for his share. But, Gingile put out the fire, picked up his tools and started walking home, obviously ignoring the little bird. Ngede chirped indignantly. He flew before Gingile and landed on a rock in front of the hunter. There he faced the man and crossly called in a high-pitched voice, “VIC-torr! VIC-torrr!” Gingile stopped, stared at the little bird and laughed aloud. “You want some of the spoils, do you, my friend? Ha! Who did all the work and received all of the stings? Why should I share any of this lovely honey with you, you little nothing? Be off and find yourself another supper!” And with a wave of his arm in dismissal, Gingile set off for his homestead.

Ngede was furious! How dare this man break the long-time custom and refuse to show his gratitude! But little Ngede was not powerless. He would get his satisfaction! Ngede waited and watched the man for several moons before he sought his revenge.

One day several weeks later Gingile again heard the honey call of the Ngede. Remembering how sweet and wonderful the last harvest had been, Gingile eagerly followed the little bird once again. After making his way around the edge of the forest, Ngede suddenly stopped his characteristic “Chitik-chitik-chitik,” and came to rest in a great umbrella thorn. “Ahh,” thought Gingile. “The hive must be in this tree.” He quickly made his small fire and began his ascent, the smouldering branch in his teeth. Ngede sat and watched.

Gingile climbed, wondering why he didn’t hear the usual buzzing. “Perhaps the nest is deep in the tree,” he thought to himself. He was concentrating so much on his climbing, and was daydreaming about the sweet taste of honey, when he found himself face-to-face with a leopard. Poor leopard was taking her usual mid-day nap in her favourite tree, exhausted after a long night of hunting, when she was suddenly awakened by a scream. Leopard was first startled and then angry at having her sleep so rudely interrupted. She narrowed her eyes, opened her mouth to reveal her very large and very sharp teeth and took a quick swipe at the man, raking her claws across his forehead. Gingile rushed down the tree, half-falling. He landed with a heavy thud on the ground, breaking several of his bones. Lucky for him that Leopard was still so tired, or she might have decided to pursue the man. Never-the-less Gingile departed as fast as his broken bones would allow him. And he wore the scars of Leopard on his forehead the rest of his life.

Ngede had his revenge, and Gingile never followed a Honeyguide again. But the children of Gingile, and the children of the children of Gingile, heard the story of Ngede and had respect for the little bird. Whenever they harvest honey, they are sure to leave the biggest part of the comb with the juiciest grubs for Ngede!

Author’s note: There are six different species of honeyguides in southern Africa. The Greater Honeyguide actually does lead man to bees’ nests, hence the family name. They are equipped with a special bacteria in their gut that aid in digestion of bees’ wax. Honeyguides do not build their own nests, but rather are brood-parasitic, laying their eggs in hole-nesting birds’ nests, usually Barbet’s nests. When the Honeyguide hatches it usually kills the host’s offspring, and the host bird raises the Honeyguide, unaware that it is not its own.