King of the Birds (A Traditional Zulu Story)

“Gogo?” Thobeka was the first to break the silence around the fire this night.

Gogo looked at the most inquisitive of her grandchildren with a broad smile.

“Yes, my dear one,” she answered.

“Gogo, I know that the mighty Lion, Bhubesi, is king of all the animals. Is he King also of the birds?”

“Ah, that is an interesting question, Thobeka.” The children sensed a story coming and drew even closer together. “You are right when you say that Lion is the king of all the animals. And as for the birds, well, I will have to tell you about the time they decided to have a leader of their own. . . Kwasuka sukela. . . .”

Some time after the Creator had finished making the beasts of the sea, land and sky, as He was busy putting the finishing touch to His work by creating People, Nkwazi (nkwah’-zee), the great Fish Eagle, called a meeting of all the birds. And they came, from the Flamingo to the Weaver, from the Warbler to the Owl, they came.

“Ah-hem,” Nkwazi began by clearing his throat. The chatter died down as everyone turned their gaze on the magnificent eagle. “I have asked you all to be here for a very important reason. As you all know, Lion, the great Bhubesi, is the king of all the beast of the land. But he hardly dare speak for us, the great winged creatures of the air! It is my suggestion that we chose from among our number a bird to be our sovereign leader!” A ripple of chattering began again as the birds turned to one another to discuss the idea. “Ah-hem!” Nkwazi cleared his throat once more. He waited until he had the attention of all present. “As I am the most majestic and regal bird present, I suggest that I, Nkwazi, be the King of the birds!”

A great deal of mumbling began from all corners of the gathering. Then one voice rose above the others, demanding attention.

“Yes, Nkwazi, you are indeed majestic.” It was the giant Eagle Owl, Khova (koh’-vah) speaking. “However I actually think that it is I who should be the King of the winged animals. You see, I have the largest eyes of any of the birds. I can see everything that happens, and therefore am very wise. It is wisdom we need in a leader more than stateliness.”

Again a low murmur went through the crowd until a third voice demanded attention. “I acknowledge Khova’s wisdom and Nkwazi’s regal bearing, however I would propose that I be King of the birds.” Kori Bustard, Ngqithi (ng*ee’-tee) walked to the centre of the circle as he spoke. “I am the largest of all the winged kingdom. Certainly strength is an important factor in leadership!”

All the birds began to speak at once. Some threw their support behind the Eagle, some believed the Owl should be the King, while others liked the Kori Bustard. Finally after a long period of arguing, a little voice was heard rising above the din.

“Excuse me. Excuse me, please!” It was Ncede (n~ay’-day), the tiny Neddicky (a small, quick-moving southern African warbler). He was so small and insignificant looking that he was easily overlooked. Finally the crowd became silent and allowed the little bird his say. “If we are going to elect a King of the birds, well, I think it should me !”

Everyone broke into laughter. Surely this miniature warbler was jesting! Ncede, King of the birds! Unthinkable! Silly creature for even thinking it! What, the audacity of this little thing! What arrogance! What impudence!

“And what reason would you give for having us elect you as our King?” asked Nkwazi staring into Ncede’s eyes.

“Well,” began Ncede, “no real reason, besides to say that I should be given every bit as much opportunity as anyone else!”

While they laughed at Ncede’s suggestion, the assembly was impressed with the little fellow’s courage!

“What we need is a competition!” decided Nkwazi. “We will have a contest to see who is fit to be our King!” Everyone seemed to like this idea. It was agreed that on the first day after the full moon the birds would again gather. They would meet on the open veld when the sun was high in the sky. And when the sun touched the tallest tip of the mountain, the birds would become airborne. The one who could then fly the highest and touch the hand of God would become the King.

On the appointed day the birds assembled. Patiently they watched the sun make her way down from the sky. At the exact moment she touched the tallest peak of the mountain, the birds all rose into the air. It was a magnificent sight to see.

Now, little Ncede was there. He was determined to prove that he had just as much right as anyone else to the kingship. But he knew that his little wings could not lift him very far. He had therefore made a special plan. Just before the birds took off, Ncede silently crept underneath the wing of the mighty Fish Eagle. He carefully pushed his way deep down into the raptor’s largest feathers. Nkwazi was so busy concentrating on the descent of the sun, he didn’t feel a thing.

Higher and higher the birds soared. The little ones fell out of the race after a short time. Slowly they drifted back down to earth to watch the others. Soon all but three of the birds had dropped out of the competition. Eagle, Owl and Bustard fought to see who would claim the prize. They were so tired, but they pushed on, higher and higher. The strain was too much for owl, and with a resigned “Hoo-hoo” he dove back toward firm ground. Now it was Nkwazi and Ngqithi. Up and up they went, closer and closer to the hand of God. But no matter how much he tried, the feat was too much for the heavy Bustard. After a final pull with his mighty wings, he called to Nkwazi. “Ah, my friend, it seems you are the winner. I can go no further.”

That confession seemed to temporarily strengthen the almost spent Eagle; he gathered his last bit of strength and climbed beyond the Bustard.

“Wheeeee-whee-whee!” The victorious sound of Nkwazi’s call filled the sky.

“Not so fast, Nkwazi!” chirped Ncede, and he shot out from under one of the mighty bird’s feathers. “You have not won yet!” And with that Ncede rose above Nkwazi to touch the hand of God. No matter how hard he tried, Nkwezi just didn’t have the strength left to climb any farther. With a groan he allowed himself to begin gliding down to earth.

Now, all the birds below had watched this and were angered by Ncede’s trickery. As Ncede returned to the soil he did not find the kingly welcome he expected. Instead every bird in the kingdom was ready to pluck the feathers from little Ncede’s back. But the quick little bird saw their anger and quickly flew into a deserted snake hole.

“Come out, Ncede!” snapped the bustard. “Come out and get the prize that you deserve!”

“Yes!” echoed all the other birds. “Come on, Ncede! Where’s your brave face now?”

But Ncede stayed hidden. The birds guarded the hole until long after sunset, waiting for Ncede to show his face. All through the night they waited, thinking that Ncede had to come out for food or water soon. In the morning Ncede had still not appeared. “Listen,” said Nkwazi, “I am faint from hunger. We do not all need to guard the hole. I suggest we take turns until the little jokester decides to come out!” Everyone agreed, most of them being terribly tired.

“I am not yet weary or hungry,” volunteered the owl. “I do not mind taking the first watch. Just mind that someone comes back in an hour or two to relieve me!”

A quick roster was drawn up and everyone but owl went off to sleep or hunt for food. Owl was used to being still and waiting for his prey. He waited and waited it seemed to him forever. Finally he decided to close just one of his eyes. “After all,” he thought, “even one of my eyes is bigger and can see better than both eyes on any other bird!” He closed his right eye and peered into the dark hole with his left eye. Several minutes later Owl decided to switch and so he open the right eye and closed the left. This went on for quite a while, until one time Owl forgot to open the right eye when he closed the left. There he was, both eyes closed! And he fell fast asleep.

Now this was the moment for which Ncede had been waiting. Before the opportunity was lost, Ncede shot out of the hole and disappeared into the forest. Eagle, who was on his way to relieve Owl, saw the little creature leave and cried out. He went to owl and found the bird in a deep sleep.

“Wake up, you fool!” he shouted at owl. “You fell asleep and Ncede got away!”

Well, Owl was so embarrassed by his mistake, to this day he sleeps during the day and does his hunting at night so that none of the other birds will bother him about having been caught sleeping on the job. And Ncede, he hides out in the forest, flittering from here to there, never stopping anywhere long enough to be caught.

“So,” Gogo,” asked Thobeka when several moments of silence had elapsed, “who then became the king of the birds?”

“That, my child,” Gogo looked at her granddaughter with a smile, “no one knows. I think they are arguing to this day about the position!”

Author’s notes: * = “q” in Zulu is a “click” sound made by drawing the tongue down sharply from the palate. ~ = “c” in Zulu is also a click sound. It is the sound made when the tip of the tongue is drawn away from the back of the front teeth. Similar to the click of exasperation made in most Western countries.