The Year of Hunger

A Venda Folktale


Once upon a time there was a terrible drought in Venda. Everybody was suffering severely but the baboons that lived in the mountains were the worst off. They were about to die of hunger. At this desperate point they had an urgent meeting and decided to send one of them to go and work for the Venda king down in the valley. Who will they send? Just then a beautiful young baboon called Nyamuleli walked past. They grabbed her and skinned her alive and a lovely young girl appeared.

“Now, Nyamuleli, listen carefully to us. You are to go and work for the Venda king down there in the valley. Your first chores will definitely be to pound mealies and fetch water. Remember how we are suffering and when you go down to the river hide a small pot of mealies under a rock so as to keep us alive.”

Nyamuleli trembled but agreed to save her kin folk.
At the homestead of the Venda king she was immediately brought to the king who was impressed by her beauty. The chores of a new wife were always to pound mealies at night and to fetch water. Every morning she hid some mealies for her desperate family but after a while the other wives of the Venda king became suspicious so Nyamuleli stopped stealing food.

“Look at her down there in the valley!” the other baboons said. “She is fat and shiny and has forgotten her suffering relatives.”

They decided to teach her a lesson. Everyone who could play a musical instrument, drums or mbila, or who could sing gathered and marched down to the musanda – the king’s homestead – singing:

“Nyamuleli forgot her blanket

Nyamuleli forgot her blanket made of baboon skin.”

The Venda king thought it was great fun and ordered all his wives and children to come and listen to the musical performance. Everybody joined in the fun except Nyamuleli, who recognised her family members.

“Where is my beautiful young wife?”  the king asked.

“Bring her, everybody must be here and have some fun.”

Nyamuleli was forced to come and watch.

“Nyamuleli forgot her blanket

Nyamuleli forgot her blanket made of baboon skin”

The troop danced closer and closer to Nyamuleli and suddenly the leader flung the old baboon skin over Nyamuleli and there she changed back into a baboon again.

“Ocho, ocho, ocho,” the baboons shouted as they ran away.

The king watched as they scattered towards the dry mountains and said, “good heavens, all this time I had been married to a baboon.”

Copyright © Dr Ina le Roux

 Interpretation

Famine often forces people to take desperate measures. Parents may decide to take their children to family or friends  who are better off. It is a familiar strategy to send a girl to work for others, or even marry, in order that she unobtrusively may set aside food for her family. This is not regarded as common theft, nor is this kind of marriage regarded as conventional. The story also points to the habitual exploitation, albeit under extreme conditions, of the weak, particularly women. The story also reminds listeners not to aspire beyond their social status, nor to forsake their family ties.

Traditionally women and children are powerless, and they find relief from their frustrations in the sharing of their common problems in the telling of these stories.


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