[From Native Fairy Tales of South Africa by Ethel McPherson, 1919. See item #138 in the Bibliography.]

Long ago there lived a woman who had no children, and her husband never ceased to reproach her on this account. Her grief was bitter, and she suffered much from his unkindness until he left her. In her loneliness she was happier than in the days when she had to bear his harsh words.

Left to herself, she often lingered by the river, and when at night the moonlight turned the surface of the stream into a silver mirror, she would sit for hours on its banks. Her favourite resting-place was beneath a spreading date-palm, and there she would remain through the quiet hours listening to the plash of the waters till the sun came up in glory over the world’s edge.

Sometimes she wept, thinking of the child which would never now be hers. One night when her tears had fallen fast, she heard the piping of a bird and, looking round, she saw a little wagtail hopping about restlessly in front of her. She held out her hand; the bird perched on her finger and then sprang to her shoulder, straining to reach her ear. It was clear that he had something to say to her, so she bent her head to catch his message. Before long, he twittered softly that she would possess a baby girl, fairer than any other that had gladdened a mother’s heart. She was to be named Tanga, and lest ill should befall her, she must never leave the shelter of the hut from the rising of the sun until its setting. Under the starlit sky, in the gracious moonlight, she would grow more beautiful than the moon herself.

The woman’s heart sang with gladness, and night after night she sat beside the river thinking of the joy that was to be hers. The little bird came always to share her happiness, but when at last her babe was born, the bird vanished and was heard no more.

Now began happy days for the mother. Through the hours when the sun, the Eye of Day, ruled in the heavens, she kept the child safe within the hut, but when night fell, she took her to her resting-place beneath the date-palm and watched her grow in beauty, softly bright like unto the moon and stars.

Years passed, till Tanga was a full-grown maiden. The fame of her beauty spread about the countryside till it reached the ears of her father, who, filled with remorse and a longing to see his fair daughter, returned to his wife. He gave a great feast to which were bidden all the chiefs from the neighbouring kraals, and among them were many suitors for Tanga’s hand. The girl’s choice fell upon a youth who, for strength and courage, was worthy of her.

When the wedding feast was over, Tanga took leave of the mother who loved her so tenderly and left the home of which she had long been the joy.

The bridal procession set forth under the stars, for the bridegroom had been warned that evil would befall his wife if she went abroad by day, and he had sworn to shield her from harm.

Tanga would have been happy and blessed in her new home as her husband loved her with a great love, but for his father’s hatred. From the first he had distrusted this strange bride who kept within the shelter of the hut while the sun ruled and who wandered forth only at night. He called her harsh names and gave her cold looks, nor was he kinder when her child was born, but he continued to lash her with his tongue in spite of his son’s remonstrances.

When the boy was but a few months old, Tanga’s husband had to go upon a long journey. After his departure, her troubles increased, for the old man grew more cruel every day. Knowing that Tanga dared not venture into the daylight, he plotted to make her leave her hut before sunset, and one morning he commanded her to fetch him water from the spring. In vain she begged him not to send her; he swore that if she did not go, he would beat her.

In her hut there was water standing in a calabash; this Tanga sent to him as if she had fetched it from the stream. But the old man, who had been watching, knew that she had not ventured into the daylight and flung it to the ground, saying that it was not fresh. Going in anger to her hut, he raised his stick and compelled her to leave its shelter. Tanga, weeping, took the pot to the river, but when she leaned over the bank to fill it, the Water Spirit rose and dragged the water from her hand.

She returned to the kraal with the empty pot, but though she told the tyrant what had happened, he drove her back again. This time when the Water Spirit rose, he seized her and bore her to his home beneath the waters where he dwelt in state. Wooing Tanga very tenderly, he begged her to be his wife, bringing her chains of rare shells to hang round her neck and crowning her with garlands of blue water lilies. But Tanga said no to all his entreaties and wept ceaselessly for the baby boy whom she had left.

There was sorrow and consternation in the kraal at her disappearance, and the old man began to fear his son’s anger. None of the women could soothe her babe’s cries, and when night fell, the nurse took him in her arms and carried him to the stream. The sound of his weeping reached Tanga beneath the water, and she rose to the surface, holding out her arms. The little thing knew her, and with a gurgle of delight he stretched out his own arms in return. Fairer than ever in her garland of blue lilies, with the chain of gleaming shells round her neck, Tanga took him to her heart and held him in a close embrace till the night faded and the sun rose over the horizon. Then she gave him to the nurse, bidding her return at sunset.

Each night the nurse came back with the child and, soothed by the hours spent with his mother, he thrived and ceased to fret in the daytime.

The old man, suspecting that Tanga was alive and in hiding, questioned the nurse as to where she went when she was out with the child. She answered that she walked in the woods and fed him on wild berries which satisfied his hunger.

Time passed, and at last Tanga’s husband returned and demanded to know what had become of her. When he learnt what had happened, his anger knew no bounds; he would listen to none of his father’s excuses. Seeing, however, that the child was thriving, he also questioned the nurse, who told him all.

That evening he too went down to the river and hid himself among the reeds. As Tanga rose to the surface of the water at the sound of her baby’s cries, he came out and flung round her a rope he had brought. But the Water Spirit, who knew all Tanga did, seized her and dragged her down again, with a roar of anger causing the waters to rise till they overflowed the banks. So enraged was he that the tide was red as blood, and the blood-red tide followed Tanga’s husband back even as far as the kraal.

For many moons Tanga was not seen again, and the child wept uncomforted. But night after night she was heard singing beneath the waters, and her husband, seated on the riverbank, heard her voice raised in pleading. “Why do they not send to my father and mother?” she chanted sadly. “Here I lie a captive, but my mother could bring me back to earth.” Then the singing ended, and there was no sound, none save that of weeping.

As her husband went back to the kraal, wondering whom he could send to her parents as a messenger, a rooster stepped in front of him, saying, “Master, send me. They will heed what I say.”

“Go,” he replied, “and luck be with you.”

For two days and two nights the rooster journeyed till he came to the kraal where Tanga’s parents dwelt.

As he entered, the boys threw stones at him, but he lifted his wings and flew on to the roof of the chief’s hut, where he crowed so loudly that all the people came running to know what might be the meaning of the disturbance.

All having assembled, he told the story of Tanga’s captivity and of the cruel father-in-law. When he had ended, he was fed with corn, and Tanga’s parents treated him with great honour. With him for a guide, they set out to rescue her, for Tanga’s mother was a worker of spells and charms. When they reached the village where dwelt Tanga’s husband, her mother ordered an ox to be slain — an ox which bore her daughter’s name and was for her use alone. The beast having been slain, she cut up its flesh into pieces, muttering charms as she did so. These pieces she flung into the river; as they sank, Tanga rose to the surface and swam to the bank, for now the power of the Water Spirit was ended forever.

Her husband was waiting there to receive her, holding their child in his arms. In triumph, Tanga, the lost wife, was led back to the village, where the rest of her days were spent in peace and happiness with those she loved.


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A Reader's Guide to African Folktales at the Internet Archive Copyright © 2022 by Laura Gibbs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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