Mind the Gaps

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

“Why do we always have to talk about Greek and Roman history?”

Vetfaan’s question makes them all look up. Surely they haven’t just talked about Greece and Italy? But then they see the glint in the burly farmer’s eye and realise he’s up to something.

“Ye-e-es? What’s on your mind, Vetfaan?”

“I just think that we have some perfectly good myths in South Africa, that’s all. Instead of jabbering on about how wonderful the ancient Mediterranean peoples were, how about talking about our own stories? At least we can relate to them much better than these foreign tales.”

“You mean like the story of the hawk and the chickens?”


It is said that, a long time ago, Hawk and the Chicken family were great friends. Because Hawk could fly, it was he who visited the flightless family every so often. They’d sit down and talk all day long, swapping stories and news. As for Mrs Hen, she welcomed these visits because Hawk never failed to bring toys as presents for the little ones. This went on for a long, long time.

Then, one day, Hawk arrived for a visit, but he had forgotten to bring along any toys. Saddened by his oversight, he produced the key to his house for the little ones to play with. Clucking happily, the chickens scooted off to the ash heap. where they played catch with the shiny key. But, like little chickens are, they soon tired of the game and found something else to play with.

When the sun was about to set, Hawk thanked Hen and Cock, and prepared to leave.

“Where is my key?” Hawk called the little chicks and glared at them.

Oh! The little ones took fright and ran over to the rubbish dump, where they searched for the key. Hawk waited and waited. When it became clear that his key was lost, he became very angry.

“My food is locked in my house!” His eyes blazed with fury. “What am I supposed to eat tonight? Get my key.”

But look as they might, the chickens couldn’t find the key.

Then, Hawk flew high into the air, swooped down again, and caught one of  the little chickens. 

“I shall return tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, for my key. You had better find it, Chickens, or I shall be forced to feed on all your children.”

And so it came about that Hawk will forever patrol the skies to prey on his erstwhile friends.

And the Chicken family?

At dawn every day, Cock is up first, shouting: ‘Get the ke-e-ey! Get the ke-e-ey.’ And for the rest of the day the whole family will scratch, scratch in the ground and on the ash heap, hoping to find Hawk’s key at last.


“Is that a real myth, or did you make up that story, Gertruida?”

Tales_from_Southern_AfricaFor once, Gertruida seems uncertain. “I read a book, many years ago. It was a collection of Southern African stories, compiled and translated by A C Jordan. Fascinating stuff, I have to admit. But is was some time ago, so I may have changed the story a bit.”

“But what does it mean, Gertruida? Sure, it tells the story of why hawks hunt chickens, why the cock crows so early in the morning, and why chickens scratch around so much…but surely there is a deeper meaning? African tales are famous for what they don’t tell; even our oral historians specialise in that.”

“You’re so right. In Africa you have to be careful not just to listen to the words – you have to fill in the gaps yourself. Stories, speeches, statements – almost any communication, especially when delivered from a public platform – these all contain messages inside the message. Maybe it is true for politicians everywhere, but in Africa we have the masters of the art. Our politicians come from a tradition of storytelling, it isn’t something they have to learn. We don’t need spin-doctors like the Americans do – our politicians are DIY-spinners themselves – and experts at it.”

“But still, ” Servaas bunches the bushy brows together, “there must be a moral to the story?”

“It’s the key, Servaas. The key.” Gertruida takes a thoughtful sip of beer before continuing. “A hawk comes along and gives the chickens a shiny thing to play with. The chickens are overjoyed. Then the chickens mess things up and the hawk starts feeding on them.” She pauses, sees that Servaas still doesn’t get it, and sighs. It’s so obvious! 

“Look at what’s happening in Africa, my friend. Russia wants to ‘help’ us by building nuclear power stations. China ‘assists’ many African countries by building roads and bridges and dams and schools. American aid ensures the survival of several governments – and the European Union supports a number of environmental and social programs. Do you think they do this because they have an obligation to render help to impoverished countries? Or are these efforts merely the key to gaining access to the raw materials Africa is blessed with? There’s an old rule about investing: you want to get more out of it than you put into it. It’s so simple…

“And don’t think the story only applies to politics, either. Most relationships contain an element of this give-and-take attitude. That’s why so many friendships get shipwrecked and why the divorce lawyers drive around in flashy cars. Too many individuals turn out to be hawks with shiny keys…it’s so sad.

“I think the old Xhosa storytellers were wonderfully creative in telling their bits of folklore. They contained great wisdom and some serious warnings. If only we could learn from that and fill in the gaps, we’d be so much better off.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “So…Gertruida? Did the little chickens find the key?”

“Oh Vetfaan! Sometimes I wonder if you are capable of intelligent thought! It’s a story, for goodness sakes!” Then, eyeing him critically, she smiles wryly. “You’re pulling my leg, aren’t you?”

“Fill in the gap, Gertruida, fill in the gap….”


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