Gogo smiled to herself as she watched the children gather up the pots after the meal. Methembe tripped over Sipho's feet in his rush to clear up and, laughing, Thobeka skipped over the pair of them to gather up the last of the dinner things. Gogo surveyed the room imperiously, trying hard to maintain her serious expression as she did so. The children's eagerness to please was infectious.

'Hmm, I suppose the will do,' Gogo pronounced with mock-severity. In truth, the children had done an excellent job, as they did on every night when Gogo offered them a story.

Thobeka stepped forward, her hands clasped behind her back and the toes of her left foot tracing circles in the dirt.

'May we please have a story now, Gogo?' she asked.

'Please, can we?' her brothers echoed.

Gogo laughed, her face splitting open in a smile. 'I think that can be arranged. It's a pleasant night. Why don't we go and sit outside?'

The children bowled past her and were already sitting in a semicircle, eyes wide in anticipation, by the time Gogo left the hut. Wearily, her old bones protesting, Gogo eased herself down onto the stool Thobeka had left for her.

'So, you want a story, do you,' she began. 'What shall it be tonight?'

'Can we have the tale of Baby Snake and Baby Frog?' Methembe asked.

'Or why the birds have no king?' Thobeka suggested.

'I like the one about how the jackal tricked the lion,' Sipho said.

'They are all good stories,' Gogo agreed, 'but you have heard them all before. Tonight I want to tell you something different.' She trained her eyes and looked out towards the sunset. 'Tell me, Sipho, do you see what is in that tree over yonder?'

Sipho put a hand up to his eyes and squinted. 'It's a cat,' he said.

'It's a cheetah,' Thobeka declared proudly. She was older than the others and knew more about the different kinds of animals.

'You are both right,' Gogo replied, 'but can you tell me why the cheetah's cheeks are stained in the way that they are?' The children shook their heads. 'No? Then I shall tell you, for I was there…


* * *

Why The Cheetah's Cheeks Are Stained

Duncan Johnson


Kwasuka sukela…

Many years ago, a wicked hunter was sitting under a tree. He was one of the Uhlakanyana. The Uhlakanyana, as you all know, are evil dwarves who delight in violence - not unlike little boys at times, eh, Sipho? Anyway, below the Uhlakanyana, in the clearing on the grassy veldt, not unlike the one you are looking at now, there were fat springbok grazing, but the Uhlakanyana did not hunt the springbok, for he had much greater prey in mind.

Suddenly, he noticed a movement off to the left of the herd. It was a cheetah seeking food, but not a cheetah as you have seen children. This was the spirit-mother to all cheetahs and she walked on her hind legs like a warrior of our tribe. The cheetah had come seeking food and, keeping downwind of the herd, she gradually moved closer and closer. She singled out a springbok that had foolishly wandered away from the rest and sprang forward. Now, we honour the cheetah for its speed and the spirit-mother was no exception. She could cover great distance in less time than it takes you to blink you eyes and she was upon the springbok in moments. Startled, the rest of the herd raced away as the cheetah killed her prey

The evil Uhlakanyana had watched as all this took place. He was jealous of the cheetah's speed and he wished to claim it for himself. The cheetah dragged her prize away to the very edge of the clearing and there, shielded from the glare of the sun by the shade of a tree, her three beautiful cubs were waiting for her. Seeing this Uhlakanyana has a wicked idea - he would steal one of the cubs and train it to hunt for him. Thus, he would make the cheetah's speed his own.

Late in the afternoon, the spirit-mother went to the waterhole, leaving her cubs unguarded. Smiling to himself, the Uhlakanyana made his move. As quickly as he could, the Uhlakanyana not being very swift, he trotted down to where the cubs were hidden. The cubs were still too young to be frightened of him or to run away. The Uhlakanyana considered and chose one of the cubs to steal, then he changed his mind and decided on another and then he changed his mind again. Finally, he stole them all, thinking that three cheetahs would undoubtedly be better than one.

When the spirit-mother returned and found her cubs gone, she was broken-hearted. She cried and cried and her tears made dark stains down her cheeks. I was out on the veldt that day and I heard her cries. I tried to comfort her, but how does one comfort a mother who has lost her children? Imagine how your mother would feel if she lost the three of you. The spirit-mother wept all night and all the next day and I stayed with her ad I wept alongside her.

We cried so loudly that the noise reached beyond the sky and one of the sky-people came down to see what all of the fuss was about. His blue hut appeared in the clearing with a great rush of wind and thunder and a wise man stepped out. His hair was wild and his skin was white where the scouring of the winds beyond the sky had bleached it. He smiled at me and I knew that everything would be all right.

The man was wise and he knew the ways of the animals. When we told him what had become of the spirit-mother's cubs, he became very angry. He walked across the veldt to the cave where the Uhlakanyana was hiding with his friends. The man from beyond the sky argued with the Uhlakanyana for a long time, demanding that he return the cubs to their mother. He told him that if the cubs were freed then the Uhlakanyana would be left in peace, but the wicked Uhlakanyana simply laughed and threw lightning from his hands, frightening the man away.

The man from beyond the sky would not give up, however. Instead, he asked me to take him to see our tribe. When we arrived, he gathered the whole tribe around the fire and he told them of the Uhlakanyana or Sontarans, as he called them, for such is their name in the places beyond the sky. He told us of how the Uhlakanyana were at war with another tribe and how they had come to our lands to look for new ways to fight them. He told the tribe how the Uhlakanyana had stolen the cubs of the spirit-mother and how, by doing so, they were without honour. Every hunter, every warrior, must triumph through the use of his own strength and skill, the man from beyond the sky explained, not by forcing someone else to fight his battles for him. Roused by this speech, the tribe agreed to help the wise man to rescue the cubs.

Every man in the tribe took up his spear and his shield and the man from beyond the sky led them to the cave of the Uhlakanyana. They stood outside and drummed their spears against their shields and stamped their feet, calling for the Uhlakanyana to come out and face them. Finally, the Uhlakanyana emerged and again the man from beyond the sky asked them to release the cubs. But again the Uhlakanyana laughed and called down the lightning. Many brave men fell, struck down by evil magic. The tribe hurled their spears, but they bounced off the tough skin of the Uhlakanyana without doing any harm.

The wise man from beyond the sky knew the Uhlakanyana of old and he knew that they have a soft patch of skin at the back of their neck. Yes, that's right, Sipho, just under the hair, though Uhlakanyana don't have any hair of their own. The wise man explained this to the warriors of the tribe and a small group crept around behind the Uhlakanyana. They moved softly, not even daring to breath lest the Uhlakanyana see them. Then, when they were finally in position, they fell upon the Uhlakanyana, plunging the points of their spears into the soft place the wise man had told them about.

Now that the Uhlakanyana has been defeated, the wise man entered the cave and freed the cheetah cubs. He lifted them up in his arms and he carried them back to their grateful mother. Finally, his task done, the man from beyond the sky entered his blue hut and was never seen again. The long weeping of the spirit-mother, however, had stained her face forever and, from that day to this, the cheetah has worn those tearstains on its face as a reminder.

And that, children, is why the cheetah's cheeks are stained.