Jabu the herd boy (An African Story)

There was a young herd boy named Jabu. He took great pride in the way in which he cared for his father’s cattle.  His father had many cows, over 25 of them and It was quite a task to keep these silly creatures out of trouble, away from the farmers’ corn and out of the dangerous roads. Jabu had some friends who also kept their fathers’ cattle, but none of them had even half the herd Jabu did and none of them was as careful as Jabu. It was a sign of Jabu’s father’s pride and trust in his son that he entrusted such a large herd to such a young boy.

One day as he sat atop a small hill watching the cows feed and braiding long thin strips of grass into bangles for his sisters, Jabu’s friend Sipho came running to him. “Have you heard the news, my friend?”  Sipho asked, he was panting and trying to catch his breath. Before Jabu could even answer, Sipho rushed on to tell him. “Bhubesi, the lion, has been seen around these lands. Last night Bhubesi attacked and killed one of Thabo’s father’s cows. The men of the village are already setting traps for the beast!”

Jabu wasn’t surprised by this news. He had keen eyes and was very watchful of his environment, he had seen the remnants of the lion’s meal yesterday, also his prints here and therein the soft earth, his dung. Jabu had respect for the king of the animals and since Bhubesi’s pattern was to hunt at night when the cattle were safely within the open barn made for them, Jabu had seen no reason to alert the village of Bhubesi’s presence. But the killing of a cow! “I wonder,” thought Jabu to himself, “if the cow was not left out of the barn and even out of the compounds?” Thabo was known to be a sloppy herdboy, he had been known to forget a cow or two before.

“Come, my friend!” Sipho urged, “come and put your cows away for the day and watch with me as the men set the traps!” Jabu slowly shook his head as he looked at Sipho and smiled. “You know me, friend,” he returned Sipho’s address. “I cannot put the cattle back into the barns so early in the day! They need to be driven to the river before they go home.”

Sipho smiled. “Yes, I thought you would say this. But I wanted to tell you anyway. I will see you later, friend, perhaps by the fire tonight!” And Sipho ran toward the village with a final wave to Jabu.

Jabu began to gather the cows together. He waved his staff used to control the cattle and gave a loud whistle. Each cow looked up, then after a moment’s pause, slowly started to trudge toward Jabu. With a grin, Jabu began to take them to the water.

Jabu bathed his feet in the cool refreshing river as the cows drank to their fill. It was a fine sunny day and his mind had not been so busy thinking about the lion and the traps the men were setting. Then Jabu heard a sound that stole his breath from him.

“Rrrrroar!” came the bellow. The cows all froze, a wild look coming into their eyes. “Rrrroarrrrrrr….” It was Bhubesi, and he was near! There was no time to drive the animals home; the lion was much too close. Jabu slowly rose, looking carefully around, his hand clenched on his staff. He walked purposefully, trying not to show the fear that made his knees tremble, pulling the cattle together into a tight circle. The cows trusted him and they obeyed. “Rrrrroarr…ou..oarr…aaa!” Jabu listened. But it didn’t sound like Bhubesi was declaring his majesty or might, it sounded more like a cry for help. Several more bellows and Jabu knew Bhubesi was in trouble. This realization took away Jabu’s fear, and the cold feeling in his stomach dissipated. Gripping his staff, Jabu quietly began to walk toward the lion’s cry.

The lion was indeed in trouble. Jabu found him in a small clearing several metres across the river. He was caught in one of the traps laid by the men of the village. His head was firmly wedged in the barred structure, and the more he struggled, the tighter the snare became. Jabu stood and stared. Never before had he seen the king of the animals so near. He truly was a majestic animal. Jabu felt sad for the lion. Then the lion saw Jabu and called for help “Hello! It is good that you are here. Please, help me. I am caught in this stupid trap and I cannot free myself. Please, please, will you come and pull up on the bar that is holding my head here. Please!”

Jabu looked into Bhubesi’s eyes, he could hear the desperation in the animal’s voice. “Please help me before those hunters come and kill me. Please release me!”

Jabu had a tender heart, but he was wary. “I would very much like to free you, Bhubesi! But I am afraid that as soon as I did so you would make me your dinner.”

“Oh, no My friend, I could never eat someone who set me free! I promise I promise that I will not touch a hair on your head!”

The lion begged and pleaded so pitifully that Jabu finally decided to trust him and set him free. Gingerly he stepped over to the trap and raised the bar that held the lion’s head. With a mighty bound the lion leapt free of the trap and shook his mane. “Oh, thank you! I owe you something. My neck was getting so stiff in there that I was scared it would have been parted from my body by the hunters if you hadn’t come along. Now, please, if you don’t mind my friend, one last thing…. I have become so thirsty from being in that thing, I would like a drink of water. Can you show me where the river is? I seem to have become confused with my directions.”

Jabu agreed, keeping a wary eye on the lion, and led the lion upstream from where he had come, away from his father’s cows, since Bhubesi promised to not eat him but he didn’t make any promises about not eating them. As the lion drank he watched Jabu with one eye. He was thinking to himself, “Hmmm….nice looking legs on that boy! Hmmm….and those arms are good-looking too! Pity to waste such an excellent meal!” When the lion raised his head from the river, both eyes were on Jabu, and this time Jabu could see what was reflected there. Jabu began to walk back slowly.

“You promised, Bhubesi,” Jabu began. “I saved you from the hunters and you promised not to eat me!”

“Yes,” said Bhubesi, slowly walking toward the retreating Jabu. “You are right, I did make that promise. But somehow now that I am free it does not seem so important to keep that promise. And I am awfully hungry!”

“You are making a big mistake,” said Jabu. “Don’t you know that if you break your promises that the pieces of the broken promises will come back to pierce you?”

The lion stopped and laughed. “Hah! What nonsense! How can such a flimsy thing pierce me? I am more determined than ever to eat you now, boy,” and he started stalking Jabu once more, “and all this talk is just serving to make me hungrier!”

Just then an old donkey happened across their path. “Ask the donkey,” said Jabu to the lion. “Ask him and he will tell you how bad it is to break a promise.”

“You are certainly dragging this thing out! So I will ask the donkey.” The lion turned to the donkey. “I want to eat this boy, isn’t that okay?”

Jabu broke in, “But he promised to let me go after I freed him from the snare”.

The donkey slowly looked at the lion and then at Jabu. “I say,” the donkey started, “that all my life these stupid humans have beat me and forced me to carry things. Now that I am old they turn me out and leave me to waste away all alone. I do not like humans.” He turned back to the lion. “Eat the boy!” and the donkey moved on.

“Well, that settles that,” said the lion as he began to approach the boy once more. Just then the jackal stepped between the two.

“Oh, I’m sorry to have disturbed you. I’ll be on my now, ” he said.

“No!” shouted Jabu. “Wait and tell the lion how bad it is to break a promise.”

“A promise?” asked the jackal. “Well, I suppose it depends upon the promise, doesn’t it? Why? Did one of you make a promise?”

The Lion sat down and rolled his eyes up toward the heavens.

“Yes,” Jabu said. And he told Jackal how he had freed the lion from the trap, and how the Lion had promised not to eat him, and how now the Lion was intent upon doing that very thing!

“Oh, what a silly story!” said Jackal. “My Nkosi, my Lord, the great king of all the animals, stuck in a little trap made by humans? Impossible! I don’t believe it.”

“It is true,” said Bhubesi. “It is a strong and terrible trap!”

“Oh, I can’t believe anything is stronger than my king. I must see this thing! Please, will you take the courtesy before your dinner to show me this trap that you are speaking about? Please! Then you can eat your meal in peace!”

So the lion, keeping Jabu in front of himself, led Jackal to the trap. They got to the trap and the Jackal exclaimed, “But you can’t tell me that this little thing could hold your head! Never! I just can’t imagine it. Nkosi, would you mind just sticking your head there so I can see how you looked when the boy found you?”

“ You are disturbing me with your questions. This is the last thing I will do for you and then you must be on your way and leave me to my dinner in peace.” So the Lion stuck his head back between the bars just the way he had been when Jabu had found him. Then, quicker than lightning, the Jackal threw the top bar in place. The Lion was caught fast once again!

“Yes,” said Jackal, ” now I see how you were trapped. What a pity that you are so trapped once more. But the boy is right, Nkosi. Broken promises always catch up with you!”

The Lion roared in anger, but the trap held him well. Jabu thanked the jackal and ran back to his cows, who were all patiently waiting for their shepherd’s return.

Jabu drove them home and into the barn. What a day he had had! “Jabu, Jabu,” Sipho came running from behind Jabu. “The lion has been caught in the trap near the river! You and your cows missed all the adventure!”

Jabu turned and smiled at his friend. “We have had all the adventure we need for one day,” he said. And as Sipho headed back to the hunters to hear the story once again of the mighty lion caught in the trap, Jabu greeted his mother in the cooking house and sat down with a sigh.


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