The Ostrich Egg Wife
Generosity of Spirit
Ostrich Egg Wife (The)
A Tale from South Africa: A poor man finds an ostrich-egg and brings it home. A young woman emerges from the egg and becomes his wife, helping him become a chief. When he breaks his promise to her, he loses everything.
Tell me a story...
Setelane was a very poor man. He spent his days catching mice. All he ever ate was the meat of mice. His clothes were made of the skins of mice.
One day as he was going round looking at the ground in search of mice, he found an ostrich egg, a very big one. He picked it up and took it to his hut where he hid it. He went out again and when he came back at night he found a loaf of bread. He picked it up: it was still warm! He took a bite from it: it was delicious! He ate it all up and went to sleep more satisfied than ever before. Bread was rather better than mousemeat!
The next morning he went out again and when he came home at sunset he found another loaf and a pot of freshly brewed beer
waiting for him. He drank it with relish after his meal of warm bread.
The next night there was again a pot of beer and a loaf of bread waiting for him. He began to wonder: "It is as if I have a wife and yet I never married, I have never known a woman." At that moment, the ostrich egg burst open and out came a young woman. She was very pretty, and she began to talk to him: "Setelane, I will be your wife and I will make bread and a pot of beer for you every day, but you must never call me the daughter of an ostrich egg, even if you are drunk, for then all will be over." Setelane promised her that he would never say such an outrageous thing, and there began a very happy life for him.
One day she asked him if he would like to be a chief and have a people. He said yes. His wife then went out, took a stick and struck the ash heap several times.
The next morning when Setelane woke up, he heard many voices talking, shouting and laughing. He found himself surrounded by many people who were building huts for themselves to live in. He heard lowing and bleating: his people tended cattle, goats and sheep. As soon as they saw him they spoke to him with reverence: "Good morning, chief!"
From then on Setelane lived like a king surrounded by servants. He discarded his mouse-skin clothes and was given a chief's garment made of jackal skins, and a fine bed to sleep on. Alas! Good things do not last and what is worse we spoil them ourselves by our own stupidity!
The day came when Setelane did become too drunk to know what he was saying, so he said to his wife: "You are nothing but the daughter of an ostrich egg!"
Soon after he fell on his bed, unconscious because of the excellent beer. When he had slept it off, it was not yet morning. It seemed to him that his bed was hard and cold. He groped around but his hands touched nothing but the bare ground, and on his body there was nothing but the old mouse-skin clothes. He was back in his old hut in the middle of the wilderness. He was alone: no wife, no people, no cattle, no goats, not a sound, no pot of beer, only broken old sherds. No bread, only a few crumbs of what the mice were gnawing. When he wanted to eat anything he had to get up and catch mice again. Until he died, lean and dirty, he did nothing else.
Used with the permission of Brill NV. www.brill.nl
“The Ostrich-Egg Wife.” Knappert, Jan. Myths and Legends of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. Leiden: E. J. Brill, ©1985. pp. 139-40.