Selekana and the River of God

Grade Level: 
9, 10, 11, 12
Act of Kindness
Generosity of Spirit
Selekana and the River God
South Africa
A Tale from South Africa: Selekana receives many gifts for her kindness, and the other girls envy her and trick her into throwing all her bracelets and ornaments into the river. It is there she meets the River-Woman who gives her many fine jewels as a reward for her work. The other girls are envious and when one attempts to also earn these fine jewels, her laziness gets in the way.

Tell me a story...

Selekana was a good-natured girl, always ready help others. That is why people loved her so and some people to whom she had been kind had given her little gifts like a necklace or a bracelet made from multi-coloured beadwork as the Bantu peoples can make them so beautifully. Of course her agemates in the village envied her those ornaments, not realizing or not wanting to realize that she had earned them. Now in Africa girls have to go clown to the river every day to fetch water, usually before sunset, not after, otherwise the river spirits might get them, or so some people say.

Although the waterpots are heavy (some may weigh as much as forty pounds when filled) the girls usually do this chore cheerfully for it gives them a chance to gossip and show off any new article of dress they have got, or new armrings and earrings.

One afternoon Selekana was on her way to the river, when old mother Seleka asked her to help. She was a cripple and Selekana often assisted her with the work in the house. The old woman gave her a small bracelet made of an elephant's tail hair, saying: "There, take this, it is of no more use to me now as I am old, you may wear it. Thank you for helping me. Now hurry and get your water before it is dark.”Happy and grateful, Selekana ran with her pot down to the riverside. There she found all the girls of the village waiting for her with smiles on their faces. She noticed that none of them wore any ornaments.

The leading girl said: "Selekana, you are late, we have just finished our ceremony, we decided to propitiate the river god with the ritual of the offerings which we had not performed for a long time. So we all sacrificed our ornaments and threw them in the river. I am sure you would like to do the same, otherwise the river god might come out and catch you and drag you down to your death one day after dark when you are late again.” Selekana knew that the ceremony of the offerings to the river god was performed every year, but she had never heard that the girls organized it for themselves; on the contrary, it was something that the village chief usually announced so that the whole village took part in it, and the offerings were normally animals. Anyway, she was quite willing to contribute to the sacrifice in order to secure the goodwill of the river god for another year. So, in good faith, she took off her long necklace, her oblong breast ornament, her armrings and bracelets and threw them into the river one by one, calling on the river god each time to please accept them as a token of her gratitude for the water. When all her ornaments had disappeared into the water, Selekana, absorbed in her prayers, suddenly heard loud laughter behind her, and there were all the girls with their ornaments on, which they had quickly taken from their hiding places. It was all a plot: the girls had conspired to make Selekana throw her ornaments away so she would have none left to make them jealous with!What people will not do to satisfy their angry envy! Wise men say that jealousy is the worst of all wicked feelings and that is true, not only in Africa. However, if the girls could have foreseen what consequences their actions would have, they would never have done this!

Selekana burst into tears when she realized that she had foolishly parted with all her precious beadwork for nothing, and for good, as nobody would ever dare fish them up for her from the river bottom. The girls laughed like jackals: "Hee, hee, that silly girl believed that we would throw all our jewelry into the river just like that, and that is what she did! What did you learn since you were a baby, idiot!" etc. etc. When they were tired of laughing, the girls put their water jars on their heads and walked back to the village, leaving poor Selekana alone with her grief.

"River, river, give me back all the jewels I gave you for nothing!" She cried again and again. Suddenly she heard a voice from downstream: "Come here, child, follow me!" Selekana walked along the river until she came to a bend where the current had formed a wide and deep pool for which the people always warned their children: "Do not go near the place where the water eddies round, for you will drown there!" Selekana was frightened and called again: "River, please give me my beads back, I was deceived by my agemates!" She repeated her plea three times, and again she heard the voice, much nearer now, coming right from the centre of the pool: "Come down, child, and join me, I will give you your jewels!" Selekana walked into the river, desperate to get her beads back, lest she be forever ridiculed in the village, but as soon as the water rose over her knees, the river pulled her down and she sank into the deep pool.

After a long time, her feet touched bottom at last, and in front of her she saw a light. She walked towards it but in the water we can only walk slowly. She finally stood in the doorway of an underground cave where she could see a thousand precious stones flashing and sparkling so that the whole cave was brightly illuminated by their light. When Selekana's eyes had adjusted to the light she saw a woman coming towards her walking on only one leg—or was it a fishtail? The woman had only one hand with which she took Selekana firmly by the elbow. She guided her to another room where she had prepared a meal for her. "Eat first, my child, I will reward you for your offerings," spoke the River-woman.

The food was delicious, and when Selekana had finished, the River-woman said: "Now you must clean everything in this room, all the pots and pans, sweep the floor and when it is all done I will come back." She left and Selekana quickly washed all the pots and dishes, tidied the floor and as soon as she was ready, the River-woman came in again and said: "Come with me, I will give you your jewels now.”

She took the girl back to the jewelroom and gave her a choice of precious stones. Confused and delighted, Selekana pointed at some of the most brightly coloured stones, and the River-woman just plucked them from the wall. There were breast ornaments and necklaces, bracelets and earrings in all the shiniest colours of the rainbow. In addition, the River-woman gave her clothes of the finest calf-leather and jackal-fur. Suddenly they heard a loud splashing as if a rainstorm were approaching. "Quick, child, there is Kwena, the River-king, he will eat you if he finds you here," said the woman, and pushed Selekana out of the door and up towards the surface. While she rose up, Selekana saw a glimpse of the River-king: it was an enormous crocodile! But soon lucky Selekana was already with her head above the surface of the water, and quickly she swam towards the shore. It was a miracle that the river let her go and did not drag her down!

When Selekana walked along the familiar path to the village, she met her sister who looked at her with amazement, and when at last she recognized her, she exclaimed: "Why, it is Selekana! Where have you been? People say you are dead, drowned in the river! But you look like a princess, so beautiful and what fine clothes you have on, and look at your jewelry, you are rich, where did you get all this wealth?" Selekana told her story, and soon the whole village talked of nothing else, they all came to visit Selekana and admire her new treasures. Now, the leader of the girls thought that she ought to be the one who had a right to own such riches, therefore she went to the river and plunged into the deep pool. She was received by the River-woman in the brightly lit jewel-room and given a big meal. But when it came to washing the dishes, the haughty girl said: "Do you think I have nothing better to do? I am here to collect the same jewels that you gave Selekana. After all, I deserve them better than she, for I am the leader of the girls." The River-woman left and came back later, but when the girl still had not done any work, she left again. After some time, a loud splashing was heard like a rainstorm approaching. You can guess who was there, and you know that that big girl could not escape the big crocodile. She was never seen again in the village, and Selekana became the leader of the girls.


“Selekena and the River God.” Knappert, Jan. Myths and Legends of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. Leiden: E. J. Brill, ©1985. pp. 79-83.

Used with the permission of Brill NV.