THE ROVER OF THE PLAIN
(From L’Etude Ethnographique sur Les Baronga, par Henri Junod.)
A long way off, near the sea coast of the east of Africa,
there dwelt, once upon a time, a man and his wife. They
had two children, a son and a daughter, whom they
loved very much, and, like parents in other countries,
they often talked of the fine marriages the young people
would make some day. Out there both boys and girls
marry early, and very soon, it seemed to the mother, a
message was sent by a rich man on the other side of the
great hills offering a fat herd of oxen in exchange for the
daughter. Everyone in the house and in the village rejoiced,
and the maiden was despatched to her new home. When
all was quiet again the father said to his son:
‘Now that we own such a splendid troop of oxen you
had better hasten and get yourself a wife, lest some
illness should overtake them. Already we have seen in
the villages round about one or two damsels whose
parents would gladly part with them for less than half
the herd. Therefore tell us which you like best, and we
will buy her for you.’
But the son answered:
‘Not so; the maidens I have seen do not please me.
If, indeed, I must marry, let me travel and find a wife for
‘It shall be as you wish,’ said his parents; ‘but if by-and-by
trouble should come of it, it will be your fault and
The youth, however, would not listen; and bidding
his father and mother farewell, set out on his search.
Far, far away he wandered, over mountains and across
rivers, till he reached a village where the people were
quite different to those of his own race. As he glanced
about him he noticed that the girls were fair to look
upon, as they pounded maize or stewed something that
smelt very nice in earthen pots—especially if you were
hot and tired; and when one of the maidens turned round
and offered the stranger some dinner, he made up his
mind that he would wed her and nobody else.
So he sent a message to her parents asking their leave
to take her for his wife, and they came next day to bring
‘We will give you our daughter,’ said they, ‘if you can
pay a good price for her. Never was there so hard-working
a girl; and how we shall do without her we cannot
tell! Still no doubt your father and mother will come
themselves and bring the dowry?’
‘No; I have the dowry with me,’ replied the young
man; laying down a handful of gold pieces. ‘Here it is—take
The old couple’s eyes glittered greedily; but custom
forbade them to touch the dowry before all was arranged.
‘At least,’ said they, after a moment’s pause, ‘we may
expect them to fetch your wife to her new home?’
‘No; they are not used to travelling,’ answered the
bridegroom. ‘Let the ceremony be performed without
delay, and we will set forth at once. It is a long
Then the parents called in the girl, who was lying in
the sun outside the hut, and, in the presence of all the
village, a goat was killed, the sacred dance took place,
and a blessing was said over the heads of the young
people. After that the bride was led aside by her father,
whose duty it was to bestow on her some parting advice
as to her conduct in her married life.
‘Be good to your husband’s parents,’ added he, ‘and
always do the will of your husband.’ And the girl
nodded her head obediently. Next it was the mother’s
turn; and, as was the custom of the tribe, she spoke to
‘Will you choose which of your sisters shall go with
you to cut your wood and carry your water?’
‘I do not want any of them,’ answered she; ‘they
are no use. They will drop the wood and spill the
‘Then will you have any of the other children? There
are enough and to spare,’ asked the mother again. But
the bride said quickly:
‘I will have none of them! You must give me our
buffalo, the Rover of the Plain; he alone shall serve
‘What folly you talk!’ cried the parents. ‘Give you
our buffalo, the Rover of the Plain? Why, you know
that our life depends on him. Here he is well fed and
lies on soft grass; but how can you tell what will befall
him in another country? The food may be bad, he will
die of hunger; and, if he dies we die also.’
‘No, no,’ said the bride; ‘I can look after him as well
as you. Get him ready, for the sun is sinking and it is
time we set forth.’
So she went away and put together a small pot filled
with healing herbs, a horn that she used in tending sick
people, a little knife, and a calabash containing deer fat;
and, hiding these about her, took leave of her father and
mother and started across the mountains by the side of her
But the young man did not see the buffalo that followed
them, which had left his home to be the servant of
No one ever knew how the news spread to the kraal
that the young man was coming back, bringing a wife
with him; but, somehow or other, when the two entered
the village, every man and woman was standing in the
road uttering shouts of welcome.
‘Ah, you are not dead after all,’ cried they; ‘and have
found a wife to your liking, though you would have
none of our girls. Well, well, you have chosen your
own path; and if ill comes of it beware lest you
Next day the husband took his wife to the fields and
showed her which were his, and which belonged to his
mother. The girl listened carefully to all he told her,
and walked with him back to the hut; but close to the
door she stopped, and said:
‘I have dropped my necklace of beads in the field,
and I must go back and look for it.’ But in truth she had
done nothing of the sort, and it was only an excuse to go
and seek the buffalo.
The beast was crouching under a tree when she came
up, and snorted with pleasure at the sight of her.
‘You can roam about this field, and this, and this,’
she said, ‘for they belong to my husband; and that is
his wood, where you may hide yourself. But the other
fields are his mother’s, so beware lest you touch them.’
‘I will beware,’ answered the buffalo; and, patting his
head, the girl left him.
Oh, how much better a servant he was than any of
the little girls the bride had refused to bring with her!
If she wanted water, she had only to cross the patch of
maize behind the hut and seek out the place where the
buffalo lay hidden, and put down her pail beside him.
Then she would sit at her ease while he went to the
lake and brought the bucket back brimming over. If
she wanted wood, he would break the branches off the
trees and lay them at her feet. And the villagers watched
her return laden, and said to each other:
‘Surely the girls of her country are stronger than our
girls, for none of them could cut so quickly or carry so
much!’ But then, nobody knew that she had a buffalo
for a servant.
Only, all this time she never gave the poor buffalo
anything to eat, because she had just one dish, out of
which she and her husband ate; while in her old home
there was a dish put aside expressly for the Rover of the
Plain. The buffalo bore it as long as he could; but, one
day, when his mistress bade him go to the lake and fetch
water, his knees almost gave way from hunger. He kept
silence, however, till the evening, when he said to his
‘I am nearly starved; I have not touched food since
I came here. I can work no more.’
‘Alas!’ answered she, ‘what can I do? I have only
one dish in the house. You will have to steal some beans
from the fields. Take a few here and a few there; but
be sure not to take too many from one place, or the owner
may notice it.’
Now the buffalo had always lived an honest life, but
if his mistress did not feed him, he must get it for himself.
So that night, when all the village was asleep, he came
out from the wood and ate a few beans here and a few
there, as his mistress had bidden him. And when at
last his hunger was satisfied, he crept back to his lair.
But a buffalo is not a fairy, and the next morning, when
the women arrived to work in the fields, they stood still
with astonishment, and said to each other:
‘Just look at this; a savage beast has been destroying
our crops, and we can see traces of his feet!’ And they
hurried to their homes to tell their tale.
In the evening the girl crept out to the buffalo’s hiding-place,
and said to him:
‘They perceived what happened, of course; so to-night
you had better seek your supper further off.’ And the
buffalo nodded his head and followed her counsel; but in
the morning, when these women also went out to work,
the traces of hoofs were plainly to be seen, and they hastened
to tell their husbands, and begged them to bring their
guns, and to watch for the robber.
It happened that the stranger girl’s husband was the
best marksman in all the village, and he hid himself behind
the trunk of a tree and waited.
The buffalo, thinking that they would probably make
a search for him in the fields he had laid waste the evening
before, returned to the bean patch belonging to his
The young man saw him coming with amazement.
‘Why, it is a buffalo!’ cried he; ‘I never have beheld
one in this country before!’ And raising his gun, he
aimed just behind the ear.
The buffalo gave a leap into the air, and then fell
‘It was a good shot,’ said the young man. And he
ran to the village to tell them that the thief was
When he entered his hut he found his wife, who had
somehow heard the news, twisting herself to and fro and
‘Are you ill?’ asked he. And she answered: ‘Yes; I
have pains all over my body.’ But she was not ill at all,
only very unhappy at the death of the buffalo which had
served her so well. Her husband felt anxious, and sent for
the medicine man; but though she pretended to listen
to him, she threw all his medicine out of the door directly
he had gone away.
With the first rays of light the whole village was
awake, and the women set forth armed with baskets and
the men with knives in order to cut up the buffalo. Only
the girl remained in her hut; and after a while she too
went to join them, groaning and weeping as she walked
‘What are you doing here?’ asked her husband when
he saw her. ‘If you are ill you are better at home.’
‘Oh! I could not stay alone in the village,’ said she.
And her mother-in-law left off her work to come and
scold her, and to tell her that she would kill herself if
she did such foolish things. But the girl would not
listen and sat down and looked on.
When they had divided the buffalo’s flesh, and each
woman had the family portion in her basket, the stranger
wife got up and said:
‘Let me have the head.’
‘You could never carry anything so heavy,’ answered
the men, ‘and now you are ill besides.’
‘You do not know how strong I am,’ answered she.
And at last they gave it her.
She did not walk to the village with the others, but
lingered behind, and, instead of entering her hut, she
slipped into the little shed where the pots for cooking
and storing maize were kept. Then she laid down the
buffalo’s head and sat beside it. Her husband came to
seek her, and begged her to leave the shed and go to bed,
as she must be tired out; but the girl would not stir,
neither would she attend to the words of her mother-in-law.
‘I wish you would leave me alone!’ she answered
crossly. ‘It is impossible to sleep if somebody is always
coming in.’ And she turned her back on them, and
would not even eat the food they had brought. So they
went away, and the young man soon stretched himself
out on his mat; but his wife’s odd conduct made him
anxious, and he lay awake all night, listening.
When all was still the girl made a fire and boiled
some water in a pot. As soon as it was quite hot she
shook in the medicine that she had brought from home,
and then, taking the buffalo’s head, she made incisions
with her little knife behind the ear, and close to the
temple where the shot had struck him. Next she applied
the horn to the spot and blew with all her force till, at
length, the blood began to move. After that she spread
some of the deer fat out of the calabash over the wound,
which she held in the steam of the hot water. Last of
all, she sang in a low voice a dirge over the Rover of the
As she chanted the final words the head moved, and
the limbs came back. The buffalo began to feel alive
again and shook his horns, and stood up and stretched
himself. Unluckily it was just at this moment that the
husband said to himself:
‘I wonder if she is crying still, and what is the matter
with her! Perhaps I had better go and see.’ And he got
up and, calling her by name, went out to the shed.
‘Go away! I don’t want you!’ she cried angrily. But
it was too late. The buffalo had fallen to the ground,
dead, and with the wound in his head as before.
The young man who, unlike most of his tribe, was
afraid of his wife, returned to his bed without having seen
anything, but wondering very much what she could be
doing all this time. After waiting a few minutes, she
began her task over again, and at the end the buffalo
stood on his feet as before. But just as the girl was
rejoicing that her work was completed, in came the
husband once more to see what his wife was doing; and
this time he sat himself down in the hut, and said that
he wished to watch whatever was going on. Then the
girl took up the pitcher and all her other things and left
the shed, trying for the third time to bring the buffalo
back to life.
She was too late; the dawn was already breaking,
and the head fell to the ground, dead and corrupt as it
The girl entered the hut, where her husband and his
mother were getting ready to go out.
‘I want to go down to the lake, and bathe,’ said she.
‘But you could never walk so far,’ answered they.
‘You are so tired, as it is, that you can hardly stand!’
However, in spite of their warnings, the girl left the
hut in the direction of the lake. Very soon she came
back weeping, and sobbed out:
‘I met some one in the village who lives in my
country, and he told me that my mother is very, very ill,
and if I do not go to her at once she will be dead before
I arrive. I will return as soon as I can, and now farewell.’
And she set forth in the direction of the mountains.
But this story was not true; she knew nothing about
her mother, only she wanted an excuse to go home and
tell her family that their prophecies had come true, and
that the buffalo was dead.
Balancing her basket on her head, she walked along,
and directly she had left the village behind her she
broke out into the song of the Rover of the Plain, and at
last, at the end of the day, she came to the group of huts
where her parents lived. Her friends all ran to meet her,
and, weeping, she told them that the buffalo was dead.
This sad news spread like lightning through the country,
and the people flocked from far and near to bewail the
loss of the beast who had been their pride.
‘If you only had listened to us,’ they cried, ‘he would
be alive now. But you refused all the little girls we offered
you, and would have nothing but the buffalo. And remember
what the medicine-man said: “If the buffalo dies
you die also!”’
So they bewailed their fate, one to the other, and for
a while they did not perceive that the girl’s husband was
sitting in their midst, leaning his gun against a tree.
Then one man, turning, beheld him, and bowed mockingly.
‘Hail, murderer! hail! you have slain us all!’
The young man stared, not knowing what he meant,
and answered, wonderingly:
‘I shot a buffalo; is that why you call me a murderer?’
‘A buffalo—yes; but the servant of your wife! It
was he who carried the wood and drew the water. Did
you not know it?’
‘No; I did not know it,’ replied the husband in surprise.
‘Why did no one tell me? Of course I should not have
‘Well, he is dead,’ answered they, ‘and we must die
At this the girl took a cup in which some poisonous
herbs had been crushed, and holding it in her hands, she
wailed: ‘O my father, Rover of the Plain!’ Then drinking
a deep draught from it, fell back dead. One by
one her parents, her brothers and her sisters, drank
also and died, singing a dirge to the memory of the
The girl’s husband looked on with horror; and
returned sadly home across the mountains, and, entering
his hut, threw himself on the ground. At first he was
too tired to speak; but at length he raised his head and
told all the story to his father and mother, who sat
watching him. When he had finished they shook their
heads and said:
‘Now you see that we spoke no idle words when we
told you that ill would come of your marriage! We
offered you a good and hard-working wife, and you would
have none of her. And it is not only your wife you have
lost, but your fortune also. For who will give you back
your dowry if they are all dead?’
‘It is true, O my father,’ answered the young man. But
in his heart he thought more of the loss of his wife than of
the money he had given for her.