Swahili Story Time: The Tale of Sebgugugu the Greedy

Written by Thomson Safaris

A Maasai herder tends his cattle
Photo taken by Thomson Safaris guest, Beverly Halliwell-Ross

While Tanzania has well over 120 distinct ethnic groups, many of them have one thing in common: they are of Bantu origin (Bantu refers to the language group; between 300 and 600 Bantu peoples have spread across the southern half of the continent). Though each group has unique traditions, there are some basic stories that appear again and again, whether the tribe makes its home in Tanzania, Gabon, or South Africa. One of those stories is…


The Tale of Sebgugugu the Greedy

Once there was a very poor man, Sebgugugu, who owned only one white cow and her calf. One day, when he was tending to the cow, he heard a bird call out from the trees.

“Kill the white one and get one hundred,” the bird cried.

Sebgugugu ran to tell his wife. “Surely this means if I kill the white cow, we will get 100 cattle in her place.”

She pleaded with him not to, since they needed the milk for their children, but Sebgugugu would not listen. He killed the cow and fed his family the beef.

Soon the food ran out, and no cows appeared in the white one’s place. But the bird returned, singing the same song.

“This must mean I should kill the calf,” Sebgugugu said, and despite his wife’s protests, he slaughtered the calf, too.

Soon, the family was hungry again, and now they had no cow to milk. Sebgugugu cried out in despair, and Imana, the creator, heard him.

“Sebgugugu, continue through the forest until you reach my kraal [a cattle pen]. You can drink the milk of the cows you find there, as long as you always share the milk with the crow who tends my flock, and never strike the crow or say rude things to it.”

So Sebgugugu and his family set out through the forest and soon found Imana’s own herd. For some time they were happy there, eating their fill every day and giving the crow his portion, but Sebgugugu could not be content.

“I will kill the crow,” he told his wife, “and our children will tend the cattle instead.”

She pleaded with him not to, but Sebgugugu would not listen. He shot an arrow at the crow, but the crow was too fast, and flew away. Sebgugugu looked around; all the cattle had disappeared with the crow.

Soon, his family was hungry again, and Sebgugugu cried out in despair to Imana. Imana took pity on him, and showed Sebgugugu where to find a magical melon vine, which grew not only melons but all kinds of fruits and vegetables.

“You may collect all that you need from the vine,” Imana said, “but you must not try to cultivate or prune it.”

Sebgugugu agreed, and for some time he and his family were happy. But Sebgugugu could not be content.

“I will prune away these branches,” he told his wife, “then the vine will grow even stronger.”

She pleaded with him not to, but Sebgugugu would not listen. He went ahead and pruned the vine, which immediately withered and died.

Forced to set off again, Sebgugugu and his family soon came across a strange rock in the forest, which poured forth grain and milk and corn from clefts in its surface.

At first, Sebgugugu was happy to collect the bounty of the magical rock, but Sebgugugu could not be content for long.

“I will split the clefts wider,” he told his wife, “then the food will come out faster.”

She pleaded with him not to, but Sebgugugu would not listen. As soon as he put his chisel to the rock, all the clefts closed up.

Then Imana came to Sebgugugu and told him that because he could not be satisfied, he must struggle on his own the rest of his days.