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The Chobe Bird

The “Kwando” (or “Cuando”), “Linyanti” and “Chobe” are alternative names for a single river whose thalweg or the main channel has since 1890 defined much of Botswana’s northern border.

Kwando is a longstanding Mbukushu designation for the river, while Linyanti was a place of probable ChiKuhane (Subiya) origin that served as the royal village of Sebetwane’s Makololo kingdom.

The origin of Chobe is problematic. According to David Livingstone, who along with William Oswell and others explored the area in 1851, Chobe was what the Makololo called the river.

It was thus so labelled in the initial maps produced by Oswell and Livingstone, that were the basis for William Cooley’s ground-breaking 1852 “Map of Africa South of the Equator”, as well as the early maps of Charles Andersson and Francis Galton.

The Cooley map is also notable for its correct location of the Mosi-oa-tunya, based on Oswell’s initial siting over four years before Livingstone’s November 1855 ‘discovery’.

Notwithstanding its prominence in the Cooley May and popular writings of Livingstone, other early European visitors in the region such as James Chapman, Thomas Bains, and Frederick Selous were adamant in their observations that Chobe was not an accurate local name for the river, but rather referred to a specific place possibly linked at one time to a certain individual.

In this context, Selous observed that the name apparently meant nothing in any of the local languages of the region. For their part, the Veekuhane (Basubiya), who are predominant on both banks of the Chobe, have long called the river Ikuhane, a name linked to their legendary founding ruler.

There is, however, a Veekuhane folk tale “Chobe-chobe” that was both recorded in its original Chikuhane and translated into French by the Rev. Edouard Jacottet, as part of his three-volume collection “Études Sur Les Langues Du Haut-zambèze”. Volume two, which was published in 1899, consists of a large number of Chikuhane and Luya texts reproduced in their vernacular and translated into French.

In the Chikuhane tale “Chobe, chobe” is the onomatopoeia rendering the haunting sound made by a revelation bird to a man who had committed the crime of incest with his sister. The story as retranslated from Jacottet’s French translation by this author: “Once upon a time, a man and his sister were going together by a certain path; returning to the home of their parents.

The sun went down as they were on their way. As darkness set, they sought refuge and found a tree with intertwined branches.

They lay down under this tree. At night, as they were in bed, the man went to his sister and slept with her. “The next day, as they woke up and were warming

themselves over the fire; they heard a bird singing: Chobe, chobe, chobe, under the tree with branches intertwined.

Chobe, chobe, chobe! I saw you sleeping with your sister. Chobe, chobe, chobe! “The man responded - Where did you see me, bird? Chobe, chobe, chobe! Under the tree with intertwined branches. Chobe, chobe, chobe! Pow! The man then crushed the bird with a stone, pow! “Then the brother and sister arranged their luggage and left.

The sun went down; they again went to bed. The sister went to bed at a distance. But at night the man once more went to his sister and slept with her again.

The next day when they woke up, they again heard the bird, which arrived and began to sing: Chobe, chobe, chobe, Under the tree with intertwined branches. Chobe, chobe, chobe! I saw you sleeping with your sister. Pow! he once more crushed this bird with a stone. He then burnt the bird in a fire until it was consumed, being turned to ashes.

“The couple then left. As they arrived at their village, they heard the bird coming and landing on top of a hut. It began to sing as follows: Chobe, chobe, chobe, Under the tree with branches intertwined. Chobe, chobe, chobe! I saw you sleeping with your sister. Chobe, chobe, chobe! “People in the village then said: Listen to this bird; what is he saying? So, they fell silent.

They heard him singing as follows: Chobe, chobe, chobe, under the tree with branches intertwined. Chobe, chobe, chobe! I saw you sleeping with your sister. Chobe, chobe, chobe! So, then the villagers grabbed the guilty man and killed him, burning him with fire Then they spit on the ground! (At the place they call called “Chobe”.)” NB: As Jacottet himself notes in his study, tales of such revelation birds are commonly found in the folklore of Southern Bantu languages.

In many of their stories, the bird acts as the avenging voice of a murdered innocent, such as in the Sotho-Tswana tale of the legendary Masilo being haunted by a bird accusing him of the murder of his brother Masilonyana.

In other tales from the mid-Zambezi, a young woman is raped by her brother-in-law, while still, other stories speak of the crime of a child murdered by his father.

Besides such haunting birds, another common figure in pre-Christian cosmology in the region is the existence of the “lightning bird” that often acts as God’s agent in striking down sinners.

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