Die Mahem and the Legend of the African Crowned Crane

Die Mahem and the Legend of the African Crowned Crane is the next story in die babadiertjies van Afrika, baby animals from Africa series you can enjoy here, on my blog.

Die Mahem

Mahemvoëls bly verkieslik lewenslank in groot reoppe by dieselfde poel of watersloep saam.

Die mahem, of gekroonde kraanvoël, is ‘n pragtige, kleurvolle voël met ‘n flyn kroontjie van goud en swart veertjies wat ‘n mens aan ‘n speldekussing laat dink, op sy kop. Daar is ‘n halfsirkel syagtige swart vere reg onderkant sy snawel. Agter sy oë en onderkant sy kroontjie is daar ‘n gladde helderooi en ‘n spierwit kol.

Die mahem hen bou haar nes tussen die digte riete waar sy dan gedurende Augustus of September haar eiers lê. Pas nadat hulle uitgebroei is, lyk die mahemkuikens net soos klein eendjies, met sulke klein klossies op hulle koppe.

Elke jong mahemkuiken moet sy besondere kolonie se kenmerkende ‘taal’ aanleer, omdat elke trop mahems sy eie besondere manier van gesels het wat waarskynlik vir ander voëls onverstaanbaar is.

Wanneer hy feitlik volgroeid is, word die mahemvoël die tradisionele huweliksdans geleer. Hierdie dans is seker een van die uitsonderlikste skouspele wat mens maar kan sien! Dis ‘n gebuig en edraai dat dit ‘n aardigheid is! Vorentoe en agteruit, dit trippel, die knieë buig, die vlerke word geklap en dan wip die danser skielik hoog die lug in – en alles lyk of dit op die maat van musiek gedoen word! Aan die einde van die dans, bied die een mahem die ander gulhartig geurige stukkies mos aan.

Die mahem eet graag grond, paddas en insekte. Hy jaag gewoonlik die insekte uit hulle skuilplekke deur met sy poot op die grond te stamp.

Wnneer die herfstyd aanbreek, verlaat die mahems hulle tuiste in groot swerms om na warmer woonplekke te gaan soek. Hulle vlieg op ‘n hoogte van tot vyf duisend meter in die tradisionele V – formasie oor die woenstyn, en het slegs hulle instink om hulle na hul bestemming te stuur.

Die Mahem and the Legend of the African Crowned Crane, babadiertjies van Afrika
Photo by Peter Neumann, Unsplash

The African Crowned Crane

The African Crowned Cranes are birds that prefer to stay together at the same pool of water for most of their life in large herds of cranes, or a dances of cranes.

The Mahem, or Crowned Crane, is a beautiful, colorful bird with a flying crown of gold and black feathers that reminds one of a pincushion perched upon its head. There is a short brush of silky black feathers just below its bill too. Behind his eyes, towards its temples, towards the crown there is a smooth bright red spot near a pure white one.

The Mahem hen builds its nest between the dense reeds; there she lays eggs during August or September. Just after they have hatched, the Mahem chicks look just like little ducklings, with tiny tufts on their heads.

Every Crowned Crane chick must learn its colony’s distinctive ‘language’, because each herd of mahems has its own particular way of talking that is probably unintelligible to other birds.

When he is almost fully grown, the Mahem chick is taught the traditional wedding dance. This dance is probably one of the most exceptional spectacles one can see, full of bending and twisting! Then forward and backward it goes, the bird bends its knees, it flaps its wings and then the dancer suddenly swings high into the air – while everything seems to be executed to the beat of a happy music! At the end of the dance, one Mahem bird offers the other one a generous, fragrant piece of moss.

The Crowned Crane likes to eat grass seeds, frogs and insects. He usually chases the insects out of their hiding places by bumping the ground with his foot.

When autumn arrives, the Mahems leave their homes in large flocks in search for warmer lands. They fly at an altitude of up to five thousand meters in the traditional V – formation over the desert and across great distances with only their instinct to guide them to their destination.

Their Afrikaans name, Mahem, is a good imitation of their call.

The Legend of the African Crowned Crane, a story

Long, so long ago, when the clouds still held hands with the foamy tips of the waves and the sun and the moon still smiled at each other all day long, an African king found himself separated from his companions while they were all out hunting in the hot, dry, inhospitable grasslands.

Had the king strayed away while watching some small game? Had his men moved on, presuming the king was following them? Nobody knew. Fact was, the king found himself all on his own on this side of the grassland. And his men found themselves without their ruler – on the other side of the savanna. Unable to spot one another, no matter how high his men jumped.

When the king realized he was lost he gasped for air, even if he was a king. And he felt his heart beating faster, a lot faster, like he’d been running, although he hadn’t. And his palms turning sweaty on his spear. He felt like this all of a sudden and then he felt his mouth dry and reached for his water. Which he had none of, for being a king he carried only his kingly spear, and nothing else. His men carried his water. And his soft blankets to set upon the dry grass for rest. And the tents to make good shade. And the food.

But mostly the water, that he craved now more than ever. And so the king, lost and alone, looked left and right, front and back, and all he saw was dry grass stretching forever. And realized he did not know how to find the oasis where the royal court had set up camp. He did not know it for he never cared for such things, such findings, he always had his men which he paid to do it.

Which were not with him anymore.

And the day was hot, suddenly even hotter, the sun right above his head, and the king was lost and alone, with not even his own shadow for company. Later, when he thought back on that day, the king remembered stomping his foot and thinking that he might die of thirst if he did not find water soon enough. Only that on that precise moment, lost in the grassland, all alone, without not even his shadow for company, the king just thought of water and how he’d even trade his famous spear for some.

Then he saw some movement in the distance. ‘What was that?’ thought the king. ‘His court?’ He better get there. ‘But what if it’s lions?’ So he used his hunting skills, approaching without being known. It took him a while, and half way through it he realized he was stalking Zebras, not his men. But Zebras were horses with stripes, right? Zebras were friendly, Surely they will help the king.

Eventually he reached the Zebras, who were swishing their tails, their ears perched, grazing nearby. They knew well he’s coming and they knew he was alone.

‘Please help me,’ said the king to the zebra that looked like a chief, for it ate the most abundant spot of grass. ‘I am all lost and without my court. I want to find my men. Can you lead me to them?’ But the zebra chief just munched quietly. Eventually it turned away from the king, snorted a message to its herd, then replied, ‘Why should we help you, since you and your men have hunted us, chased us from our waterhole, taken away our weak and our old?’

The king sighed and looked down, for he knew he’d done wrong and had no answer to the zebra’s words. Except that he was sorry. But by the time he opened his mouth the zebras were already far away.

When a trumpeting reached the king’s ears and a thumping shook the ground… The elephants! Surely they will carry him to his men. Surely.

So the king approach the matriarch, the elephant queen, and asked her, like from one royalty to another, asked her for help. Yet she, too, refused! ‘We do not help those who want to kill us,’ she said while gently, ever so gently touched, with her gigantic trunk, the ivory necklace the king carried around his neck. The king gasped and lost his words, for he thought that was the end of him, but the elephant slowly moved away, taking her herd with her. Leaving but a cloud of dust behind. And a lost and lonely king.

Next, the king saw a herd of antelopes and, although he suspected their answer, he asked them too. Of course they refused, had he forgotten that the majestic antelopes were a king’s favorite hunting pray?

Photo by Charl Durand, Unsplash

The king let himself drop to the ground, not minding the prickly grass. He even let go of his spear, for what use will he have of it? And let his head drop on his knees and shut his eyes tight. What went through his mind? Remorse? Fear? Thoughts of a final, desperate plan to reach his men again?

The king was so lost in thought that he did not feel the shadows circling overhead. He did not feel the flutter of the wings. He did not hear the ‘mahem-mahem-mahem’ sudden chatter. He did feel, however, a soft brush against his arm just as he was dreaming he was in his kingly tent again, with his men.

When the king looked up, he saw that he was surrounded by a flock of long-legged, long-necked birds. The king could not remember their names, for he felt so weak and so thirsty. Yet he tried, for he was still a king, skilled in fighting for survival, he tried once more and, with his voice barely a whisper, he begged the big birds to help him.

Can you imagine? The birds did not turn away. The king thought he’s surely dreaming.

Can you believe it? The big birds made shade for him, while a few only flew away, shortly to return with water in their strong beaks, which they gave to the king. The king was sure he’s imagining.

And, can you picture it? The big birds led the king to his court. No, they did not picked him up, using their strong beaks to hold onto his garments and they did not flew him to his court. That would have been a sight! They simply walked near him, nudging him, pushing him, dragging him slightly, to the oasis, the nearest one at that, where his court was.

As soon as he saw his men, as soon as he felt safe, as soon as he drank and sat in the thick shade of his kingly tent, the grateful king ordered his personal goldsmith to make a crown of gold for each one of the crane birds. He had remembered now what they were. Of course, he ordered a feast for them too. A feast fit for kings.

And the following day, the entire dance of cranes flew off wearing their shiny, gold crowns gleaming in the sun so bright that the king had to shade is eyes. Calling good-bye, ‘mahem-mahem-mahem.’

The king and his court waved good-bye and the cranes called back, ‘mahem-mahem,’ till they were out of sight. The king smiled and felt his heart filled with gratitude, wondering if he’ll ever see his saviours again.

He saw them, sooner that he imagined, for the following day the cranes returned with bare heads, telling the king and his men that the other animals had become envious and angry when they saw the golden crowns upon their heads, and heard how they got them. From whom they got them! So the animals, the zebras, the elephants, the antelopes, had ambushed the cranes and stolen the crowns. Not for themselves, but to destroyed them and what they stood for.

The king bowed his head and thought. Then he gave two orders.

One, that no zebras, no elephants, no antelopes, no rhino, no hippos… ever to be hunt again.

And second, that new crowns made, but not of gold, like his kingly symbols, but of golden feathers, as light as the freedom, feathers that could not be removed. And as soon as the new crowns were made, each crane flew off wearing its gold-feathery diadem. Never to be taken away.

This is the story of how the African cranes received their beautiful, shimmering crowns of gold that they still carry today, perched upon their heads, and became known as the Crowned Cranes.

(as retold by Patricia Furstenberg)

Books by Patricia Furstenberg on Amazon

9 Replies to “Die Mahem and the Legend of the African Crowned Crane”

  1. Funny birds. They look like they’re ready for Halloween all year long. 🙂 I liked the story very, very much. It’s interesting to find out about the fauna of other countries.

  2. All dressed up 🙂
    I can never look at Cranes without remembering a certain episode from the sitcom Frasier.
    Thank you so much, Jo. Yes, indeed. Stories can make the everyday seem interesting 😉 I had fun retelling this legend..

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