How do we choose our heroes?
A Facebook posting about Amakeia - a legend for all ages.

by Herman Labuschagne

How do we choose our heroes?


Someone wrote me today and asked if I wouldn't write something about Amakeia. Amakeia, the dear old hero from one of the most beautiful poems that was ever written. A poem which, when taught to generations of school children, must have drawn  a barrel full of tears from our entire nation. Beautiful in its simplicity and melancholy in the way it touches the soul, it still moves me every time I think of it.


It tells the story of Amakeia, a Xhosa servant woman who rescued the little white boy that she had vowed to raise and nurture after his mother's death. When their home was destroyed in the Sixth Xhosa War of 1834-1836, she took the little lad and fled into the mountains. Here they were unfortunately discovered by spies. When commanded to hand the little one over so that he could be killed, she flatly refused to relieve her charge. And so the spears rained down on both of them...


My mother called me yesterday. She is proof-reading my book about the history of my family's first few generations in Africa. She said until she read the manuscript, she had hardly realized what an incredibly hard time those people had lived through. We forget it nowadays, but those were by far the toughest times in our country's entire history. It was the longest trial South Africa had ever known.


Those settler generations had moved into the wild interior in search of freedom. In stead, they find death and the worst of heartache: 30 years of war with the Bushmen, more conflict with the Hottentots, and even war with England. Most importantly, though, there were no less than eight border wars with their Xhosa neighbours. On and off these Xhosa wars would last an incredible 74 years. This must bring us close to our own version of the Hundred Years War.


Sometimes I think about my nation - our bitter-dry sense of humour; our sad and ironic folk songs - and I think that they remind me of the songs and poems of the Jews and the Russians - the songs of peoples who have suffered insults, injustice and hardship for generations that seem to have no end.


Our history has given us an appreciation for the frailty of humanity. It has also instilled in us a respect for our enemies, and deep and meaningful love for all the good men and women on both sides who, when faced with the choice between right and wrong in the face of death - made the bravest choice of all.


I translated Amakeia's poem. It was either based on fact, or inspired by true events. The full beauty of poetry is always eroded by translation. But perhaps the beauty of the tale will still find a way to shine across the continents and warm the hearts of those who have never heard it yet. This is for Amakeia - a genuine hero of our nation - even though she was not our own.



by A.G. Visser

(An incident from the Sixth Border War)


In the shadows of the mountains

Densely wooded on all sides

Stands alone the settler’s home

On the border of Xhosaland


Softly hums Amakeia

On the banks of Kei river

Till he slumbers, the little child

Of the white pioneer


“Still now, still now, still Babani,

See how shines the evening star

No-one shall do you any harm

Still now, though your mother’s far.”


Amakeia made a promise

When her mistress, she was dying

To guard the helpless little one

Until he should become a man


Lovingly she tends the white child

Till the light of life shines for him

From aia Amakeia’s true and friendly dark face


Ominously she sees the signs

In due course war begins

Quick the assault on home and haven

All are murdered, all is burnt


Seflessly, death-defying

With the white child on her back,

To the Amatola mountains

She made her desperate flight


“Still, be still, little pikkaninie,

Across the mountain shines the moon

No-one shall find us here;

And tomorrow we’ll be home.”


Oh, that eyes of spies

Had to ultimately find her hiding place!

“Spare him, he’s so little yet,” she begged

With her hands outstretched.


Angrily the wild mob seethed

“Die or hand the white child here!”

“Over my lifeless body…”

Answers Amakeia without fear.


“My promise to my mistress—

The best there ever was—

Wherever he should wander Amakeia also

Must follow to guard him there.


“Not willing to separate in life,

Then stay till death united—

Short process with her, Maxosas,

Let the shiny spears rain!”



In the Amatola valleys

Only the winter wind still sings

Through the reeds and in the moonshine

“Tula-tula—be still, my little one!”


The 6th border war ended in 1836. By that time the eastern border was so ravaged and the government so corrupt that that the frontiersmen packed up and left everything they'd ever known. They just left their lives and walked away forever. It was called a "volksverhuising," or the relocation of an entire nation. My family was among them. They left the Eastern Cape and went north into the wild interior where many more would die, but where in time - they would find the home they had always wanted. They took Amakeia's memory with them when they went. And she will continue to be alive in our hearts for as long as mothers teach the poetry of their fathers to little boys who need to learn what heroes truly are.