One of the names that the South Sotho give their child-figures is nguana modula – “the child of the sorghum”. These figures were traditionally used in various ways. Women who wanted to bear children would sleep with a nguana modula at night, in order to become fertile. They would also carry the little figure around with them by day, tied to their backs like a baby. The following is an old Basotho song about just such a child-figure, sung by women who long for a baby. However, the woman singing does not sound hopeful:
I lay down with a calabash child, and got cold.
The calabash child makes no sound.
The calabash child makes me recite its ancestral generations
How could I know this child’s generations?
I only know of my own and my grandparents’ generations.
Take my place,
For I am tired.
Nyopakatala and the birds: a fable
This is a fable or folk story, told over many generations by the South Sotho people.
Once upon a time, there was a young woman called Nyopakatala, who was sad because she couldn’t seem to have children. One day she was planting sorghum seed in the fields, as was usual for that time of year – red sorghum and white sorghum. But just as she finished, a flock of doves flew down and began eating the seeds, devouring all of them. “Oh, how miserable I am!” she wailed. “Even the birds persecute me!”
Then she saw a pair of doves coming toward her – and they began to speak to her! The two doves told her to fetch two calabashes, two sorghum seeds, one white and one red, and two sharp horns – the kind used for drawing blood. Nyopakatala obeyed. The female dove placed the white sorghum seed inside one of the calabashes, and drew a drop of blood from Nyopakatala’s left breast. She put the drop of blood on the white seed with her beak. The male dove then put a red sorghum seed inside the other calabash, and, taking a drop of blood from the young woman’s right breast, likewise placed it on the seed.
They then instructed Nyopakatala to take the two calabash gourds to her hut, place them in a large clay pot, and cover them with a basket. She was not to look at them or disturb them in any way. If she obeyed, the doves promised, she would one day find out what they were for.
Many months later, Nyopakatala heard little voices coming out of the pot. Lifting the basket, she found two beautiful babies, a girl and a boy.
This story is interesting in that it contains so many symbols of fertility: the clay pot, the sorghum seeds inside the calabash (like the fertilised ova inside a womb), and the blood. Even the horns are considered by some to be male fertility symbols