Today the Matsheumhlope River meanders lazily past Bulawayo in modern-day Zimbabwe. It was a raging torrent when the area was known as Monomatapa; rushing into the larger Mzingwane River which is a tributary of the great Limpopo river further south.
A boy named Ndhlovu lived in a kraal on the banks of river Matsheumhlope. One day as he washed in the river, an enormous crocodile appeared, sunk his teeth into Ndhlovu’s legs and dragged him into deeper water.
As Ndhlovu struggled to free himself, a giant falcon swooped down out of the sky and began harrying the crocodile. Ndhlovu, even with the aid of the falcon, was no match for the monstrous creature but just as he was on the verge of giving up he saw the falcon dive at the crocodile’s head and pluck an eye out with its razor-sharp beak.
The crocodile thrashed its tail about wildly, making the water appear to boil. In its agony it released its grip on Ndhlovu’s leg. The falcon made another dive for the crocodile’s other eye but it disappeared under the water. Ndhlovu struggled weakly to the bank and dragged himself out of the river.
Both of Ndhlovu’s legs had been bitten off and he fell unconscious as the falcon circled overhead. Fortunately a member of the tribe had seen the falcon performing the unusual manoeuvres over the river and came down to see what was happening. He found Ndhlovu and took him to the n'anga who tended his wounds. In time, Ndhlovu recovered his health.
He never got his legs back, and could no longer work alongside the other men of the tribe. He spent his time telling the story of his ordeal and the heroic deeds of the falcon which was never seen again.
The story, and Ndhlovu, became something of a legend and children from other tribes along the river and further afield came to listen to his story.
Ndhlovu became an accomplished orator but could never describe the falcon to his satisfaction, so he began to sculpt figurines of the bird from the soft sandstone that was plentiful in the area. He made many of these figurines and they became very popular with the children who had heard his story. Every child who came to Ndhlovu’s kraal had to have a figurine to take home. This helped the legend spread.
Ndhlovu grew old and eventually died but the stone birds carried the magic of the legendary falcon on, and were made by many entrepreneuring villagers who saw a profit to be made from them. Hundreds of the birds were made of sandstone; some from hard stone.
Many decades later the legend had almost been forgotten, but some of the great stone birds survived. The bird had become a symbol of the area that had seen many wars through the years. This iconic bird appears on the Zimbabwe flag.