Head’s story is about identity and individuality. The Monemapee live “with one face” under the rule of their chief. The chief makes all the decisions, such as when to plough, when to harvest, and when to prepare the crops, and the people simply follow his orders. The unity and security of this arrangement is what is meant by the “deep river” of the title—that is, the tribe is at peace and protected as if they were suspended in a deep river. The phrase also suggests another river: the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness in the Greek underworld. The communal memory of the tribe is reduced to a single word—Talaote. The tribe may act as if they have one face, but “during their journey southwards,” they have forgotten where they came from and what their original language was.
When the old chief dies, his eldest son, Sebembele, announces that he is in love with the old chief’s youngest wife, Rankwana, and that the old chief’s youngest son, still a baby, is in fact his son, by Rankwana. This causes a kind of crisis: first, Sebembele’s younger brothers see his acknowledgement that the baby is his own as undermining their own positions within the tribe; second, because women are “of no account,” Sebembele’s love for Rankwana is a sign of weakness. Anyone who listens to a woman is “like one who listens to the advice of a child.” Sebembele is advised to pick out another wife, and he is deeply conflicted.
Sebembele cannot bring himself to do this. Instead, he publicly claims Rankwana and her child. They walk together, through the town, Sembembele holding the child in his arms. He became “a ruler who talked with deeds rather than words,” and the people saw that “the time had come for them to offer up their individual faces to the face of this ruler.” His love for Rankwana is a radical act in that he is singling out a woman for affection. This is particularly dangerous in that it recognizes Rankwana as someone worthy of respect and love. It is also an origin story. Sebembele leaves with those that support him, to begin a new tribe, eventually settling “in the land of Bamangwato.” Characteristically, perhaps, the details of the story are not remembered completely by his descendants: the old men give “confused and contradictory accounts of their origins, but they say they lost their place of birth over a woman.”