Nguni dreaming

2010-04-22 00:00

I’M in love. I had long suspected it, but now I know for sure.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Agriculture has revived the Nguni cattle rehabilitation programme cancelled in 2008, but sadly I don’t qualify as a recipient (The Witness, April 1). Cattle will be given only to livestock associations.

Mention the word “Nguni” to me and I melt. I have long hankered to attend a stock sale just to admire the animals from an adoring distance. I drool over Leigh Voigt’s paintings in Marguerite Poland and David Hammond-Tooke’s classic book The Abundant Herds — A celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu people.

When asked what significant gift I wanted to mark a personal milestone I replied immediately: “An Nguni.” I didn’t get one, so they obviously didn’t take me seriously. However, I did get a second-best gift when invited to visit a herd on a farm near Greytown recently.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal, part of Ngunis’ mystique must be the role they and cattle-related imagery have in the Zulu oral tradition and Zulu culture. The local information website explains: “For hundreds of years, the wellbeing of the herds and the Zulu people have been so closely connected that cattle have become a part of the people’s spiritual and aesthetic lives.”

The website proclaims proudly: “Indigenous Nguni cattle, long the mainstay of traditional Zulu culture, are possibly the most beautiful cattle in the world, with their variously patterned and multicoloured hides every­where in demand.”

I’m also delighted by what Poland calls “the poetry of naming”, the tradition of naming cattle which South says “captures the delicate interrelationship between cattle terminology and the natural world, where the colour and pattern of a hide or the shape of a pair of horns are linked to images in nature” (see box). Nguni owners are said to know every one of the animals in their herds by name and nature, such is the close relationship between cow and keeper.

Ngunis are believed to have entered Africa about 8 000 years ago and are part of the Bos indicus species found mainly in India and Africa. They are known for their enormous horns, magnificent hides and even temperament. An aggressive temperament is regarded as an unwelcome flaw. The owner of the herd I visited explained that they are the most placid, gentle creatures because they are accustomed to people. “In a traditional setting they were in contact with people all the time — herded during the day and enclosed in a kraal at night. If you go and sit among them, in time the young ones will come and sniff at you and lick you.”

I tried it when everyone else had moved off, drawn by the enticing smell of lunch back at the farmhouse. I sat, back against a tree, and waited. It was a wonderfully soothing experience to be surrounded by cud-chewing, tail-flipping creatures. The silence was uncanny. Apart from the regular stamping of hooves to fend off irritating flies, the cattle made no noise, moving around the pasture like so many sailing ships sliding soundlessly past each other. I listened to the wind playing the gum trees, the occasional thud of a tail slapping a leathery rump adding a staccato beat. I dozed off to be roused by snuffling and deep breathing very close by. The face of a female was just centimetres away from mine, her deep, liquid eyes fringed by long, curling lashes like reeds around shiny black pools.

I felt as though she was looking into my soul, so I silently apologised for all the biltong and wors I’ve ever consumed. It’s a puzzling contradiction in my diet, which is otherwise mostly vegetarian. And therein lies a profound paradox about Ngunis and my love affair with them in particular: they are beef cattle whose beautiful hides are currently all the rage in fields as diverse as fashion accessories, furniture and interior design. It seems a sin to sacrifice such beautiful, dignified creatures for hamburger patties and high-fashion handbags.

While I sat revelling in the sheer magnificence of the herd, they suddenly started to turn, as if moved by some invisible collective impulse. They headed off down the hill towards the feed lot in a stately procession of swaying dewlaps and swishing tails. The spell of my magic Nguni moment was broken.

MANY of the names given to Ngunis are like poems in their own right, full of references to nature, including birds, animals, plants and the weather. For example: Flies in buttermilk, The stones in the Ngoye Forest, Cutting in two, The beast which is houses and Like old people.

Here are some examples of how names reflect the colour qualities of an animal’s hide.

• A deeply dappled animal: The gaps between the branches of the trees silhouetted against the sky.

• A dark beast which shows a flash of white beneath its flank when its walks: The hornbill takes to flight.

• A young steer with upright points on its horns: What stabs the rain.

• A creamy coat spotted with fine rust speckles: The eggs of the lark. — www.

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