Of Cash Cows, Beach Cows, Nguni Cows and Lobola…

Of Cash Cows, Beach Cows, Nguni Cows and Lobola…

Nguni cattle on the beach. © Sinegugu Zukulu

Before we leave the ocean for inland adventures, there are still one or two subjects worth exploring… One of the classic images of the Wild Coast is cattle on the beach. The majority are Nguni cattle (although some are cross breeds which contain Nguni). It is phenomenally difficult to find online/printed info on specific matters relating to these areas, and so I spoke to Sinegugu Zukulu (who hails from the Wild Coast). 

Textbook Wild Coast Image. © Sinegugu Zukulu

The behaviour of these cattle is very unique on the Wild Coast. Everywhere you go, you find these cows on the beaches. And the obvious question is why?? Female horseflies use their pair of serrated mandibles to “saw” into the skin of their victim (very painful), cutting until they break small vessels, and the blood begins to flow – which they then drink. These flies are a problem in the grasslands of the Wild Coast where the cattle graze, and you will often see them swinging their tails to chase the flies. 

Nguni cattle on the beach at Hole in the Wall. © Sinegugu Zukulu

Sinegugu explained that the cattle prefer to chew the cud (that portion of their food that returns from the stomach to the mouth to be chewed for a second time) on the beaches as there are no insects (especially horse flies) to bother them – they are at peace there. They only return to the grasslands when they are hungry, and once full they will once again return to the beach. They apparently also get salt on the beaches which aids with digestion. 

Beautiful bull next to the ocean. © Sinegugu Zukulu

Another thing which is very interesting about the cows on this shoreline and in the coastal villages is the names which are attributed to the Nguni cattle. They are descriptive, poetic articulations of their colours and patterns. For example, if the cow has white legs from the knee down, it is referred to as “A woman crossing a river” (see the captions below the images for more examples of this naming tradition). Beyond this, every single cow in Pondoland is given its own unique name. Only sheep and goats are not given names – unless a particular sheep is ‘famous’ for something (e.g. always running to the crops) – then they could be named for their behaviour.

“Ibafazi beshoshile” (Woman wearing mini skirts). © Sinegugu Zukulu

These descriptive names are significant in terms of paying lobola. Somebody from the groom’s family is usually given the responsibility to go to the bride’s family to negotiate. When they arrive, they need to describe the cows which they are going to use to pay lobola. Those descriptive names are used for this purpose. So, they would tell the in-laws, and the next gathering / ceremony would be the one where the cows are viewed (according to the colours/descriptive names that were given). Even if money is used to pay the lobola, they still need to “give that money those Nguni names” (i.e. you describe it in terms of those). After describing all of those colours, they have to specify that all of these cows are “in my pocket’ or are “in the bank” (i.e. cash) so that it is clearly understood that this is a cash transaction as opposed to actual cattle. So, when negotiating lobola, if cash is used, it is still called ‘cows’.

“Iimpukane zibangubisi” (Flies in the milk). © Sinegugu Zukulu

On a more general note, Nguni cattle per se descended from both Bos taurus and Bos indicus cattle, and entered Africa thousands of years ago. As the tribal migration to southern Africa occurred, the cattle obviously also moved south. Natural selection and interaction with the environment allowed the Nguni breed we know today to evolve.

Both (top and bottom images) are “Mvubi-mazimba” (Sorghum porridge with sour milk). 

The image below is described as having ‘more milk’. © Sinegugu Zukulu

Today, the Nguni cattle breed is unique to southern Africa. From a social and economic perspective, these animals have played an important role in these societies. The number of cattle owned by an individual (or village) is a matter of pride and status, as well as commercial wealth. In fact, such importance is attached to these cattle that Shaka (King of the Zulus who reigned from 1816 to 1828) seized control of the Nguni herds on his lands. He later bred them (according to various colour patterns) to produce hides that distinguished the regiments of his army – his personal, elite guards’ skins were from the pure white cattle from the royal herd (inyonikayiphumuli – ‘the bird that never rests’).

“Mthwibi” or “Mthubi” (The colour of first milk i.e. colostrum). © Sinegugu Zukulu

In 1854, bovine lung-sickness was introduced to the Cape Colony by a bull imported from Europe. Between 1854 and 1856, the disease spread like wildfire, eventually decimating the Nguni herds of the Eastern Cape as well.  Shortly thereafter, a young Xhosa prophetess, Nongqawuse, demanded a sacrificial slaughter of all cattle (to initiate a resurrection of all ancestors). It’s a long, complicated story, but ultimately between 1856 and 1857 many of the Xhosa complied and slaughtered almost all their enormous stocks of cattle.

“Matyehlathi” (Colour of the rocks in the forest). © Sinegugu Zukulu

Somehow, the Nguni cattle managed to survive the 1850s, adapting to many more challenges and eventually evolving into the beautiful breed that is recognised today. They have the ability to survive periodic droughts and limited grazing, whilst also having developed a resistance specifically to tick-borne diseases. Interestingly, the Nguni is considered (by far) the most profitable beef cattle breed in South Africa. Compared with other breeds, it apparently produces meat at a lower unit cost (partly because they graze the veld so efficiently, they require little supplementary feeding).

“Ntsundu” (The colour of the dates fruits from the palm tree) refers to the cow behind the calf. Although black you can see some of the reddish/tan colour of the dates… © Sinegugu Zukulu

So these beautiful cattle, each with a pattern as unique as a fingerprint, are real survivors with an unexpectedly interesting history, fascinating names and an irreplaceable position in the culture of the Wild Coast.

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team

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