The abundant Nguni herds

So you think a cow is a cow is a cow? Think again. South Africa’s 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.

Their beauty and the lore and terminology that has become associated with them in Zulu culture is celebrated in a richly illustrated coffee table book called The Abundant Herds, which has fast become a worldwide bestseller.

imatshoNgoye - the stones of the Ngoye forest
imatshoNgoye – the stones of the Ngoye forest

First published in November 2003, the book was sold out by the end of the year. The reprint of June 2004 was entirely snapped up by September of that year, and it was printed again in November 2004. The third reprint appeared in December 2005.

The Abundant Herds: A Celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People is an appreciation of the creative imagination and linguistic versatility of the Zulu people. Written by acclaimed author Marguerite Poland and social anthropologist David Hammond-Tooke, it is an overview of the history of the Nguni cattle and their economic, social, political and spiritual importance to the Zulu people, both past and present.

There are two species of cattle in the world: Bos taurus, or European cattle, are the more familiar brown-and-black breeds such as Jersey and Holstein. Bos indicus, on the other hand, are found mainly in India and Africa, and include more unusual creatures such as Zebu, Sanga and Nguni cattle. They are characterised by their enormous horns and magnificent hides.

inkampu - of cutting in two
inkampu – of cutting in two

With beautiful oil and watercolour paintings and sepia drawings by artist Leigh Voigt, The Abundant Herds examines the role played by cattle and cattle-related imagery in the oral tradition of the Zulu people – how cattle terminology can form part of the worldview associated with Zulu culture.

For hundreds of years, the well-being 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.

inkomo eyezindlu - the beast which is houses
inkomo eyezindlu – the beast which is houses

The poetry of naming

This has given rise to a poetic and complex naming practice. The Abundant Herds explains that the fine and subtle nuance of the isiZulu language 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 is linked to images in nature.

In a chapter called The Poetry of Naming, Poland discusses this colour-pattern terminology, its origins and its metaphorical associations with natural phenomena such as birds, animals and plants. Animals with specific colours and patterns on their hides are given unique Zulu names, which translate as follows:

  • The eggs of the lark – a creamy coat spotted with fine rust speckles.
  • The gaps between the branches of the trees silhouetted against the sky – a deeply dappled animal.
  • The hornbill takes to flight – a dark beast which shows a flash of white beneath its flank when its walks.
  • What stabs the rain – the upright points of a young steer’s horns.

While these terms form the core of a fascinating system of classification, cattle imagery also abounds in Zulu oral history and poetry; in tales, proverbs, riddles and the praises of individual beasts, celebrated by their owners for their fertility, their vigour and their character and which subtly reflect the changing fortunes and social concerns of the Zulu people.

engabantubegulile - like old people
engabantubegulile – like old people

Although cattle terms continue to be used today among peasant farmers in rural communities throughout Africa, for the younger, urban generation this knowledge is fading. Despite the resurgence of interest in the economic importance of Sanga-Nguni cattle in South Africa today, there is a real danger that a precious branch of indigenous knowledge will disappear.

The aim of this work is not only to record something of this heritage for posterity but also to celebrate the richness of Zulu linguistic versatility and the creative imagination of the Zulu people.

imaqandakahuye - the eggs of the lark
imaqandakahuye – the eggs of the lark

The authors

Dr Marguerite Poland is a distinguished writer, having published 10 children’s books before turning to adult fiction. She has received the Percy Fitzpatrick Award and the Sankei Honourable Award for Children’s Books for the Japanese translation of The Mantis and the Moon. In May 2005, at the Literary awards, she was presented with a Lifetime Achievers Award in English by Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan. The Abundant Herds is based on research for her doctoral thesis at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, awarded in 1997.

The late Professor David Hammond-Tooke was Professor Emeritus of Social Anthropology at Wits University. He conducted extensive research among South African groups, especially the South Nguni and North Sotho, and his theoretical interests included kinship, local government, religion, folklore, indigenous symbolic systems, historiography and comparative ethnography.

inala - abundance
inala – abundance

Leigh Voigt is an internationally acclaimed artist, known particularly for her paintings of birds and wildlife. She has illustrated eight books and has exhibited in South Africa, Europe, Great Britain, Canada and the US, where her work is represented in numerous private and public collections. Lulu Phezulu: Leigh Voigt’s African Album, her autobiographical account of life in the bushveld, which she both wrote and illustrated, won the prestigious BookData Booksellers’ Award in 2000.

  • The Abundant Herds: A Celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People (ISBN 1 874950 69 5) is published by Fernwood Press.

SAinfo reporter

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