Naming cattle after nature and culture: Interface between tangible and intangible worlds

by Sunday News Online | Sunday, Nov 19, 2017 | 481 views


Pathisa Nyathi
REVEREND Robert Moffat of the London Missionary Society ((LMS) would not have fully comprehended, let alone adequately appreciated, why his host King Mzilikazi kaMatshobana displayed profound love for his large herds of cattle that the two encountered along the way when the bearded missionary was returning to Kuruman in the land of the BaThlaping, the fish people.

Perhaps no commodity, natural or cultural, enjoyed more presence in all spheres of Ndebele life than cattle. Reverend Moffat would not have appreciated that Ndebele spirituality he sought to supplant with Christianity found expressed through cattle. The cattle byre, isibaya, was the site where this phenomenon was expressed among the Ndebele, who, like other African peoples, posited existence of spirit in nature. The cattle byre, one writer observed, was, to a Ndebele ma, what a temple is to a Jew.

In the cattle byre ancestral spirits were propitiated through a beast that was invested with spiritual potency in the form of representing an identified departed ancestor. Indeed, such a beast behaved in a way not wholly natural. It exhibited cultural behaviour. Usually, such an animal was approached by supplicants early in the morning.

The supplicants had, in their company, a representative who was au feit with relevant lineage names of their particular clan. Upon approaching the stockade he, invariably always a man within the male domain of the homestead, would wax lyrical and give a scintillating and moving rendition of the lineage praises. The animal-cum-ancestral spirit responded by rising on its feet. It then urinated, an indicator that the ancestral spirits were responding positively. The other animals not invested with the same spiritual potency continued lying down.

Such phenomena were grounded in African cosmology which today sounds strange, bizarre and readily dismissed as superstition or paganism. This is part of a bigger picture where things European and Eurocentric have supplanted African phenomena. All this came about following military defeat during the time of colonization. To the African, the material world was interfaced by and interwoven with the spiritual world. The two interacted and through initiating a move in one aspect led to response or activation in the other.

The beast thus became the site or medium and vehicle through which Africans accessed the spiritual dimension. For them, spirituality did not come through preaching or proselytising. It was a way of life into which everyone was socialized. It was not a question of either or, or take or leave it. There was no room for choice.

Beyond the spiritual realm cattle were an important source of wealth. Cattle population grew through a natural process. Raids on neighbouring tribes were undertaken with a view to obtaining two important commodities-humans and cattle. King Mzilikazi and his people were harassed by the Griqua who took away their cattle. The Ndebele were also doing the same to the Griqua and other groups. When Commander Mkhaliphi kaDlekezela launched an attack on the Afrikaners at the Battle of Vegtkop in 1836, the Ndebele captured a large herd of Afrikaner cattle-ezamabula.

There were many factors that came into play at the time when the Ndebele were migrating from KwaZulu-Natal in the first quarter of the 19th Century.

One of those was sources of water. After getting over the Drakensberg Mountains (Izintaba Zokhahlamba), the one river whose course they followed was the Steelpoort where he got to Ndubazi where they found Nzuza people under Chief Magodonga Mahlangu and Amanala. From there, after both incorporation and assimilation of many people such as Mahlangus, Mabhenas, Sibindis, Sikhosanas, Mkhwananzi (Gawu) Masukus (Phenyane), Mgutshini, Jubane, Lusinga, among several others, they proceeded to the middle Vaal River where there were several tributaries, all flowing with water.

There the Ndebele built their first settlements. There was water for domestic and livestock use. If they had continued in the north easterly direction they would have moved into a tsetse fly belt in Mozambique. Nagana was a terrible disease transmitted by tsetse flies. Besides, the threat of tsetse flies the Ndebele were moving into an area where the Msene clan under Nxaba (Nqaba) lay ahead of them. It was thus possible wars in which the Ndebele might have lost cattle to a fellow Nguni group and the threat of nagana that changed the course of migration of Ndebele.

Once again, the Ndebele encountered the same threat from the tsetse fly. That was the time following defeat in the hands of the Afrikaners when the nation was split into two groups. The king himself led one group which struck a north westerly route where they were set to clash with the Kololo (formerly the BaFokeng) of Sebitwane (AmaGololo kaSibindwane). The same twin threats that prevented them from trekking into Mozambique prevented them from continuing in the westerly or north westerly direction. Once again, it was the consideration of cattle that was a paramount consideration. Chief Sebitwane led a fierce group of fighters who would have threatened Ndebele herds.

At the same time, the swampy areas through which King Mzilikazi and his followers were traversing, were infested with tsetse flies. The king and his people decided to call off their migration in that direction and started the arduous journey towards Matabeleland. The presence of water courses determined the route that they followed-up the Gwayi River before turning to the east along the Mbembesi River till they settled at Mfazimithi not far from Mawala Hills just north of Bulawayo. What then transpired after they met with the two nations, one led by Khondwane kaNdlovu and the other by Queen Nyamazana Dlamini is the subject of the book on the Makhalimas that I am presently working on.

Nature and nature, culture and nature interfaced on the cow. Cattle naming that was referred to last week got its inspiration from two fronts. During beer straining there was some residue called insipho which is red and white in colour, a colour that was used to describe red and white cattle. However, it was nature which inspired many names given to cattle on the basis of colour configuration. Isibawu, the tsetse fly would not have failed to inspire the naming of cattle of a particular colour. The tsetse fly was a threat to cattle. The Ndebele people observed its colour and saw it on certain beasts which were appropriately named isibawu.

Iqhagwe, a certain variety of locust also had colours which were observed on cattle. Accordingly, such cattle were named after the locusts that they resembled. The Zulu, more than the Ndebele, took the naming ritual to a higher level. A beast called inkanku resembles the Jacobin cuckoo while insingizi is one that takes after the ground hornbill, insingizi. There are many of their beats that are named after snakes, birds and a few animals such as the mole, ifukufuku. Why do the Nguni prefer to name their animals on the bases of birds more than wild animals?

There might be an interesting story behind that, especially considering that their attire too included feathers of birds such as the blue roller(for King.)

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