CULTURAL HERITAGE: Cattle byre: Expression of socio-economic status and patriarchy

03 Jan, 2016 - 06:01 0 Views

The Sunday News

Pathisa Nyathi

A NDEBELE village has spaces and sites allocated to various functions.

A close look at the sites and spaces will reveal spirituality, economy matters, political and social power distribution, social status and relations, among other issues. One such site that is an integral part of a village is the cattle byre which expresses patriarchy, masculinity, spirituality, wealth ownership and social status, among other expressions. Umvutshwa royal satellite town was no exception. A study of the cattle byre and its contents, largely cattle, reveals a lot about Ndebele society and how it operated.

In earlier installations we did refer to the central location of the cattle byre and its subsequent migration to the perimeter wall and ultimately its complete detachment from the village when security, particularly with regard to cattle raids, improved.

Our emphasis here is on the situation following colonisation. This is the period when the cattle byre became a stand-alone, detached from the rest of the village. However, it continued as a site where men were key players. Young girls and elderly women beyond menopause were, however, allowed access into the cattle byre.

The first consideration that we shall pay attention to is the palisade for the cattle byre. The Ndebele word nxiba derives from the manner in which the palisade was crafted. There was nothing really aesthetic about it. It was a practical or functional consideration to keep cattle within. Language is a repository and expression of cultural practices and a people’s worldview and cosmology. The cattle byre palisade is called umbelo. This is a noun from the verb — mbela, ukumbela. That immediately points to the manner in which the byre was crafted. Stout forked wooden poles, izigodo ezilembaxa, were dug into the ground.

The angles for the forks varied widely with some forks oriented almost horizontally. Where necessary and possible some smaller poles were used as cross members — the process being referred to as ukunxiba, some sort of intertwining.

The palisade that was so made allowed men and boys to perch themselves on it. The head of family was expected to get up very early in the morning at about 4am, empondozankomo (the time of morning when cattle are visible by their horns) to go to the cattle byre and do much more than passing out urine. He checked if all the cattle were present. He knew them by their colours and horn orientation. We shall come to this in later articles. He also sniffed the air to detect some cattle with festering wounds, as these emitted pungent smells. He asked the young boys to inspect the cattle if he happened to sense some ordour emanating from wounds. The man also checked for strange footprints on the soil.

A husband was not expected to get up later than women folk. He was at liberty to go back and sleep after inspecting the cattle, if he so wished. Men were in love with their abundant herds. King Tshaka of the Zulu is said to have been assassinated by his brothers Dingane and Mhlangana when he was perched on the cattle byre palisade.

The two brothers with the complicity of their aunt Mkabayi studied their brother’s movements during the early part of the day. King Tshaka sat on the cattle byre palisade to admire his herd. He did this unarmed. On approaching their intended victim they chanted his praises, “Izulu eladuma obala!” in order to get closer to him, which they did and thrust spears into his body. That was in 1828.

Our earlier reference to men and boys sitting on umbelo during the administration of purification rites of a bride, ukuphehlelwa isithundu was testimony to the rugged nature of umbelo. They sat there while the bride’s father performed the rite. They were singing wedding songs, beklaza after which the wedding party departed for the groom’s place. Some men accompanied the party to provide security. The party comprising women wore imincwazi on their foreheads. After the wedding they were expected to return and remove imincwazi, ukwethula imincwazi.

Apparently, there were cases when such parties enjoyed life so much at the groom’s place so much that they failed to return to complete the wedding procedures, notably the removal of imincwazi. This was the case with the Mlilos that accompanied Princess Fulatha Tshabalala who was to become Prince Lobengula’s mother. Another group of Mlilos did the same when they left Gazaland to accompany Queen Xhwalile Nxumalo who was to get married to King Lobengula. They stayed in Matabeleland and never returned home for the purpose of ukwethula imincwazi.

The entrance to the cattle byre was made of two wooden poles that were multi-forked, imbaxa ezinengi. The two stout poles carried a cross member at the top against which rested imigoqo, enclosing poles.

More wooden poles were stuck in the ground and rested on the several forks on the two stout poles. Adjoining the cattle byre was an enclosure for the calves, amathole. The cattle byre for the calves differed slightly in that it embraced both ukunxiba and ukuvitsha, closing more tightly with thinner wooden poles so as to prevent the calves bolting out.

As shall be demonstrated in future articles the calves identified the names of their mothers. When a particular cow was to be milked its name was called out. As soon as the calf heard that name it left the calves’ byre and moved to where its mother was.

The size of both the cattle and calves byres depended on the size of the herd. Men such as Matshologwane Lusinga, Maphonya Dlamini and Mpaziligwa Mathobela possessed large herds and had byres that were commensurate with their herds.

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