The Sunday News
THROUGH their distinctive calls, birds get their names. Through their colourful plumage, birds get their names. Through their majestic and regal dances and walking gaits, they get their names. Through the designs of their bodies, in particular their wings, necks and beaks, birds get named by humanity. Their given names testify to their being part of the named world of human beings. Their names are, in most cases, easy to appreciate in terms of their origins. This was not that apparent with regard to the names of trees and plants.
Be that as it may, names render meaning, a meaning that is grounded in the world and perceptions of those that name the world and its cultures; the human beings. This is naming that takes place within the natural realm. Observations gleaned from that realm find application in the cultural realm or where the two realms interface. An example is the design of the swallow’s wings. The design has given the swallow its name, inkonjane. However, the name found its way to ear notching in cattle as a form of identity and ownership.
Humans render meaning to birds’ calls which are musical but without lyrics. The tendency among the Ndebele is to provide lyrics that go well with the musical rendition. Here we shall refer to one bird in particular, the ground hornbill, insingizi. In Matabeleland South where the influence of TjiKalanga is most strongly felt the bird is known as iwundundu which is a name corrupted from the Kalanga name for the black, red and white bird which is associated with taboos that have helped conserve the species.
There are birds which, on the basis of beliefs associated with them, are feared, never killed and their flesh is not consumed. The hammerkop, uthekwane, is one such feared bird. As a result, attendant cultural knowledge works in favour of the bird. It is protected by cultural beliefs. The question is not about whether the beliefs make sense to people from outside of the belief world of the Ndebele people. Beliefs are real in so far as their consequences are real. Beliefs inform behaviour.
In the case of the hammerkop which makes a very big nest on high tree forks or rock outcrops, it is believed to collect a wide array of items and packs them into its gigantic nest made from twigs. The said items may include needles, buttons, beads and several other items from the modern world. Belief is strong regarding the consequences that result when one destroys a hammerkop’s nest. One gets mad, it is said. The fear of getting mad is strong and, as a result, eggs and the young of a hammerkop are not protected through law but are preserved.
Beliefs protect better and more effectively than laws which may be flouted through various ways and means. Where a belief is strongly held, it is not flouted but observed and preservation is the result of internalisation and inculcation. What those who seek to conserve the endangered species ought to do is to strengthen and deepen conservation narratives. Here they need not even speak about what objectives they are hoping to achieve. All they need to point out and augment are the consequences, at personal level, that would befall an individual who goes against known beliefs and taboos. Conservation automatically falls in place.
The problem is those people who preach the gospel of conservation hold African beliefs in disdain and dismiss them with the click of a finger as superstition. That way, they miss out on golden opportunities. If the hammerkop is an endangered species, the only people who could be held to account may be traditional doctors who possess the ability to neutralise the harmful potency that is invoked when one tampers either with the adult bird, its eggs or its young. So, in a nutshell, racial arrogance, epistemological exclusivity get the better of some of our academics. Their faulty and false assumption lies behind the denigration of anything African and label it as demonic and superstitious. Hardly do they empathetically seek to get into the mind of an African.
Let us now turn to the ground hornbill. The English who so named it know why they did so. The name familiar to some of us is iwundundu and derives from the bird’s call. Male and female take turns to sing (ingoma engelamazwi). The female bird initiates the call which is musical. The Ndebele provide the lyrics which are in sync with the bird’s call. “Nant’ ufujwana lwami! sings the female. “Letha ngapha ngikuhlahlelele!” The two lines loosely translate as follows: “Here is my small tortoise!” “Bring it here so that I open up its shell!”
The lyrics are created on the basis of assumed or known knowledge. The ground hornbills have long, large and strong beaks which can prize open a tortoise shell which is hard and therefore not easy to open up and access the flesh inside, comprising, in the main, legs and the internal organs such as the heart, liver and intestines. Ground hornbills make calls that gave them their names.
However, what matters more in so far as conservation of the species is attendant beliefs that have spawned unchallenged taboos. Taboos have the capacity to induce or enforce compliance. Taboos are never questioned or challenged. When a taboo is spelt out, all that follows is obedience and strict compliance. Quite often a taboo is rendered in such a way that when it is flouted the consequences spell disaster especially one that borders on death or similar consequences. The consequences are rendered in fear-inducing terms and proportions for maximum effect and unchallenged compliance. This is to say sometimes the truth is sacrificed on the altar of self-preservation for individuals.
A taboo thus becomes a veritable weapon in the hands of a community where conservation is sought and linked to self-preservation. A ground hornbill has its call interpreted as a harbinger of rain, just like that of inkanku. Thus, its call is among an array of other natural occurrences that are seen as indicators of impending weather patterns. Nature understands nature and predicts itself. There is no better weather forecaster than nature. The question though is how seriously do we take natural indicators of an impending season? The so-called indigenous knowledge systems are no longer taken seriously, more so when they are held by despised Africans.
Amawundundu (plural for iwundundu) will sometimes enter a homestead and perch on roof tops and make their calls from there. This is regarded as an omen, an occurrence that is a harbinger of something either good or bad to be experience either long or short term. When this happens the owner and residents of a homestead get scared. Soon, so they believe, something catastrophic will happen, such as death. It’s as if the bird is a witch/wizard. We should however, not be too quick to dismiss all this as mambo jumbo. God did not create a people who possess a monopoly of stupidity. Africans base their beliefs on lived experiences. Surely Africans observed behaviour on the part of ground hornbills and observed what followed thereafter. Observation is a good teaching and learning methodology.
For the purposes of this article, what matters is how these beliefs have, through preservation, conserved the ground hornbills which are thought to be an endangered bird species. As already said above, taboos that are associated with the behaviour of some bird and animal species go a long way in conserving the species. Conservation strategies ought to be built around prevailing beliefs by enhancing and giving stronger supportive cultural narratives.