Cows: The sacred and the profane

Daniel Naudé’s Xhosa Nguni bull on the shore 1. Mgazi, Eastern Cape, 19 May 2010. Courtesy Stevenson gallery.

Daniel Naudé’s Xhosa Nguni bull on the shore 1. Mgazi, Eastern Cape, 19 May 2010. Courtesy Stevenson gallery.

Your cattle are gone 
My countrymen!
Go rescue them. Go rescue them
Leave the breechloader alone
And turn to the pen
Take paper and ink
For that is your shield
Your rights are going
So pick up your pen
Load it, load it with ink
Sit in your chair
Repair not to Hoho
But fire with your pen
IWW Citashe, 19th century

The cow is not an animal
In the Setswana-speaking part of the African world, the bovine is referred to as “God with the wet nose”. It’s a crucial conflation of the cow with notions of the divine. It underscores cattle as hallowed beasts of providence.

In Sepedi belief systems, according to PhD candidate Uhuru Phalafala, “the cow’s function is to connect, to bridge, to invoke. Cows exist in a liminal space between the human and the divine, the physical and the spiritual, the alive and the ancestors, the worldly and the universal.’’

In beliefs that have survived but evolved through the ages, despite colonial interruption and erosion, cows are not classified as animals in many Southern African cultures. Beyond their significance as physical symbols of material wealth, cattle are the repository of memory and history. They are the principal offering in funerary rituals concerning ancestors.

It is their location in both the mundane and in such spiritual rites that they also emerge as subjects of song, idioms and myths. Take the Xhosa, for instance: if the offered bull does not bellow during the preparatory ritual for sacrificial slaughter, the sacrifice cannot continue. If it does, they exclaim: “Icamaku livumile [The ancestors are willing!]” Then the sacrifice can continue.

It is crucial, therefore, that before we attempt the difficult task of expounding on the significance of the cow in South Africa’s complex history and its subsequent present, we understand the full spectrum of its functions as something other than food.

Cattle have long had a major role in South African rituals, like the cleansing ceremony in Xhosa culture. (Paul Botes, M&G)

The great migration and the cow
Historians have claimed that the first sign of the arrival of cattle came from the north of the continent and dates back to between the 7th and 10th centuries CE, with the point of emergence being the corner between modern-day Botswana, Zimbabwe and northern Limpopo. This is referred to as the Central Cattle Pattern, brought by the cattlemen who arrived here as part of the great Bantu migration from West Africa.

Before that, the many groups belonging to what are academically referred to as the San people – although Bushmen is arguably re-emerging as the correct term to use when referring to this group of original inhabitants of South Africa – were here hunting game and gathering vegetation and “did not cultivate or keep cattle or sheep, but lived off the resources of their environment’’, according to historian and author Noël Mostert.

Cattle became the pioneering form of capital in Southern Africa and introduced the idea of individual wealth. Politically, they also introduced hierarchical social systems and statecraft together with the reef mining of gold that emerged in the 12th century. Southern Africa’s inclusion in the Indian Ocean trade with the Chinese, Irano-Arabic, Hindu and Indonesian peoples created one of the greatest commercial bonds on Earth, according to historian KN Chaudhuri – a bond that influenced the formation of states in this region.

Populations began to expand as a result of growing herds of cattle, whose milk was the principal food and helped to establish the strength of the Bantu warriors and nation-builders, who were, according to Mostert, “elitist masters of a particular concept of universe and self, with a royal aristocratic, religious and emotional attachment to cattle that involved their entire sense of social structure and law’’.

By the 14th century, the preserve of cattle had also extended to Khoikhoi groups by virtue of their proximity to what would later be referred to as the Xhosa people.

The cow as a family member
Clues to the high regard enjoyed by cattle among the Bantu language-speakers are all over their dialects. They are replete with words describing cattle in terms of sex, age, colouration and horn shape, while favourite oxen have praise names and are trained to respond to whistled commands, used especially during battles.

Apart from their milk and meat, cows’ hides and bones are useful for clothing and other utensils. Their dung, too, has been an important source of fuel and wall plaster. This extraordinary involvement with their herds, typical of the southern aBantu, is often referred to as the African Cattle Complex. It extends beyond the everyday to the transcendental.

This begins with where the cattle kraal, or isibaya in isiZulu, was traditionally located: in the centre of the homestead, surrounded by a circle of dwellings. This means cattle were often the first things every family member saw as they emerged from their huts at dawn. Each new day would have been greeted by an encounter with the family’s most prized possession.

Young boys charged with caring for the herd would most likely commence their chores with songs and fantasies of one day owning their own herd as heads of their own households. Fathers would perhaps gaze on these boys en route to pasture with contemplation, as these same beasts would one day be lobolo dowry to grow the clan through wedlock. The women and girls, too, would probably know the family’s providence is secured in the health and strength of the same herd.

The cow and dispossession
With this in mind, picture the disastrous effects of the encounters with Europeans on the relationship between the land, the Khoi San groups, Bantu and the colonists, both Boer and British – encounters that were much earlier than the popularised 1652.

Before the year that Jan van Riebeeck reluctantly settled in the Cape, the Dutch East India Company’s arrival was preceded by Portuguese sailors who had been stopping over since the 15th century, en route to the East. Their sometimes violent encounters with the original population involved the exchange of fresh supplies such as meat, vegetables and medicine, a relationship that would last for more than 100 years before 1652.

The formalisation of the European settlement by the building of the Dutch East India Company Gardens in 1652 began the 181-year enslavement period of the Khoi and San people by the Dutch company’s workers, who would then become the free burghers and later the Boers. Finally, the effects of the British colonial project, which began in 1806 and intensified in 1811 with the obliteration of Xhosa groups, scorched a way for Colonel John Graham to lay the foundations for what is known as Grahamstown.

This devastating defeat precipitated the frontier wars between the Xhosa groups and the British colonists, which were to last more than 100 years.

(Paul Botes, M&G).

These encounters between the Xhosa and the British colonists – more so than with the Boer farmers, who had clashed with the Xhosa and the English – paved the road to the historic and unbelievably catastrophic Xhosa cattle killings of 1856. This instance of self-immolation would dispossess the Xhosa, accelerate their European re-education and strengthen the influence of Christianity, which condemned ritualised slaughter.

This ripened the conditions for the development of the colonial government’s 1913 Land Act that was to paralyse aBantu and their way of life until this day.

In a similar phenomenon to the mass slaughter of Xhosa cattle, in Zimbabwe the first Chimurenga (or revolutionary rebellion) of 1896 to 1897 was launched on the back of the mass deaths of cattle. Cows and crops had been dying from rinderpest, drought and locust plague. An influential spiritual leader among the amaNdebele convinced the people that the white settlers were responsible for their loss and the only answer was to take up arms. The threat of poverty announced by the death of their prized cattle was enough to move the people to rise up – and continue rising up throughout the next century.

In the following centuries, the modern black experience is a confluence of rural, urban and imported ways of life and survival in a relentlessly alien state of existence, but one where rituals like that of the Xhosa, where a sacrificial cow must bellow lest the ancestors disapprove, have retained their centrality in the culture.

Jazz saxophonist Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi’s classic record Yakhal’ Inkomo operates in this register. The record’s title loosely translates to “the bellowing bull”.

Ngozi, who died in 2009, lived in an asphalt-laden township environment where he did not keep a kraal with a herd. Yet on the album he slaughters, sacrifices and wills the bull to bellow at key moments in his life.

Today, the cow remains central to rituals and ceremonies that anchor life’s meaning in urban black communities, linking ancestry and posterity.

It is this kind of perennial symbolic providence that avails the cow as a motif to Yakhal’ Inkomo.

Dismembering the cow
According to culturalist Milton Mbukeli Gcwensa, the rituals around the consumption of a cow have evolved to cement a culture of sharing steeped in symbolism.

“Imilenze (the legs), inhloko (the head), isinqe (the rump), isibindi (the liver), iphaphu (the lung) and intso (the kidney) all have practices related to their consumption,” he says.

“The cow is a unifier in that sense, and all these mores existed so that there was not a mad rush for the consumption of the beast. It was to imbue the ceremony with a sense of decorum so there would be enough left for various relatives, present or not present.”

Gcwensa says that during an ibandla (male gathering), for example, certain parts of the cow head would be distributed among the younger and older men, both invited and uninvited. This dismembering of the cooked head would take place in the house among the elders. The youngest men, in this case the boys, would get the ears.

The term amantshontsho, for example, refers to meat that is “stolen” because it is eaten by the people who have slaughtered the cow and will be cooking the meat.

(Paul Botes, M&G). 

Some of these practices also stem from folklore rather than practicality. Impundu, for example, is a segment of the liver that is eaten by the male and female elders because it is said to promote forgetfulness if eaten by younger people. Nkamanzi (from the lower lip), which the cow uses to drink water, it is also eaten by senior men.

“The fact that we eat all these meats in shisa nyamas and butcheries could very well mean that it could promote certain characteristics that were meant to be downplayed by avoidance. In my view,” says Gcwensa, “the practice of eating in butcheries has had an impact in terms of the people we have become in society.”

Says Professor Pitika Ntuli, an artist and academic: “The issue of nutrients and toxicity was also considered … Even with the commercialisation of meat consumption, other cultures have not stopped practices regulating the slaughter of meat. Muslims have halaal. Jews have kosher meat.

“That’s why the cultural way of slaughtering was important, because we would even drug the cow with herbs to give it a certain disposition, so it does not release certain toxins at the point of killing. Because even the guilt of what you have done to the animal could stay with you.”

As shopkeeper Thembani Mncube says, practices known as imikhuba (habits) vary from household to household. In other words, there is no universal African practice.

“In some households, they might use a rope made of cowhide to restrain the cow and drop it,” he says from a room inside Kwa Mai-Mai, a market in the Johannesburg city centre where people sell traditional medicine and various accoutrements derived from the cow.

“This is either tied around the neck or the horns of the beast. In other households or clans, they might stalk it with a spear while it is standing, but the correct spot to stab it is behind the head, on its neck.

“Once down, the blood is drained, and it is stabbed again in the heart. It is then moved and laid on its back and skinned,” says Mncube.

For some practitioners of Sepedi culture, no part of the cow is wasted. The blood is left to set and become bobete, curdled blood that is eaten to symbolise a connection with the ancestors.

Today, the relative lack of livestock in families means that with successive generations, the frequency with which rites can be performed for ancestors is decreasing as the prices of the beasts increase with inflation. The drought is decimating not only herds but cultural and physical wealth too.

Muntuwenkosi Mabaso, a taxi driver who regularly lunches in Jeppestown, east of the Johannesburg city centre, says “that’s why it is important as a city-dwelling person to maintain that physical connection with home. I try to do it by going home [to kwaNongoma in KwaZulu-Natal] at least once a month. The other thing is that it creates a setting for the family folklore to be passed down; things such as izithakazelo [the recital of the family’s lineage] are passed down and reinforced in such settings.”

To illustrate the effect of the disconnect with home-based cultural practices, Njengomlungu Mthethwa, inyanga operating from the Kwa Mai-Mai traditional medicine market, points to the current patterns of liquor consumption, which has been strongly tied to the ritual slaughter of animals.

In Pretoria’s Atteridgeville location, as in many townships in South Africa, cattle slaughtering is a special and sought-after skill – and one that has turned into an informal business in urban settings. Young men rent out their cattle slaughtering services for between R100 and R150 a time, because of the dearth of knowledge and the concomitant dismissal of traditions in the cities.

It is in areas such as this that many modern Africans are oscillating between a deep reverence for culture and a distanced knowledge of how to reclaim it in a society of convenience, where the banality of knowing only the taste of beef on the tongue has altered what the cow means to the being.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.
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