Making a bull market for Swaziland's cows

When is a cow considerably more than the sum of its parts? When the animal happens to live in one of a good many developing countries, probably—not least Swaziland.

In this small Southern African state, cattle are, paradoxically, both slaughtered to mark cultural events and kept alive at all costs by owners who have grown attached to them.

“Cows are like pets to a lot of farmers—they give them names. They become sentimental, and don’t want to sell them until they are too old. They see the butcher as someone offering a mercy killing,” says Percy Mkhonta, who works as a meat cutter at a butchery in the central commercial town of Manzini.

Cows are also all-important for any man with his sights set on marriage.

The practice of paying a bride price (referred to as lobola) is still common in the country—and lobola typically comes in the form of cattle ...
many cattle.

While about five cows are usually needed to cover the bride price, up to 60 cows could be paid if a future spouse comes from Swaziland’s royal family (the country is Africa’s last absolute monarchy). This custom recalls earlier times when cattle were effectively the state’s national currency.

“I want to collect cattle and pay them to my fiancé‘s parents. That would make me feel like a real Swazi man,” says Jabulani Dlamini, a theology student at the University of Swaziland.

“My fiancé‘s family raised [her] well to be a wife and a mother—they deserve thanks. Lobola is the Swazi way. It does not matter if the year is 1805 or 2005.”

But, this age-old and widespread attachment to cattle is falling victim to economic necessity and cultural change.

“Cows are almost sacred to Swazis, but that is being re-examined. Swazi families still give their cows pet names, but now they are also seeing their cows off to slaughter,” says Andrew Thwala, a veterinarian with the ministry of agriculture.

“Today, the cow’s flanks and ribs are consumed in London or Munich.”

Just not at the moment, of course, as the European Union slapped a ban on Swazi beef imports last month after the country’s main abattoir apparently misplaced paperwork that EU health officials needed about vaccination histories.

Despite such hiccoughs, Swaziland’s government is trying to induce peasant farmers to move away from farming cattle for cultural or subsistence purposes only.

“We wanted to make a nation of small business people using their principal asset, cattle. To an extent we succeeded, because thousands of small cattle owners are now rearing their cows for market,” says Thwala. “Not all cows are slaughtered for the family or cultural occasions anymore.”

Adds Mkhonta: “They [peasant farmers] must take the abattoir seriously as a way to raise cash for their families.”

Accordingly, the ministry of agriculture has been sending officials throughout the country to preach the gospel of cattle commercialisation.

Farmers are advised to harvest manure to sell as natural fertiliser, sell healthy cattle in their prime, breed different and more profitable types of cows—and sell milk to meet local demand. In a great irony, the inhabitants of this nation of cattle devotees get their milk primarily from neighbouring South Africa.

However, government efforts to make Swazis’ relationship with their cattle deliver a bigger payoff are running into difficulties on the environmental front.

The Swaziland Environmental Authority puts the present cattle population at 800 000—even through the land can only support 600 000.

“We are seeing the results in soil degradation, hill erosion and desertification,” the agency adds. “There are too many cows for pasture land to handle.”

The poor quality of the grass found in about a third of the country—an area that also suffers from drought—poses further problems for farmers, contributing to the emaciation of thousands of cattle. When their owners cannot get a good price from butchers for spindly cows, many lose faith in the viability of commercial cattle ventures.

Thwala admits that in some cases, cattle farming will not enable peasant farmers to get on a firmer economic footing. Two-thirds of Swazis are said to live below the poverty line.

“Raising cattle when you know they will starve is a form of animal cruelty. Fortunately, Swazis care enough about their cattle [so] they don’t want that to happen. We are detecting changing attitudes,” he notes.

And on the cultural front, the notion of lobola is also being re-examined—even by enthusiastic supporters of the practice. Dlamini acknowledges that there are more ways than one of viewing lobola, given that there is no economic basis for it any more.

“At one time it made sense: when you took a woman from her parent’s farm, you took a worker ... Her contribution was valuable. The farm economy suffered [and] they deserved compensation,” he notes.

But, “That is in the past. Today, families can benefit when a daughter is wed. It’s one less mouth to feed.”—IPS

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