Nguni Cattle

Ark of taste
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Nguni Cattle

The Nguni can be classified as a Sanga-type of cattle breed, of the species Bos Indicus. Nguni people and their livestock migrated from North, Central and East Africa, crossing the Zambezi river between 590 and 700 AD. In the process, they had to adapt to the environmental extremes of Southern, Central and Eastern Africa. The Nguni cattle breed has, over centuries, survived seasonal and periodic droughts, thusly developing into a very hardy breed.

The Nguni is a small to medium framed animal with a wide range of colors. There are different ecotypes, which developed in different ecological regions. They are predominantly horned, but can also be found as naturally polled. The coat is short, fine and glossy (oily) and the hide is pigmented. They are docile but alert with very good mothering ability. Their gentle temperament ensures ease of handling. Ngunis are highly fertile with a long productive life. They are more resistant to ticks (and the diseases carried by ticks) than other breeds.

The Nguni breed is important to protect as it plays an essential economic, social, cultural and spiritual role in Zulu Societies. Cows are central to Zulu communities, as physically expressed in the organization of the traditional Zulu homestead, where the cattle shed is at the center and usually all doors face it. It is also a strong element in cementing the kinship that is so important in Zulu life, as shown by the tradition of “lobola”, a kind of “transaction” which can for example, for weddings, be a gift of cattle from a groom’s family to that of his bride. Going further back in time, Nguni hides were used during the 19th century by Zulu warriors to make shields. Each regiment had a particular skin pattern to identify its members. Black in a shield signifies youth, white age and experience, and red could only be used for married or mixed regiments. The pure white cow was usually reserved for the royal herd.

The Zulu people have their own unique system of classification of their cattle. Animals with specific colors and patterns on their hides are given unique Zulu names, which are meant to link the shapes and colors of the cattle with images in nature. This can result in very poetic names, as described and researched in The Abundant Herds: A Celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People (Poland, Hammond-Tooke, Voigt, 2003). Some examples of names include “The gaps between the branches of the trees silhouetted against the sky” for a deeply dappled animal, or "The hornbill takes to flight" for a dark beast which shows a flash of white beneath its flank when its walks.

It is important to protect the Nguni cattle not only for it’s cultural value, but as a breed that is much more sustainable in the South African environment opposed to feed lot cattle breeds of the important European species, which require large antibiotic inputs in order to survive in an environment to which they have not adapted. Nguni meat is of exceptional quality, generally tender with creamy yellow marbling. The fat is mostly concentrated around the surface of the carcass, thus making the meat very lean. Although the Nguni is not recognized as a milk breed, the milk is also of high quality.

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Breeds and animal husbandry

Indigenous community:Zulu, Xhosa
Nominated by:Melissa de Billot