Heirloom chickens: The village teachers

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FREE-RANGE chickens, referred to as ‘bosveldt’ chickens in southern Africa, have become all the rage in organic indigenous restaurants throughout the region.  

In Zimbabwe they are colloquially referred to as ‘road-runners’ and are a drought-tolerant and disease resistant breed of chickens.

Appearing in San archaeozoology and Bantu cave paintings of the Zimbabwean Iron Age, the iconic road-runner has been part of our terrain and culture for over 2 000 years.  

The use of indigenous fowl in the alpha-Shona culture and protocol attest to its sociological functions.

In Shona traditions, it was customary protocol in all rural settings to slaughter a chicken for important visitors arriving from towns and cities or from other distant homesteads – (kutambira vayenzi) – meaning ‘receiving guests’. 

Boiled chicken soup was customarily made to cure many minor illnesses such as high fevers, sore throats and colds, especially for children.

A post-natal mother (mungozva) – was traditionally given high protein meals of sadza-re-rapoko and chicken to boost her health and increase lactation.  

Life expectancy on traditional diets, was high.

In Shona cultural lore a cockerel is viewed as a symbol of authority, defence and proprietary.

This iconic cockerel (Jongwe rechivanhu), has many proverbs attributed to it.  

For example: “Jongwe haritongwe pamusha paro” (a cockerel cannot be ruled in its village).  

Another Shona truism is: “Akamira negumbo rimwe sejongwe” – literally translated means, ‘standing on one leg like a cockerel’, or ‘to be on tenterhooks’; implying to be in a hurry, or to hit the ground running.

The hen, also has numerous sayings attributed to it.  

For example: “Regayi dzive shiri, mazayi haana muto” (Let the egg develop into a chicken, the egg does not have soup) – this means ‘patience pays, invest in the future’.

Traditionally, Zimbabweans inherited a socio-religious dispensation that contributed to a highly civilised, disciplined and productive lifestyle. 

There are many chicken proverbs that inform us about chivanhu, which collectively represent the traditional customs and conventions that inculcate social correctness, cultural ideals and the various protocols of the Shona people.  

The chicken was a symbol of African spirituality in many indigenous rituals.  

For example, a mid-wife (nyamukuta) – was traditionally given a chicken as a token of appreciation for assisting in childbirth.

Similarly, newlyweds were presented with a hen as a wedding token symbolising domesticity, stability and fertility.

Proverbs gleaned from field characteristics of indigenous livestock, such as huku dzechivanhu,were used as a corrective template for social etiquette. 

In fact, chickens can be viewed as one’s first village teacher.

People travelling on long-distance buses often known to transport chickens in a bark and twig coop (chizungu), when travelling have earned the rural buses the moniker, ‘chicken buses’.

Gunyana (September), literally means ‘young fledgling’. 

It is a time when most avian species, including chickens, build their nests in preparation for the forthcoming rains and prepare for nesting.

The free-range indigenous heirloom chicken breed, has survived and sustained itself over many centuries. 

Moreover, due to cross-provincial travel and cross-tribal marriages, today, there are over 15 different known indigenous breeds of Zimbabwe’s key heirloom national heritage.

Most rural households throughout Africa and other countries, keep poultry native to their areas, especially chickens. 

Rearing free-range chickens offers many advantages over running livestock such as cattle or sheep. 

Not much space is needed, marketing is easy due to high consumer demand, birds grow rapidly and far less capital outlay is required.

Nevertheless, chicken rearing does have its challenges.  

The major constraints faced in the production of poultry under rural settings include diseases, poor nutrition and predators. One of the biggest challenges is poultry mites. 

These can become a major problem and cause severe financial loss if left to proliferate.

However, rural farmers are more often than not, savvy of the need to keep their fowls and fowl coops or runs in good health.  Good health management practices, based on indigenous knowledge of ethno-veterinary medicine (EVM), which are often peculiar to certain ethnic groups or areas, is passed on through oral education from older to younger generations where conventional drugs are either unavailable or too expensive for these resource-poor farmers, hence their dependence on ethno-veterinary medicine (EVM). 

Despite its bio-technological hardiness, adaptation and resilience, certain pests, gnats and bugs can torment the indigenous road runners, which are best kept in a well-constructed fowl run.  

Housing of these long-established free-range birds must be kept pest-free and hygienically sound.  

Some traditionalists advise building coops on stilts for the fowl to roost and protect them from predators and pests.

Today, due to the current erratic supply of beef from abattoirs, this once disparaged heirloom chicken breed has re-emerged on our dinner tables as a rich source of protein and unsaturated fats for Zimbabwean consumers and as a possible export potential.  Free-range chickens not only hold the answer to healthy nutrition, but could help alleviate poverty for individuals and communities. 

Dr Tony Monda is Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and scholar. He is a writer, lecturer and a specialist post-colonial scholar, He holds a PhD and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) in Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. For views and comments, email tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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