Cattle: A custodial heritage of Zimbabwe: Part Four……of colonial diseases and African prophecies


ALBEIT the frequent Ndebele predatory raids on Shona cattle that yielded thousands of cattle for themselves, the Ndebele were generally apathetic to land cultivation.
Their raiding ceased to be a threat only after their defeat in 1893 by the British colonial forces. The halcyon days for man and beast ended with the arrival of the Pioneer Column to this country together with imported diseases that had hitherto been unknown, even though the first white farmers had immigrated from South Africa and the UK during the late 19th Century; less than 100 years after the Ndebele invasions of the early 19th Century.
African traditional norms placed a great deal of value on the environment and animal species.
Their cultural knowledge of the environment and agricultural skills ensured the control of diseases and guaranteed food security.
The spread of diseases was reasonably under control prior to colonialism.
Early contact with European hunters, traders and missionaries introduced diseases that devastated indigenous African cattle and communities.
As more autonomous indigenous realms were colonised towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, many African states began to experience an increase in diseases and famine for which from time immemorial the indigenous people of Africa and Zimbabwe had developed natural cures.
One of the factors that ignited the Second Matabele Uprising/First Chimurenga War in 1894/96 was that the arrival of the settlers in the 1890s corresponded with a severe drought and an outbreak of rinderpest, viewed as a very ominous sign, that was transmitted by them via their trek oxen and horses hauling their wagons from the South African hinterland into Zimbabwe.
Thus, as the fighting between the belligerents raged on, the forces of nature and man unleashed numerous diseases that spread through the whole territory until almost the entire region became tainted; poisoning land, water and air.
In their misguided attempts to stop its spread, the colonists pre-emptively slaughtered thousands of cattle, whether imported or indigenous, as part of the campaign against East Coast fever, to prevent its spread; thus devastating the indigenous Shona economy.
The loss of their cattle deprived many indigenous people of Africa not only of the means of cultivation and a source of food, but also empowerment, pride, social standing, income as well as security.
Many African men were forced to leave their home communities to work on white farms, mines and in towns as chibharo – cheap labour, which accelerated the process of economic decline and social fragmentation of African rural pastoral society.
It was during this time that the spirit medium of Sekuru Kaguvi was severely beaten publicly, humiliated and belittled by the notorious Native Commissioner, Henry Hawkins Pollard, for failing to report a rinderpest outbreak in his dunhu, region.
The national matriarchal medium Mbuya Nehanda Nyakasikana is reputed to have said: “For what he has done, he deserves to die.”
Her remark has often been misinterpreted to say that she ordered the much despised Mazowe Native Commissioner Pollard killed; words for which she, Sekuru Kaguvi and others were callously hanged on April 27 1898.
Thus their deaths precipitated the Shona’s participation in the Second Uprising/the First Chimurenga.
An outbreak of East Coast fever, (earlier predicted by the M’limo, Chaminuka and Nehanda), manifested in 1902 and spread from colonially-imported cattle via the East Coast of Tanzania including trypanosomiasis, a sleeping sickness caused by the tsetse fly; a blight on both man and their cattle, that traditional Shona pharmacology failed to cure.
More than 200 000 people died of sleeping sickness around the Lake Victoria area in Uganda, which then it spread to the Congo, to Lake Tanganyika and eventually Zambia and Zimbabwe with disastrous consequences for large populations.
That same year witnessed an outbreak of rabies among domestic dogs.
Dr Andrew Fleming requested the assistance of Louis Pasteur’s Institute in Paris who subsequently sent his nephew, Dr A. Loir to help combat the outbreak.
By the end of the 19th Century, the East Coast fever virus, initially discovered in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) in 1897 by bacteriologist Dr Robert Koch, spread to Mozambique in 1900 through infected cattle transported by ship from Tanganyika to the ports of Beira and Delagoa Bay by the colonialists at the instruction of Rhodes, believing East African and Zimbabwean terrain would be amenable to cattle.
By October 1901, the disease spread into imperial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), with the first outbreak in the Eastern Highlands town of Umtali (Mutare).
Beginning 1904, Theileriosis East Coast fever (named after bacteriologist Arnold Theiler), and also known as ‘corridor disease’, had spread to Natal from the Transvaal and other areas.
It extended insidiously throughout the southern African regions, devastating vast numbers of cattle herds.
The spread of the disease can be attributed to the Australian cattle imported by Rhodes for re-stocking purposes in the newly founded colony following the killing and looting of African livestock during the Second Matabele/First Chimurenga War.
Similarities between East Coast fever and redwater or Texas fever, made it difficult to diagnose leading to its incorrect identification, which contributed to delays in its control and rampant spread.
Prior to the arrival of German settlers in what became German East Africa (Tanganyika, now Tanzania), East Coast fever was endemic in Tanganyika where it existed but was contained from spreading through the burning of trees and clearing of long grass by the indigenous people who knew grass to be the breeding ground for ticks, the carriers of a number of indigenous cattle diseases, including East Coast fever.
After the establishment of a German colonial administration in Tanganyika, this method of forest management was no longer permissible and East Coast fever became a rampant infectious disease.
In his greed and folly, Rhodes did not realise that the imported cattle would have no resistance to the African conditions.
Some of the cattle died of babesiosis (redwater) disease and anaplasmosis (gall sickness).
By introducing these cattle that had been lying in transit in East Africa, he was accordingly responsible for introducing East Coast fever into the country.
Redwater disease first appeared in Natal in 1870-1871.
According to a report: “The disease … redwater … conveyed by ticks rapidly killed, not single animals, but whole herds at a time”. By the mid-1890s, the disease had also decimated Chief Hwange’s entire herds; his total assets and security, that contributed to his subsistence, nutrition, income generation, social and cultural functions.
Shortly after the arrival of the Australian cattle, ordered by Rhodes, the local cattle began dying.
Their death did not attract the colonialist’s attention at the time; and instead they attributed the death of indigenous cattle to redwater disease and gall sickness.
By the end of 1902, again as had been predicted by Chaminuka and the Mlimo, the disease had been carried far and wide throughout the territory and had become established in most districts of east, west, southern and central provinces of the then imperial colonies of Rhodesia with parts of Zambia, Bechuanaland (Botswana), Portuguese West Africa (Angola), Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique) and southern Africa, causing a mortality of 95 percent of the herds.
The disease somehow escaped the more northern parts of the territory where the Zambezi River created a natural barrier for cattle from the rinderpest epidemic that devastated herds in the greater part of central and southern Africa.
An outbreak of the contagious bovine pleuro-pneumonia occurred in the Marondera, Mberengwa and Plumtree areas of the country in 1902.
It took two years, until 1904, for Zimbabwe to be cleared of the disease.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher.
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