Cattle: A custodial heritage of Zimbabwe – Part One


MOST indigenous young men have at one stage or another herded cattle (kufudza mombe tiri vadiki).
The more artistic of us made hand-moulded clay cows and bulls with humps on their backs replicated from the breeds we kept.
This close affiliation with cattle was due to the fact that: ‘Mombe ndopfuma huru yevanhu vanorarama mumaDzimbahwe’.
Cattle are considered the most treasured form of wealth and heritage in traditional Zimbabwean societies.
According to history, between 10000 and 8000 BC, indigenous African people were cultivating edible grains and raising sheep and cattle — an early indigenous pastoralism that not only shaped the continent’s economic development, but the world.
The indigenous tribes that came to inhabit the east, central and southern parts of the African continent were some of the same people who migrated down from North Africa, bringing their knowledge of agriculture, animal husbandry, grains and cattle with them.
This migratory movement began from as early as the 1st Millennium BC, and was a critical development for African people and their settling on the continent.
All cattle populations with large distinctive thoracic humps were called ‘Zebus’, while those with small cervico-thoracic humps (chityu) were the ‘Songa’ cattle, which are typical indigenous Zimbabwean Shona breeds.
Good pastures of sweet savannah grasses of the lowveld facilitated the cultivation of crops and livestock breeding, thus making permanent settlements possible.
Agriculture and animal husbandry sustained the larger communities that established the Munhumutapa Empires at Great Zimbabwe as one of Africa’s largest cattle economies during the 11th to 15th centuries.
Extensive overseas trade with nations as far away as China, India, Persia and Arab were developed through trading in domesticated beef (rather than game meat), iron, ivory, copper and gold, for which they exchanged beads, cloth, porcelain and pots.
At the Hill Midden, on the southern slope of the Zimbabwe Hill and the Acropolis of Great Zimbabwe, archaeological bone remains of cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo dated from circa 1400-1450 reveal a sophisticated culture of animal husbandry of which cattle were the most important.
Archaeological bone analyses from refuse heaps excavated at Nemanwa Hill on the northern edge at Great Zimbabwe, indicates what appears to be wholesale slaughtering of young beasts; an exceptionally high proportion of young bovid (cattle) remains were also revealed during excavations undertaken on faunal remains at the ancient sites of Khami, Mapungubwe, Harleigh Farm monuments, Manyekweni, Leopards Kopje and Ruwanga monuments; revealing the same ethno-veterinary practice of selection for slaughter.
It was hypothesised this unique pattern of slaughter was the result of selecting young male bulls for the king’s homage and to maintain herd size in order to prevent overgrazing.
Large indigenous herds of cattle were known to be kept by the people of maDzimbahwe; cattle, being one of the mainstays of the empire’s civilisation that accounted for 81 percent of the total domestic stock of Songa, Zebu Nguni (also known as Nkone or Ngone); Tuli and Afrikander cattle breeds kept at maDzimbahwe that included elephants, buffalo and zebras.
The Afrikander cattle breed is currently a notable South African breed, though it is assumed to be a descendant of the indigenous cattle kept by the Hottentot/Khoisan and likely has some of its lineage from the Zimbabwean bovine.
The large-framed, highly prized Afrikander breed was only developed into a registered commercial breed over the past 90 years and is now widely distributed within southern Africa.
They were the predominant breed of the commercial beef herd in Zimbabwe in the first half of the 20th Century.
The true Zebus are still found in East Africa, mainly Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Sudan and Tanzania, where they are presented as the Masai Cattle.
The Tuli breed is well suited to the warmer, low-lying areas of Zimbabwe where it occurs mainly around the Tuli and Plumtree areas in the south-western parts of the country, spilling over into Botswana where they are known as ‘AmaTuli’.
Most Tuli animals are polled, with distinctly red coats; but overtime herds of golden-brown animals have been obtained through a process of breed selection which began prior to colonisation that was observed and followed by colonial veterinarians, who subsequently crossed this breed with other indigenous breeds.
The meat is highly regarded for its rich taste and ease of preservation.
Nguni cattle with their distinctive lyre-shaped horns pointing upwards and curved slightly forwards, a small to medium size indigenous Zimbabwean breed suited to the warmer low-lying areas of the country, hence the breed is more prevalent in the south-western parts of the country, north of the Limpopo and along the boundary with Mozambique.
The Nguni cattle originated in Swaziland and Zululand and were brought up to Zimbabwe by King Mzilikazi and his warriors during their northward migrations and notorious cattle raids conducted during the first half of the 19th Century.
The short, fine, glossy coat of the Nguni breed is usually dark in colour and comes in a wide variety of dappled colours.
The bulls have large humps, the horns are shorter, stouter and crescent-shaped; they are commonly polled, with the poll being clean and pointed.
The breed commonly referred to as the (ma)Shona cattle breed was originally developed from the humped Songa breed that originated in north-east Africa.
The breed followed the human migration pattern southwards, together with the indigenous Africanus dog to help them herd their cattle.
This small hardy breed of cattle has been kept for generations by the local Shona people living on the high central plateau — their terrigenous habitat.
The indigenous (ma)Shona/Shona cattle breed has a comparatively small, compact body with fine, strong bones.
With their short, glossy coat and a distinctly long tail (reaching almost to the ground), it is suited to the cooler high central plateau areas, is widely distributed throughout Mashonaland and also occurs in parts of northern and eastern Matabeleland.
Most (ma)Shona/Shona are black in colour, which are preferred for their spiritual significance in traditional Shona ritual life.
Culturally, the tail of a black bull (muswe wehandira/kunzi nhema), is often given to a chief who uses it as a heraldic symbol of his status, a fly whisk, a ceremonial socio-religious object and an ancestral heirloom, which in Zimbabwean lore is also a symbol of authority and fertility.
The (ma)Shona/Shona breed, was allegedly ‘saved from extinction’ by two settler-farmers, namely F.B. Willoughby and E.A.B. McCloud, who established breeding herds during the 1940s up to 1951; disregarding that it was a time when the wholesale confiscation of Shona cattle began.
The two men initiated a breed society, specifically for the (ma)Shona/Shona cattle – the original indigenous Songa breed.
The Government of the time also aided in the improvement of this breed, particularly at the Makoholi Experiment Station.
The cows were crossed with the Hereford breed, with the full effects of heterosis being obtained in the first filial generation.
Ethno-geographical terrain assists in defining the indigenous cattle breeds.
This can be attributed to the specific group of people who had what is now called indigenous suis generis, ownership rights over their particular strain of cattle, such as the Shona of Zimbabwe.
Each breed became suitably endemic to their particular region.
Most indigenous breeds are particularly well-adapted to warm climatic conditions and have a high tolerance to heat and a natural resistance to local diseases, including tick-born ailments and worm infestations, which, aided by traditional pharmacology, gave them many advantages over the exotic colonially-imported breeds.
Due mainly to its favourable climatic conditions and suitable grazing lands, Zimbabwe had one of the most diverse breeds of indigenous cattle in sub-Saharan Africa; evidenced in our time-worn Shona traditions and heritage of animal husbandry.
Some of the oldest breeds of bovine form part of our archaeological and animal husbandry records and are represented on the walls of many ancient caves.
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, practicing 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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