Cattle: A custodial heritage of Zimbabwe – Part Two


FROM time immemorial, cattle were associated with sacredness; cattle enclosures were considered to have sacred connotations in most indigenous societies in Zimbabwe; among Korekore, Zezuru, Songwe, Tonga and various other groups.
Cattle were venerated in Shona culture and used as a vehicle to propitiate the spirits.
In bygone years, the cattle pen was constructed in the centre of the homestead with the human abodes surrounding it for protection.
Cattle wealth played a pivotal role that cannot be underestimated; though the religious and social functions of cattle are often more significant than economic functions.
Cattle represented a desideratum of value; they embodied the most valued and prized possession for the indigenous people of Zimbabwe as tangible ancestral wealth.
An individual’s status in one’s community and immediate society was enhanced by the number of cattle one owned.
Pfuma, the Shona term for livestock, shares a common root with upfumi – the word for wealth; thus cattle have traditionally been seen as important keepers of material riches; unless a cattle-owner had other pressing needs, they were kept as assets against future needs; preferring to keep his cattle as a show of wealth, for ploughing or for paying lobola (bride price).
In post-colonial times, cattle were sold to gain cash to finance an increasing number of other needs being progressively stimulated by the impact of Western economic, technological and cultural influences, including obligations such as hut tax, dipping fees and much later, school fees.
Thus cattle developed into a more important form of long-term investment; even Western-cultured urban Africans still regard their cattle highly as an investment today!
Indigenous Zimbabwean cattle-owners realised from inherent traditional economic knowledge systems that cattle provided a much higher rate of return than any interest obtainable through the Occidental banking system; short-term commercial considerations often militated against immediate sales for indigenous people.
Women who had many daughters were the recipients of ‘mombe yehumai’ – the maternal cow, and they too, kept large herds of cattle.
Due to the fact that the mother-in-law’s cattle pen was sacrosanct and reserved solely for breeding and inheritance purposes for her vazukuru – progenies, women in fact, owned the larger share of cattle in most Zimbabwean rural homesteads.
The cattle pen was a mother’s pride and joy and proof of the fulfilment of her role as a mother in society.
Hence, unlike many patriarchal African societies, Zimbabwean traditions ensured a balance of wealth, respect, ritual and ceremony via an equitable gender-balanced distribution of wealth, in the form of cattle: Mombe dzakazara mumatanga dzakawanda mumamisha ndedzaanamai.
In keeping with Shona marriage rites and protocol of ‘lobola/roora’ (dowry), most indigenous pens in the villages contain cattle that belong exclusively to mothers and women folk.
In the Zimbabwean alpha-traditional culture, where societies remained in close contact with central departed family spirits, cattle have various cultural socio-religious roles in society.
Cattle are believed to be hosts to the ancestral spirits (Mombe dzevadzimu) – and a vehicle of the ancestral spirit, for which a bull was selected and ritually consecrated during a special ceremony.
In addition, ‘Handira yemumusha’– the ancestral village bull, was kept by the chief as a host for the tribal spirit.
Cattle were an important source of meat necessary for most traditional ceremonies that were held for such purposes as thanking the ancestral spirits (kutenda vadzimu), atonement to the spirits for some misdemeanour by members of a family (kuripa mhosva), and for posthumous canonisation ceremonies (kurova guva), held in commemoration of a deceased person a year after death.
At most indigenous ceremonies, beer was brewed and cattle were slaughtered; the meat was used to feed the gathering.
The cultural procedure of lobola (bride price), is consummated through the payment of cattle or most recently, a monetary equivalent.
A heifer that has not yet produced an offspring (tsiru) is presented to the mother-in-law as ‘mombe yehumai’, as a symbol and token of motherhood. Cattle were presented to a bride’s family before a marriage could be sanctified.
A man had to have, or be provided with cattle, by his parents for the cultural procedure of roora to take place.
The family of a prospective bridegroom was required to produce and deliver a given number of cattle (usually not less than 10 herd of cattle), that were devolved to a bride’s family as lobola to seal the new relationship between the two families.
Of special significance among the cattle delivered to the bride’s family are un-gelded bulls for the father-in-law and a heifer for the mother-in-law.
Bulls were not merely required as draught power for ploughing but also for pulling farm carts, hauling produce, for providing ‘amasi’ (milk), important for children’s nutrition and mupfudze (cattle manure) used to maintain soil fertility. Indigenous people were known to castrate their bulls to make them amenable to the plough – known as ‘dhonza/jongosi’.
In indigenous societies, cattle and their productive functions assumed greater importance with the passage of time.
Traditionally, within the African economy and Zimbabwean traditional culture, cattle were both capital and currency, customarily used as a ‘general purpose exchange’; as restitution fines for serious social or cultural offences against ancestral spirits, one’s environment, for torts and for offences committed against the common weal, all were paid for in the form of cattle.
This practice continued covertly after the settler-Government stripped away the African chiefs’ judicial powers.
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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