Insight into culture, heritage aspect of cattle in Zim:Part One…’mombe yehumai’ misunderstood

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I recently found myself in a deep vault of male conversation, having an animated discussion with a group of elders regarding mombe yehumayi.
This is a component in the rich fabric of Shona custom — its significance, importance, pros-and-cons as well as the multitude of other questions that arise from the custom which defines and regulates the complex relationships between individual, family, clan, tribe and cattle in Zimbabwe.
The men present were from different regions of the country; Masvingo, Murehwa, Bocha, Kezi, Esigodini, Chiweshe and Rusape.
The conversation showed that the custom is a highly complex one, with considerable variations in its practice throughout Zimbabwe.
In Zimbabwe, where a man and his cattle are not easily separated, it was significant to note that all men taking part in the conversation were in total agreement to the necessity, sacredness and importance of both the beast and the practice of mombe yehumai.
The process, however, differed from place to place due to the fact that the consensus diverged when it came to matters concerning the procedures, breeding and the keeping or custody of mombe yehumayi.
However, all pointed to its importance to the Zimbabwean matrimonial matrix.
The study of cattle distribution throughout Zimbabwe and the tradition of mombe yehumai show how various cattle pens were developed from village homestead level to district, regional and national levels, due to that singular cultural more – mombe yehumayi.
From an eco-cultural point of view, both the long-lasting indigenous cattle breeds such as Mashona and Nguni breeds have come about and endured as a result of the distribution of mombe yehumai which often doubled as seed cattle.
Mombe yehumai is prized and prided for its reproduction and the preservation of the species.
A study of the phenomenon of mombe yehumai gives new insights into the fascinating culture of indigenous Zimbabweans and how the sanctity of marriage was symbolised and preserved in the custom of mombe yehumai.
As a scholar of heritage studies and no stranger to our customs and beliefs, I still found myself asking a myriad of questions.
For instance: What happens to the mombe yehumai in the event of unforeseen eventualities such as divorce or death – who keeps the cow and where is it kept?
What happens to a bride who is an orphan?
Why are there so many repercussions attached to mombe yehumai?
Mudzimu wamai ukadambura mbereko (if maternal spirits let go) it spells disaster in Shona traditional custodial culture and often mombe yehumai would be at the centre of such spiritual debacles.
How does command livestock impact on mombe yehumai?
Has this aspect of our heritage and culture been considered in the Command Livestock Programme of Zimbabwe?
What happens if the cow (mombe yehumai) becomes ill and dies – does the bridegroom have to replace it?
Who pays the veterinary and other associated costs?
As you can see, the questions abound.
Cattle are inexorably bound to the land of Zimbabwe.
The ways of the people are embedded in the various socio-cultural beliefs of which cattle play an important part of our everyday socio-cultural milieu, language and gnosis.
Mombe yehumayi (which literally translated means the cow of motherhood), is an often mis-understood aspect of Zimbabwean culture. Yet a breach of this well-respected, age-old custom was considered so severe that it affected a family generationally.
Ko chii chinombonzi mombe yehumayi? – What is the cow of motherhood?
Zvinoreveyi – What does it mean?
Zvakatanga sei – How did it begin?
Why is it so important, and what role does it play in the matrimonial contract and ceremony?
These are the questions I am often asked.
The cow of motherhood (mombe yehumai) was considered crucial in the reproduction, dispersion and increase of cattle herds throughout the country from the early MaDzimbahwe centuries.
If a precedent of not paying mombe yehumayi was set by one’s grandfather or father, one’s own daughter is said to probably face the same ordeal; meaning that a prospective suitor would not pay mombe yehumai to your wife.
According to some elders, the transgression was generational to the extent that some men have had to trace back in their genealogy to ascertain the original transgressor in order to settle the score and pay the past debt or transgression ‘to maintain peace of mind and avoid mishaps in the family’.
Colonial cattle laws disrupted many African traditional customs; one such law was the movement of cattle from one pen and homestead to another, which, although sanctioned by indigenous chiefs of the various regions, was disallowed by colonial administration and colonial Animal Husbandry Act; since it was said to be the cause of the spread of diseases.
Mombe yehumai has from time immemorial been a critical component of indigenous people’s marriage ritual, especially so among the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
The unwritten, but well acknowledged demand for mombe inotsika – a living, walking cow, in good health — cannot not be substituted by monies, motor vehicles or other Western sundries, in the case of fulfilling ones lobola dues.
The son-in-law and his delegation, in the past, had to look for the cow, preferably in close proximity to the woman’s mothers kraal, hence the saying: Rooranayi vematongo – marry within the same village so that you are assured of marrying someone known to the family, with similar virtues and culture.
Even some European countries have a similar saying: Mariti e buoi dai paesi tuoi – cattle and cows (should come) from your own village say the indigenous Italians.
The tradition of mombe yehumai is said to have begun with the beginning of pastoralism and was spread through the Bantu Migration.
In the traditional culture of animal husbandry, the cow of motherhood was returned if it was infertile.
Kukosheswa kwemombe yehumai kwakabvira riini ?
When did the inviolability and importance attached to mombe yehumai begin?
Imombe yakanyatsoita seyi?
What type of cow is mombe yehumai?
It is a female cow that has not calved, tsivu/tsiru.
The amai in question — the recipient of the cow — is a mother who has given birth to girls who later become brides.
I inquired from four different regions of the country about the protocol and procedures of mombe yehumayi in the event of it dying in transit or falling ill.
The answer was that a special court (dare) is convened to ascertain the cause of death, following which the chief is consulted to make a decision on its replacement or compensation – inotogarwa dare rekubvunza kuti yafa sei?
I asked the panel: If women are the recipients of mombe yehumai, is there such a thing as a women’s cattle kraal and paddock?
This question met with burning answers with most saying no. Yet everyone professed that their grandmothers have cows which the grandchildren (vazukuru) are entitled to ask for when a pressing need arises (mombe dzemadiro).
Other traditionalists were steadfast in saying there is no such thing as mombe dzemadiro.
I asked what if the mother of the bride is a foreign national — not Shona or Ndebele while the father is Zimbabwean — would she still be entitled to receive mombe yehumai?
This time my questions were met with silence.
Perhaps the reader would like to comment on that?
In sum, mombe yehumai is paid by the prospective groom to the mother of his bride-to-be, and is considered important in that it seals the marriage rite.
It is a symbol of a permanent bonding to a bride and her family; a symbol of the mother-in-law’s motherhood in the community; it inculcates respect for the mother-in-law who is the grandmother to one’s lineage.
Mombe yehumai creates a pathway to conversing and discussing common concerns in cattle husbandry.
It is a custom which has stood the test of time – steadfast, despite urbanisation and technological advances — yet not without its controversy.
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. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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