Thursday, March 8, 2012


I’ve never been into cows.  They’re stupid and often wander onto the road at night.  And also in the day.

I can remember when I was a kid, we were returning from our annual holiday at Umkomaas, a sleepy coastal town, on the Indian Ocean.  The traffic was heavy, and we were probably going at barely more than a walking pace.  A herd of cows was ambling alongside the main road from Durban to Johannesburg, when one turned in front of our car.  There was no chance of stopping.  We hit it.  The cow shook its head, spat out a few teeth and some blood, and wandered off.  Our car had the equivalent of thousands of dollars of damage.
Recently I’ve been paying more attention to cows, not only because of my lobola blog here two weeks ago, but also because of a type of cow found in southern Africa, called an Nguni cow.  Not only are they beautiful, but there is a fascinating story about them.
There are two species of cattle in the world: Bos taurus, which include the brown-and-black breeds such as Jersey and Holstein; and Bos indicus, found mainly in India and Africa, which include more unusual creatures such as Zebu, Sanga and Nguni cattle, which typically have enormous horns and magnificent hides.
The Nguni is a hardy breed, well adapted to the vagaries of nature in the areas of Africa where it is found.  It is a good breeder, heat and disease resistant, and an excellent forager, all of which explain its popularity.
However it is the relationship between these cows and the Zulu people that fascinates me.  Nguni cows are an intrinsic part of Zulu culture, playing an important social, spiritual, and even political role.  The oral tradition of the Zulus is rich in references to the Nguni cattle, which pop up in stories, proverbs, and mythology.
What has intrigued me most of all is how this oral tradition has led to the most amazing names that the Zulus have given to the various skins.  isiZulu is a beautiful language, richly onomatopoeic, and very descriptive. Here are some examples of names given to different types of Nguni cows:
imatshoNgoye – the stones of the Ngoye forest

inasenezimbukane – the flies in the buttermilk

inkampu – of cutting in two

inkorno – the beast which is houses

engabantubegulile – like old people

imaqandakahuye – the eggs of the lark

inala – abundance

Other names for which I was not able to find photos are:
The gaps between the branches of the trees silhouetted against the sky – a deeply dappled animal
The hornbill takes to flight – a dark beast that shows a flash of white beneath its flank when it walks
What stabs the rain – the upright points of a young steer’s horns
Needless to say, Nguni skins are now sought after as floor coverings or even wall hangings.  I have to say I prefer seeing an Nguni hide on the floor rather than that of a lion or polar bear - there’s much less ego involved.
So next time you see a cow – any cow – think of a phrase that describes the patterns on its hide – the more descriptive the better!
Stan – Thursday
PS. For a full appreciation of the relationship between the Zulus and the Nguni cattle, you should read The Abundant Herds: A Celebration of the Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People, by Marquerite Poland and David Hammond-Tooke, illustrated by Leigh Voigt.  Fernwood Press
PPS. Saying isiZulu words are difficult to pronounce for Westerners.  The language is pretty phonetic, but there are two important differences:  an 'e' at the end of a word is pronounced.  It sounds like 'eh'.  The 'q' has no equivalent in English.  It is one of several clicks.  You can make the sound by putting the tip of your tongue on the curve of your hard palate and pulling it away quickly.  It should sound somewhat like a champagne cork popping or a cork being pulled out of a wine bottle.  There'll be a test at Bouchercon.


  1. Wonderful, descriptive names. I particularly like the flies in the buttermilk. BTW, not all cows are stupid, just the ones humans have bred to be that way.

  2. I've yet to meet a smart cow! Where can I find one?

  3. Absolutely beautiful. Especially Abundance and The Eggs of the Lark.

    I know what you mean about cows' intelligence. On last year's tour, driving through Kansas and Missouri and Montana and other Cow States, I had ample opportunity to observe them. They all seemed to be standing around, thinking, "There's a cow. There's another cow. That, over there, that's a cow. Sure are a lot of cows. I'll walk four steps over here although there's nothing here. Look, another cow. Whoa, I've got hooves. Maybe . . . Naahhh."

  4. The world of the Internet is amazing. Today I learned about the naming of cattle. How could one slaughter a work of art?

  5. As much as I enjoy your books, I find your posts fascinating. I always thought cows were-well cows :) Again, I am struck by the cultures that seem to live closer the nature and they SEE, and how we don't.

  6. Stan, your photos jolted me back in time. About a dozen years ago Manhattan was invaded by cows. They were everywhere, and each distinctly different from the other

    But yours are flesh and blood, the NYC cows were 500 artistic creations designed to be auctioned off at the end of the summer for the benefit of local charities.

    Frankly, I prefer some of those in your collection to many that occupied New York. I guess that's because the creator of your natural masterpieces has more experience in the craft.

  7. Fabulous! I too will never look at cows the same way.

    Is there one called 'Would look good between a sesame seed bun'?

  8. Yes Dan, there is. It is particularly short and round. But it is called "Would look good between a sesame seed bun" because of the green leaf-like pattern with splotches of red on the hide.