Nguni cattle and Zulu culture

 
 

 

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Culture is fluid - it changes over time - and the Zulu people of 100 years ago do not live as Zulu people do today.  However, many of the customs, traditions, myths, legends and beliefs surrounding cattle remain the same.

Cattle remain central in traditional Zulu life.  They make up the lobola, a gift of cattle from a groom's family to that of his bride.  Lobola is more than a bride price, it is the way of cementing the kinship relationships that are so important in Zulu life.  The cattle form part of the negotiation and ceremony that result in the marriage.

In a traditional Zulu homestead the cattle byre is the centre.  All doors often face the byre where the cattle spend every evening.  This close association as resulted in a rich legacy of cattle metaphor and simile in Zulu language.

It is said that "Inkunzi ayahlaba ngokumisa" or, loosely translated, one should not judge a bull by his horns.

Cattle are also seen as the intermediary between people and the spirit world.  A beast is slaughtered at weddings, funerals and other significant events and this is said to bring the ancestral shades closer to the living.

Hides and shields

The famous many-coloured shields of 19th century Zulu warriors were made of Nguni hides.  Each regiment had a particular skin pattern to identify its members.  Black in a shield signifies youth, white age and experience, and red could only be used for married or mixed regiments.

nguni skin patterns

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