The Rich History behind Zulucow’s Nguni Cowhide Rugs
“Nguni! Nguni!” exclaimed the security guard at the airport scanner in Johannesburg as he took my Zulucow handbag out of the tray and started to pose with it! Wherever I went in South Africa, Zulus admired my ZC cowhide bag , ZC belt and Nguni cowhide rugs. The scanner man explained that he had an ‘ibheshu’ (traditional ‘apron’ made from Nguni cowhide to cover mens’ buttocks and worn for ancestral ceremonies, weddings and important Zulu occasions. (See picture below.)
Zulu herdsman in traditional attire; wearing his Nguni cowhide ‘ibheshu’
It’s no surprise that the Nguni belts and bags I wear on trips back to South Africa create such a stir. The beautiful, indigenous, Nguni cattle have been integral to Zulu culture for centuries. They are bred primarily for their meat, but also for their stunning hides, which were, and are still to this day, used for ceremonial clothing; for making their shields and as Nguni cowhide rugs (All Zulucow’s cowhides are sustainably sourced by-products. Nothing goes to waste in Africa. ) Not only are the Nguni cattle interwoven into the lives of the Zulus, past and present; on a political, social, economic and spiritual level, but they also play a role in the linguistic tradition of the Zulus.
Indeed, the Zulus have evolved a poetic naming practice for their cattle. They name the various Nguni cowhides according to the way in which they reflect aspects of the natural world around them.
The names the Zulus give to the different hides are inspired by the imagery of birds, animals and plants in rural South Africa. Here are some examples of the hides Zulucow sells, together with their Zulu names:
The Zulus call this creamy hide spotted with fine rust speckles: “Imaqandakahuye” (The Eggs of the Lark)
They call a predominantly white coat with flecks of black: “Imasenezimpukane” (The flies in the butter milk)
The Zulus name this hide below: “Izikhalazemithi” (Gaps between the branches of the trees.)
The Zulus call a grey beast tending to white and resembling an old grey-haired person: “Engabantubeguile” (Like old people.)
Even horn shapes determine names like: “Bafazibaphikicala” (The women dispute the court case.) This is where the cattle’s horns resemble the woman’s hands, thrown up in despair.)
Marguerite Poland and David Hammond-Tooke explain more in their excellent book: ‘The Abundant Herds. A Celebration Of The Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People.’ “Cattle imagery also abounds in Zulu oral history, poetry and in tales….The fascinating system of classification reflects the richness of Zulu linguistic versatility and the creative imagination of the Zulu people… where the colour and pattern of a hide is linked to images in nature.” Leigh Voigt’s pictures in the book, illustrate this theme beautifully.
So as well as being visually eye-catching; all our ethically and sustainably-sourced Nguni cowhides at Zulucow, have a rich cultural history too, which makes them unique and very special investment pieces. And, lets not forget, that to this day they are still economically important to the Zulus; as (through the tanning of the hides and the crafting by hand, of our cowhide cushions, bag, and belts; the Nguni are are creating essential jobs in a poor rural area in South Africa.
Many thanks for your support, your purchases and for joining the Zulucow journey!
Hamba Kahle, Lucy x