Searching for a Cowhide Rug? The 5 elements which set an Nguni apart
People are often struck by the quality and beautiful patterns of Nguni cowhide rugs and their extraordinary symmetry, and often ask me why they’re so different to other hides on the market, and where do they come from?
1. The provenance of Nguni cowhides
All my Nguni cowhide rugs, (bags, belts and cushions) are sustainably sourced from the indigenous Nguni cows of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Nguni are hardy cattle and primarily bred for their meat and instead of going to waste, the Zulus have always used their hides for essential clothing, rugs, matts, shields and battle skins.) Most of the other cowhide rugs on the market come from huge ranches in Brazil, eg. Citycows; John Lewis, or Argentina and France eg: Amara Some are sourced in England: The English Cowhide Company
2. Creating sustainable jobs in a country of huge unemployment.
The tanning and trimming of my Nguni hides (and the handcrafting of my other Nguni accessories) is creating sustainable jobs and much needed income in a country suffering from crippling unemployment and few job opportunities. The official unemployment figure for South Africa is 26% but it is much higher in rural areas, (up to 70%. The statistics don’t take into account those who have given up looking for jobs.) Sadly most of the unemployed are under 25 years old.
3. The unique, multicoloured, patterns and colourings of Nguni hides have been carefully bred into the cattle over centuries by the Zulus, often for shields.
King Shaka of the Zulus (reign: 1816-1828) bred specific colour patterns into his Nguni herds in order to produce skins for the many regiments of his army and to denote rank. His elite personal guard was recognised by the pure white cowhides they wore, from the Nguni royal herd, ‘the inyonikayiphumuli’.
Whereas the more common black and white Nguni cowhides were worn by lesser Zulu warriors. This would help in battle, to identify who was in command, in the confusion of fighting. I still don’t know how (much more research required!) but Shaka’s famously bellicose Zulus bred symmetrical patterns into the Nguni hides especially for their shields which were vital in battles.
4. The Nguni are so gorgeous that the Zulus have developed a poetic naming practice for their hides
They have named the various Nguni cowhides and markings according to the way in which they reflect aspects of the natural world around them, inspired by the imagery of the birds, animals and plants in the natural world surrounding them. For example:
Ihunqukazi (Puffadder) is a hide with a black, red or brown brindled hide resembling a puffadder.
Imaqandakahuye – a hide which resembles the Eggs of the skylark
ImatshoNgoye –a hide which resembles the stones of the Ngoye forest. (A lot more on the naming of hides in future posts)
Indeed Nguni hides are so beautiful and unusual that a large coffee table book: ‘The Abundant Herds. A Celebration of The Nguni Cattle of the Zulu People’ by Marguerite Poland and David Hammond- Tooke, has been written about the Nguni cattle and dedicated to: “The creative genius of the Zulu people.”
It examines the vital role played by cattle and cattle-related imagery in the oral tradition of the Zulu people.“Cattle have become a part of the spiritual and aesthetic lives of the people, which has given rise to a poetic and complex naming practice.” (Poland and Hammond- Tooke)
5. Nguni hides are steeped in the political and economic history of the Zulus
King Shaka Zulu understood the political and economic importance of the Nguni cattle, when in forming his powerful Zulu empire in 1818, he seized control of the Nguni herds of his dominions. Not only are they interwoven in the lives of the Zulus, past and present, on a political, social, economic and spiritual level. Nguni are also important for a bride’s ‘lobolo’ (dowry – the exchange of cattle for wives.) Nguni cattle are also so valued, that in traditional Zulu ‘Kraals’ (homesteads) the cattle byre is always at the centre, so the Zulus can protect their valuable stock from marauding lions and other predators.)
OVER TO YOU! Do you have an Nguni hide or perhaps you’ve met Zulus, or seen their wonderful cowhides out in SA? Or maybe you’re South African and you know all about their fabulous quality and gorgeous colourings and patterns? Do they remind you of home or a South African holiday? I’d love to hear your stories. Please do comment below.
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