Nguni: Living Works of Art

27 April 2019



Cattle are ancient, magical, living works of art.  Antjie Krog in her book Change of Tongue writes: “In Setswana, cattle are known as modimo o nko e metsi – god-with-the-wet-nose…. On Saturday I spent the afternoon with the kids among one of the greatest Nguni herds on earth, at Eastwick Stud Farm of Etienne Lötter, managed by Thys Koen.  I have been reading about their origins and followed their ancient migration routes into West and Southern Africa.

Here I will look at what it takes to breed great cattle but they are more than just a technical consideration. A poem is, therefore, a great first look at them.


Nguni Herds

Margaret Epstein
Translated from the Afrikaans by the poet

Nguni herds
shift silently as spirits
Across the face of the earth.

Back and back they go,
generation upon generation
through Africa’s history,
forming a bond between man and beast.
Reckoned in honour,
pride and wealth.

To reflect an eternal
forming and dissolving pattern
of shadows and sunlight,
mud, pebbles, rocks
and grains of sand.

In the silence of heat,
under thorn tree branches,
alongside pools of water and cliffs,
across centuries
the sound of bellows,
the blowing of cattle breath
and voices calling,
echo through a haze of dust.

Spoor of cattle and men
lie stretched out over plains
and mountains.
Their marked skins and graves,
eternal signs of temporary ownership,
are alone and deserted,
lost, disintegrated in the veld,

Now we stand
in this time and place,
to admire Nguni cattle, their distant past,
innocence and patience,
patterns of spots, horns, blemishes
and intimate family conversations.

Remember the old links,
but loosen the bridle
of today’s constraints.
Free your thoughts to wander with us,
to dream.


IMG-1849 (1)



Photos by © Eben, Tristan and Lauren van Tonder
Poem Nguni herds  © Margaret Epstein
From the anthology Africa! My Africa!
ISBN 978-1-874915-20-1

Further Reading – Nguni – its origins

New perspective on the origin of Nguni cattle

DNA markers reveal the complexity of livestock domestication

Domesticating Animals in Africa – Implications of Genetic and Archaeological Findings