Known by name

As the autumn morning mist lifts over the Valley, it unveils a herd of Nguni Cattle grazing on the still green grass overlooking the school. On my morning walk to work still clutching my half drunk cup of coffee, I can often glimpse these animals dotted on the hillside, bright against the grasslands.

These extraordinary cattle are a part of the land management programme of the school’s ‘Nature Reserve’. The reserve is a section of the school property, dedicated to keeping part of the estate as a grassland habitat and as a safe place for the small and rare Oribi antelope.

As many people know one of the features of these cattle are their hide markings, which are uniquely specific to each cow. It is these incredible and quite beautiful markings that have made Nguni hides something of a sought after commodity both at home and abroad. Here Hwaqahwaqa, pictured below, roams the reserve. Her name means a mottled object or overcast skies.


What is particularly striking to me is the way that these cattle have been managed by indigenous people over the centuries. Because each cow is marked so uniquely it is possible to identify each one in the herd on sight by its hide. This has allowed and encouraged an individual naming process where each member of the herd is quite literally known by name.

Naming the cattle is a vital part of the management and care of the herd. To know each beast by name enables the Zulu people to tend the herd in a uniquely diligent way. Each animal is individually named with a term that describes in detail the markings and often something of their character as well. Naturally this aids with communication regarding the herd as information about each animal can be passed on without confusion. Indeed even members of the community who are not familiar with the herd are able to pick out an animal due to this descriptive naming process.

One of my favourite examples is that of Abafazibewela. The literal meaning of this name is the woman lifts her skirts to cross the river and this describes the creature above clearly and, at the same time, poetically. The name creates an image that is easy to remember; an immediate visual picture.


As I continue my walk to school the bell rings scattering my thoughts and causing me to quicken my pace. My attention turns to the daily management of a quite different breed, a herd of teenage boys, a significant portion of which are headed to my classroom. Jostling and pushing, each one of these individuals enters my classroom with a unique identity. He comes to my lesson with his own set of abilities, needs, fears and problems. The bell rings again for the start of the lesson and I am grateful for that cup of coffee.

There are certain parallels that we can draw from the Nguni naming process to the school and educational environment. Simply put we should know each boy in our care well enough to ‘name’ him. Naming, in this sense, means to recognize him, to know his habits and character, to anticipate him. For all our students we should know their weaknesses and their strengths so that our care of them is informed and tailored to their needs.

Marguerite Poland in her book ‘The Abundant Herds’ says the following, “Each beast in a herd of Nguni is individual in the combination of its colour pattern, horn shape, gender, status and history. Each occupant of the byre has its story, as does any member of the household, and carries its complex identity in the names and terms that describe its attributes.”

Like those tending these ancient cattle we too should know the stories behind each member of those in our care. We must glean something of their history, their past, a sense of what has gone into them to date. Like the cattle in the byre, they, not our school’s agenda, whether it be academic, sporting, cultural or otherwise, should be central to what we do.

Later that day I struggle to translate this idea into practice, as I meet with a boy whose unique story is hidden behind a mask of disinterest and sometimes anger. His disinterest unsettles me, making me feel irrelevant and out of touch and I am tempted to take him at face value and go and grab some more coffee. However I now know that this anger almost certainly masks many other emotions and I persist through my discomfort and his. Over time I may gain his trust and get to know him in a deeper way. I know that if this happens I am likely to be surprised by the depth of his feeling and just how complex his story is. Such investment of emotional energy and time is seldom wasted.

I know that this boy needs the space and the chance to create a new name for himself. We have to help him in this so that we do not trap him in the history of his current name or reputation. In Zulu culture the skill of naming cattle is a greatly valued one and there is lots of discussion regarding any beast that does not easily fit a category. Great lengths are taken to ensure that the naming process does justice to the individual.

Like the expert herdsmen we should develop a whole vocabulary and language around the care of our students. We should have extensive debate among experts for those that don’t quite fit the system. ‘What fills the heart is also spoken about’ says the Afrikaans proverb. So what is important will influence our language as a culture of community. The Zulu language has twenty different words for spots in order to aid the naming of cattle.

We too easily assume the stereotypical views of male students rather than seeing who they really are. As Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon suggest in ‘Raising Cain’, not every boy wants to be like Mike. “Some want to be like Will (Shakespeare); others yearn to be like Bill (Gates) or Al (Einstein); while still others want to be like Walt (Whitman).”

In my final session of the day my thoughts are already turning to home as I work with a boy on the problematic issue of his future after school. The effect of my morning coffee has long since waned and I am battling to concentrate. Nevertheless I am required to make myself present. I have to encourage this young man to name those parts of his self that could be viewed as strength or a talent. This is something that by himself he is perhaps unable to do. Some progress is made but we are both tired and it may be some time before he is ready to make any decisions.


As I walk home I notice the cattle are no longer in view and I end my day on my veranda as the sun sets and the first stars begin to shine. In just a short time, out here in the KwaZulu-Natal country side, the night sky will be ablaze with stars. I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist “He determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” If we can know our students in this way, then they too, in their time, stand a chance to shine.


  1. Thought-provoking article. It is so easy to put people into boxes and assign labels, whereas we should see each person as an individual and take time to know them: where they come from, what drives them, what they want from life, etc
    Energy and effort invested in another human being seldom go unrewarded


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