When moving through a rural landscape, be it the rolling hills of South Africa, the green English midlands, the feed-lots of the American midwest, or the wet rice paddies of South India one is bound to see some cattle grazing. Ruminating on grass or fortified corn-based feed: digesting it, regurgitating it and then digesting it once again. Ever since I met a cow in Southern India in 2005, I have been ruminating too, that is, reflecting on what these particular cows reveal about us.
A cow's fortune is vastly dependent on which field or feed-lot it stands in. In the American feed-lot the cow is bound to a cruel destiny to fuel a demand for unnecessary animal-based food and fashion products. The cow in the English meadow would share a similar fate, although if she is a dairy cow, she will suffer the loss of at least four calves taken away after birth. She will be perpetually pregnant, will undoubtedly suffer infection of her udders and finally be killed for meat and leather, but not before her milk is sucked away to become a smorgasbord of dairy delights for un-weaned cuckoo-like humans. We need this milk no more than we need pig's milk, or dog's milk, or cat's milk. In fact all this suffering happens to produce a food-stuff that is one of the leading contributors to growing incidence of everything from acne, cancer, heart-disease and osteoporosis.
Despite the suffering of a large majority of our bovine brethren around the world, there are still places in which cattle receive a better deal. The cow in a family run farm in South Africa, may well have access to large open grazing, the ability to roam in herds and form part of a long family legacy. The Nguni cows I have met in the wild coast of South Africa roam free and are herded into a safe kraal (a traditional wooden pen) at night. They will experience less intrusive milk extraction than their western cousins, and will almost certainly receive a beautiful Nguni name which is inspired by their unique colouration, horn shape and character of the individual. The naming practice reveals much of traditional isiXhosa life, for example:imasenezimpukane - has a white body with tiny black freckles; her name means 'the flies in the buttermilk'. Bafazibawela has a chestnut upper body, with white legs and white underbelly. Her name means "women crossing the river". Although these cattle will eventually be slaughtered sometime in their life, it will be sacrificial process for a traditional ceremony such as a funeral or wedding.