Hwaqahwaqa, “mottled object”, “overcast sky”. This was her Zulu name, given due to the irregular black pools on her soft grey coat that seemed to echo the ancient skies over a dull African veld.
To the mlungus who knew her well and whose tongues were confounded by the clicks in her name, she was “Gogo”. She was the grandmother, respected, graceful, confident, gentle, yet protective. The skin on her black muzzle soft to the touch. Her nose, cool and wet, often pressed against a human cheek when filling the winter feed troughs. Small, assegai-shaped ears and smooth skin, the products of her perfect Nguni pedigree, reflected a family tree whose roots reached deep into the veld and history of Zululand. Legs and hooves neat, almost dainty with a tidy, soft dewlap hanging between her forelegs. Her eyes often reflected amusement as she seemed to consider some of our clumsy farming actions. Her horns sleek and majestic, arched proudly skywards. Her manner was always friendly, never fearful or submissive. She always took offered tidbits with gentleness devoid of any greed or aggression and trustingly presented her neck for a scratch. Hwaqahwaqa’s beauty was carried in her poise.
Whenever the herd moved to new grazing, she would be surrounded by the youngsters, some her own, ambling slowly yet elegantly, often turning to the herdsman for guidance and direction. Co-operative and compliant, she would happily return to the herd when called if she had strayed off course. Trusted by the other mothers, she was the nursemaid of choice, commonly left in charge of the kindergarten of new calves sleeping like mounds of patchwork in the shade, while the herd moved off to graze nearby in the dense afternoon heat.
Dawn, the time of day so descriptively referred to by the herdsmen of her ancestors as kusezimpondo zankomo — the time of the horns of the cattle. When the sun’s rays were diluted, allowing only the gentle silhouette of the cows’ horns to be seen, Hwaqhwaqa would be at rest, her children lying close by, like shadows. A younger calf resting its head on her rump, older offspring nearby as if drawn to the comfort of her reassuring, regal presence. Later in the day, in those cud- chewing rests between spells of grazing, she would be seen licking one of her calves, regardless of its age. Her long tongue methodically working over the youngster’s fur like a mother readying a small child for a school photograph, ensuring that every hair is perfectly plastered in place on its skin.
Yesterday she stood alone on the golden hillside, the summer heat melting away to the velvet days of autumn, the rest of her herd grazing further off. Head lowered, ribs protruding like ghostly fence posts in front of the sunken hollows in her sides. Tail hanging motionless, giving no chase to the flies swarming over her suddenly dull hide, greedily taking advantage of her stillness to bite at their leisure. Sick and weak, she offered no resistance to the medication injected into her skinny rump right there in the veld. Horns merely held steady to prevent movement as the needle pierced her skin. No need for a long walk to the cattle crush or to rudely restrain her with ropes.
Later, resting in the shade of an ouhout tree, her youngest calf providing company, she took just a tiny bite of cut green grass as if to show gratitude, but drank thirstily of the cool water carried to her in a bucket. Hwaqwaqwa graciously accepted a final ear scratch and a gentle stroke to her soft cheeks.
This morning she lay on her side, with legs outstretched and hooves together as if resting; no bloated belly or awkward rigor mortis to spoil her beauty, even in death. Pupils dilated, unseeing, dull emeralds perfectly framed by their oval brown iris. Old royal head resting on an enormous horn, tongue barely protruding from a gap-toothed jaw. Her muzzle still soft to the touch, not yet cold in the chill of dawn. Peaceful and dignified. Sometime in the evening she had made her way to the track on the hillside, seeking a comfortable place to lie. As the sun finally slipped from the sky and night slid into its place, she calmly breathed a final gentle breath. Later, three of the mature cows approached and paused to gently nuzzle her, seemingly paying their last respects. In turn they sniffed her sides, then moved slowly to hover for a longer time at her ears and muzzle before turning to head up the hill after the herd. An elder had passed but her Zulu lineage would continue long after to grace the dusty veld. Generous and considerate, even in her last act, she lay close to the vehicle path for her final transport. Was this her thank you for the simple bucket of water I had carried, sloshing, up the rough path? That we could all be so grateful for such small kindnesses.
She could have been sold for a moderate price at the sale last week, part of the recommended winter cull. That would have been the profitable option, the sensible decision. But this was not an appropriate fate for a queen. It was fitting that her last views were of the rolling hillside surrounded by her beloved herd, not for her the cruel stress of waiting her turn at a brutal abattoir.
I stroked her kind face for the last time and left silently, reluctant to let her go. Swallowing hard failed to remove the lump in my throat as I walked down the hill. The uneven footpath was blurred by my tear-filled eyes. I stumbled away to avoid the men summoned to dismember her. I was relieved to be alone, with no witnesses to my emotions. I am new to farming yet know not to be sentimental; people who work with livestock must also cope with dead stock. But she was special. We knew her by name and looked forward to seeing her every day. Her flesh will nourish many. Her skin will adorn a home and her daughters will continue her legacy. None are Hwaqahwaqa, overcast skies, but one will be a future Gogo.
The rising sun heralds a new day, and brings warmth to the chilly hill. The herd moves on.Hwaqahwaqa,