Zim Log 6/12: Day and Night with Herders – The Stomach That Heals

I spent Saturday day and night with the herders. The head herder, Nduwani, met me at 6:30 AM and we walked 2 kilometers to the kraal through the bush during a spectacular sunrise. How great is this, up with the sun, trailing the lead herder and his two dogs walking through African savanna to the corral of 500 cattle and goats.

Along the way, he stops, thinks, and then leaves the main path, cutting through grass on what appears to be an animal route. He stops again and picks up some dried dung. “Giraffe”, he says, with a smile that reveals many missing teeth and a girth of life appreciation as wide as Africa is ancient – the low orange sunlight dancing on his face.

In a bit we come to a clearing on a high point, and laying before is us Eden, Shangri-la, Valley of the Gods, just a spectacular view of the vlei, the mountains in the background, and the mixture of golden grass and green trees. I can’t see the river, but I can tell where it is. Somewhere out there the cattle are moving in a tight group, churning soil, ruminating on grass, and recycling water and nutrients. They are the controlled facsimile for the abundant wild herds that use to trample through here in profound numbers – always in a pack, always impacting according to rule of coevolution, and always, always, moving on. Never idling. Never overgrazing. Making soil, and, in the process, grabbing carbon by the mouthful.

By the time we get to the kraal the animals are already out. We were a bit late, but the herders knew what to do. The release of the animals from the kraal is something of a sacred ritual. It is done in complete silence as the herders are quietly counting every animal…495. There are two herders on the inside and two on the outside. The release takes about 15 minutes, and is done without a word uttered. Of course this counting is done entirely in their heads. There is no hand held clicker.

Slowly the animals channel out, in a natural flow, like new water on warm sand. They are not hurried or impeded. Sometimes they leave through the opening in the booma sheeting two or three at a time. Without interruption the herders silently count. This is a feat of cognitive magic I can’t fathom, akin, perhaps, to card counters in Las Vegas. Do not disturb them.

Herding is hard work. The morass of 500 animals is like an acre of jello. It sticks together, but also oozes apart. Individuals will always breakaway to seek fresh grass. There are only four herders at a time, plus Nduwani, to keep this gelatinous assemblage together, and slowly, ever so slowly, moving in the desired direction, at the desired density. The livestock eat and walk. Eat and walk. Eat and walk. Grabbing the tops of plants with their massive tongues, and moving on. By mid day it is extremely hot, but there is no break for lunch. Nduwani had an apple and and orange only because I gave him mine.

The grazing plan calls for them to be in this area for four days, and not a minute more. They amble through thickets, vleis, and across the riparian areas, trampling seven foot high grass and drinking as they go. The embankments are pristine – because of the planned grazing. Reeds and grass now grow right to the edges. Erosion on this land has been reversed, and the rivers run longer into the dry season. Unlike conventional grazing that is deleterious, this is the stomach that heals.

At one point Nduwani points to a field of grass and says, “This used to be bare. Bare. Bad ground”, waving his hand over an area, the boundaries of which he can discern, but I can’t, while the dogs follow his hand gestures, as if he’s talking to them. Bending down he pushes some grass apart and then grabs dark dirt from the base of the plants. “Now. Good soil”, he says, “Good soil”.

That night I sit with herders around the fire. They are Soccer, Unit and Artwain. Yes, those are their names. Knowledge and Abednicho have left for the night to attend a football (soccer) match. I have also met locals with names like Innocent, Patience, Courage, and January.

Other than the leader, Nduwani, the rest are young men, almost boys (plus one woman – who stayed with the camp). They speak almost no English, but of course, more so than I speak Ndebele (although what I do know is appreciated, if not at least a source of amusement). They have almost no possessions. If I can give them a hat or a long sleeve shirt, it is sincerely accepted. As temperatures plunge, we sit by the fire and attempt conversation, which is good natured and full of both laughter and long pauses of bewilderment. The fire (umlilo) sends out arms of warmth while they eat a typical dinner of sadza and fried fish. Above, the stars blaze and from the woods we hear a distinct call. “What is that”, I inquire. “Wild dogs”, they reply, without hesitation.

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