I’m contemplating the patterns under my feet on an Nguni skin next to my bed, thinking about the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem:
Glory be to God for dappled things-

For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings …
I love the words: dappled, brindled, stippled, studded, mottled, spattered, freckled and I wonder what Hopkins would have made of this pattern.

I own five Nguni. In Zulu terms if they were flesh and blood, this would make me a very wealthy woman. Each Nguni is differently and distinctly patterned. I know the name of each of them thanks to Marquerite Poland’s evocative book The Abundant Herds celebrating Zulu cattle naming, brilliantly illustrated by Leigh Voight.

The Nguni beside my bed is Stones in the river – a creamy beast with dark round patches circled by lighter rings like the tide-mark on boulders in an African river that is slowly drying.

The beauty of an oral language lies not only in its lyrical and tonal qualities but in the slight nuances, the imaginative combination of words, the rich metaphor, exaggeration, paradox, imagery, allusion and truth. It’s the language of young herdsmen who have spent their days in the veldt with nothing but wide open spaces and the stone-like palisades of ancient cow byres and nights next to flickering fires under huge star-strewn skies, to feed their imagination and idea of story – each herdsman knowing his beasts so well that every single one is praised by name and sung to as it enters the byre for milking – the names giving credit to human creativity, playfulness and story telling.

My four other Nguni are named:
Gaps between the branches of the tree silhouetted against the sky. A huge cream beast with black shapes that seem like trees in silhouette against a pale sky.

Flies in the buttermilk. A creamy animal stippled with small black dots that resemble flies swimming in a bucket of buttermilk. Soured milk. A cloudy mix of grey and cream and dun that resembles milk just beginning to clot and cloud and turn. Zebra, or it’s Zulu name Idube, one of the rarest patterns of all Nguni and strangely never black and white like a true zebra but brindled and striped, dark reddish brown with streaks of black.Names are inpsired by nature. A pure black beast is associated with thunderclouds and used to beg the spirits for rain. A creamy dun coloured animal might be Soured milk or The beast who holds the mushroom or Sand of the sea. A dark animal with a flash of red-brown is The Red-winged Starling. An animal with a dark top half and flecked hind quarters is The Martial Eagle. A pale animal with brown speckles is Egg of the lark or Seed of the Castor oil plant. An animal flecked with dark smudges is Caterpillars of the marula tree. A black beast with a white stripe down its throat is Beast which is part of the mimosa bark peeled back. There are humourous names too – The beast which is the woman crossing over, a dark animal with solid white on its underbelly that suggests a woman walking through a river holding up her skirt, and Beast whose thighs are like those of a lady. Irony comes through in the praises of Cetshwayo where the disparaging name Small red spotted calf of the whites is given to a British Officer at the Battle of Isandlwana. Hopkins with his double Firsts at Oxford, his friendship with Robert Bridges, his appointment as Professor of Greek and Latin in University College Dublin, would have had a distinct advantage over a young 19th century herdsman. But in discussing poetry Hopkins uses two terms: inscape and instress. By inscape he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by instress he means the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder.

The imagery used by a herdsman shows both inscape and instress. Nguni names confirm the power of the poet is no less rich and evocative in an oral language.