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Known by name

By Tim Jarvis

As the autumn morning mist lifts over the Balgowan Valley, it unveils a herd of Nguni cattle grazing on the still green grass overlooking Michaelhouse.

On my morning walk to school, still clutching my halfdrunk cup of coffee, I can often glimpse these animals dotted on the hillside, bright amongst the grasslands. These extraordinary cattle are part of the school’s land management programme. The Oribi Reserve, on the school property, is a dedicated grassland habitat and sanctuary for the small and rare Oribi antelope. The reserve also provides grazing for our Nguni.

Each one unique

As many people know, one of the features of these cattle is their hide markings, which are unique 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) roams the reserve. Her name means ‘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 of the unique markings, it is possible to identify each one in the herd at sight by its hide. This has encouraged a process where each member of the herd is quite literally known by name.

Naming ensures better care

Naming the cattle is a vital part of the management and care of the herd. To know each beast by name enables herders to tend them more diligently, as each name describes in detail the markings and often something of the character of each animal as well. One of my favourites is Abafazibewela. The literal meaning of this name is ‘the woman lifts her skirts to cross the river’, and this describes the creature clearly and, at the same time, poetically. The name creates an immediate visual picture.

Back to the boys

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, these individuals enter with a unique identity, each with his own set of abilities, needs, fears and problems.

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

In her book The Abundant Herds, Marguerite Poland says: “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.”

Each one is different and important

Like those tending these ancient cattle, we too should know the stories of each member of those pupils 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 the complexity of his story. 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. The Zulu language has 20 different words for spots, in order to aid the naming process.

Get to know each one

Like expert herdsmen, we should develop a whole vocabulary and language around the care of young people. We should engage in extensive debate about those who don’t quite fit the mould. We too easily assume stereotypical views of male students, rather than seeing who they really are. As Michael Thompson and Dan Kindlon suggest in Raising Cain “Some want to be like some 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 a 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 countryside, 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.

Tim Jarvis is the Guidance Counsellor at Michaelhouse.


Category: Winter 2011

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