As the autumn morning mist lifts over the Valley, it unveils a herd of Nguni Cattle grazing on the still green grass overlooking the school. On my walk to work still clutching half a cup of coffee, I often glimpse these animals dotted on the hillside, bright against the grasslands. These extraordinary cattle are a part of the land management programme of the school’s ‘Nature Reserve’. As many people know one of their features are 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.
What is striking is the way that these cattle have been managed by indigenous people over the centuries. Because each hide is patterned so specifically, it is possible to identify each one on sight. This has allowed and encouraged an individual naming process where each member of the herd is quite literally known by name. A name which creates an immediate easily remembered visual picture.
As I continue my walk, the school 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 teenagers, a significant portion of which are headed to my classroom. Jostling and pushing, each one of these individuals enters my classroom with a unique identity arriving at my lesson with their own set of abilities, needs, fears and problems. As the lesson starts, I am grateful for that cup of coffee.
There are certain parallels that we can draw from the Nguni naming process to the school and educational environment. Marguerite Poland in her book ‘The Abundant Herds’ says the following, “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.” Like those tending these ancient cattle, we too should know the stories behind each member of those in our care. We must glean something of their history, their past, a sense of what has gone into them to date.
Later that day I struggle to translate this idea into practice, as I meet with a boy whose 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 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.
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 great lengths are taken to ensure that the naming process does justice to the individual. The Zulu language has twenty different words for spots in order to aid the naming of cattle. Like the expert herdsmen, we teachers should develop a whole vocabulary and language around the care of our students.
In my final session, 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 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 KwaZulu-Natal country side, 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.