Ndlovu, Zimbabwe
Heifer Zimbabwe staff and residents of Ndlovu celebrate a healthy and growing cattle herd.

Story by Judith Schwartz, World Ark contributor
Photos by Tony Eprile

NDLOVU, Zimbabwe — It’s the day to pass on cows in Ndlovu, a community of 50 homes about 18 miles south of Victoria Falls. And because this is Zimbabwe, any opportunity for festivity is an opportunity for song: not the pro forma singing one might expect at a staged gathering, but hearty, full-bodied song, graced by ululations: that high, trilling, resonant sound that marks much of African music tradition, and is unforgettable once you hear it.

It’s also late September, the heart of the dry season. The air is near parched; the sun’s rays filterthrough dust. Yet the mood is exuberant as guests wait to celebrate the growing cattle herd. Amid chatters of anticipation, a group of women, several with infants on their laps, settle themselves around a large shade tree. Village leaders hand out printed programs. The welcome song beckons people to dance. Zimbabwe country program manager Sibusisiwe Mbedzi gleefully throws her arms up in the air and twirls and shakes as if these were lifelong friends. A local schoolteacher translates the words of the song, “This day is our wonderful day to smile.”

In Ndlovu — the name means "elephant" in the Ndebele language — livestock equal wealth. The village is in a poor rural area in a nation that has little industry and lacks even its own currency (the U.S. dollar is generally used); jobs are scarce. Many in the region rely on international food aid. Owning a cow or two can make the difference between dependence and self-sufficiency, particularly for families caring for orphans and the elderly.

Sipho Ndlovu, a project leader, shares the saga of Ndlovu’s animals. Of the fi rst 30 cows they received from Heifer, 26 were taken out of the village to graze, and only four returned.

“We were left in misery,” she said. A trained dog retrieved all but one. But then, two were devoured by wild animals. After a rocky start, the herd now thrives. Two more groups of cattle arrived from Heifer, and despite threats from lions and an ongoing drought, village residents now have 69 head of cattle and money to buy more. In total, about a dozen community members speak at the pass on ceremony, each stressing the importance of the unity of the project group, which since 2000 has met without fail the first Thursday of the month.

Farmers prepare to exchange animals, some of whom suffer minor stage fright.
Farmers prepare to exchange animals, some of whom suffer minor stage fright.

Today, as members of the village’s fourth generation of Heifer animals change hands, seven young cows and three young bulls get new homes. Then there’s a community lunch of roadrunner chicken (a spicy stew) and sadza, a cornmeal porridge ubiquitous in Zimbabwe.

Over lunch, Obert Ndlovu, 49, talks about his animals. A father of five, he owns 10 cows, including two from Heifer. “We get milk, and we can put manure in the fields,” he said. “As a result, we have better crops. When we have enough maize, we can trade for other things. Before, we did not have enough maize to feed ourselves.”

His cousin Alfred Ndlovu, also 49, said the two cattle he received from Heifer provide draft power. “I can carry the manure to the fields to help with our crops,” he said.

The challenges Ndlovu’s cattle owners face are enormous. Villagers share one borehole, and pumping water takes much time and effort. Lions are an ongoing threat to livestock, and elephants sometimes trample food crops. The rains are erratic. Animals sometimes succumb to Senkobo disease, an infection thought to be spread by insects.

Yet project members remain optimistic. Joyce Dklovu, 64, has three cows. “I’m very excited because we will have milk and are starting to have manure [for fertilizer],” she said. A widow since 1980, when her husband died in the liberation war, Dklovu is raising seven grandchildren, ranging in age from 3 to 18.

“The new cow will make life easier. I’m looking forward to taking care of these cattle so they can continue to be helpful in the future.”