It so happens that my grandfather during late 19th and early 20th Centuries lived in Montagu, Cape, and made a reasonable living as a dealer in ostrich feathers. Then Queen Alexandra of Britain decided in about 1908 she did not like wearing ostrich feathers: they went out of fashion and my grandfather went out of business as the price of feathers slumped badly. Recently the outbreak of avian influenza in the Western Cape resulted in the culling of 8000 ostriches. A similar outbreak during 2004 and 2005 in the Western and Eastern Cape Provinces resulted in more than 26000 ostriches being culled on 37 farms. I sincerely hope the owners of these farms fared better than my grandfather!

Now, what does our friend, Credo Mutwa tell us about ostriches in African Campus? The Zulu name for an ostrich (Roberts) is iNtshe; Northern Sesotho he is known as Mptshe and SS as Mpshoe. All these words have to do with beauty.I have always regarded the ostrich as being rather ugly especially looking at his head and neck.

It is interesting, if not fascinating, to see how people of different cultures see the same thing in different ways. How come many African people see beauty in this large ungainly and at times bad tempered bird? The answer lies in the fat of the bird, which is boiled until it is like oil. This oil is mixed with red ochre to form a paste, which is then smeared on their bodies to protect their skin and to produce a very red colour said to be pleasing to ancestral spirits. It is also believed that the fat of an ostrich had the ability to renew life. A warrior whose muscles were stiff and aching was smeared all over his body with ostrich fat that is then vigorously rubbed in. Thus the ostrich is the bird of renewal. Ostrich fat is said to be good for arthritis as well. Ostrich egg is said to be a powerful aphrodisiac. It is believed in some cultures that Khoi-Khoi men ingest half cooked or fresh ostrich eggs and this causes their organs to be always erect. This feature is often seen depicted in Bushmen paintings.

Author: Craig Walters

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