Home » Can you spot the phezukomkhono? (that’s Zulu for red-chested cuckoo)
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Can you spot the phezukomkhono? (that’s Zulu for red-chested cuckoo)

A 10-year project to name all of South Africa’s birds in the evocative isiZulu language is finally giving a voice to Indigenous communities

Until recently, a Zulu speaker who spotted an iCape gannet would have no choice but to refer to the majestic seabird by its unedifying “zulufied” name. But now the gannet, which can plunge into the ocean at speeds of up to 120km/h when hunting sardines, finally has a Zulu name that does it justice: isicibamanzi (the spear into the water).

After years of research and work with Indigenous communities, a list of isiZulu vernacular names for all 878 birds found in South Africa has recently been put together.

“In South Africa, birding has always had a bit of a stigma as a white people’s thing,” says Nandi Thobela of BirdLife South Africa, the organisation behind the isiZulu bird names project. While there are many reasons for this, the fact that bird names (and field guides) were all in English or Afrikaans certainly didn’t help. “When you have to translate a word, you lose people,” says Thobela.

Birding may be a predominantly white pursuit, but the birds themselves have always been important to the Indigenous people of South Africa. “The Nguni languages were developed from people observing nature,” says Thobela. “Before people had clocks and calendars, it was the birds that told farmers when to reap and when to sow.”

A case in point is the phezukomkhono, the recently ratified Zulu name for the red-chested cuckoo. Sakhamuzi Mhlongo, one of the bird guides who has been involved in the project since its inception, explains that the name has been in use for centuries: “This bird has always been used by ladies to know when to plant their crops. Every spring they wait and wait and wait for the phezukomkhono to come back from migration. Phezukomkhono means ‘roll up your sleeves’ and grab your hand hoe and plant the crops. It’s got a good meaning for Zulu-speaking people.”

“Language and culture encode and express our meaningful engagement with the world,” says the Cambridge University linguist Karen Park. “For a language like isiZulu, spoken by people who have inhabited the region of South Africa for millennia, words can hold both a deep knowledge of place and a powerful connection to ancestry and cultural identity.”

While English bird names often follow conservative conventions (like relying on chest markings or naming them after old white explorers), Zulu names are far more varied and original. The black cuckoo is an undodosibona (man who sees us), a reference to the bird calling from dense vegetation where people can’t see it; the African emerald cuckoo is ubantwanyana, a verbalisation of the bird’s call – it supposedly sings: “Little children don’t get married!”; and Klaas’s cuckoo is an umazalashiye (the bird that lays eggs and then leaves them behind).

The standardised list of isiZulu bird names has been more than a decade in the making. In 2012, Noleen Turner and Adrian Koopman – both isiZulu professors at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal – led an effort to compile a complete list of Zulu names for birds found in the Kwa-Zulu Natal province (where most ethnic Zulu speakers live). They first canvassed communities to ascertain which of the province’s 500 bird species already had names. It turned out that some species had many names, some had one name, and some had none.

They then brought together 30 Zulu-speaking bird guides from around the province for a series of naming workshops. If there was already a Zulu name this always took precedence. When several names existed, the guides would debate and settle on one name that best represented the bird. When no name existed, they would work together to come up with a name. “You want a name that makes people remember the bird,” says Mhlongo.

Ornithology experts were on hand to tell of the identifying features and habits of each species, but the final say always went to the ethnic Zulus. “It feels really good to know that there is a complete list of bird names in my language,” says Mhlongo. “The fact that the list was made by Zulu speakers and for Zulu speakers is the cherry on the top.”

Park echoes this view: “The systematic, comprehensive and community-led approach sets an important standard of multidisciplinary collaboration and local empowerment, ownership and engagement that I hope to see emulated.”

She believes that global engagement with our natural world “too often overlooks the rich cultural and linguistic context of the people who inhabit the places that compel our interest. I find this has especially been the case with global biodiversity conservation organisations, which tend to impose a western science framework on the practice of protecting, maintaining and restoring biological diversity.”

By 2018, Koopman and Turner’s team had finalised Zulu names for all the birds found in Kwa-Zulu Natal. Then came the publication, in 2020, of a glossy, full-colour book: Birds of KwaZulu-Natal and Their Zulu Names. “For so many years, we’ve been having this problem of getting black people into birding,” says Mhlongo. “It’s always easier to learn something when you are still young. Now we have a book that is written in black and white. The kids can take it home and read about the birds, and the parents can read it too.”

Inspired by all this groundbreaking work, BirdLife South Africa decided to extend the project to include all birds found in South Africa. The recently completed nationwide bird list is currently out for public comment. “We wanted to give Zulu speakers a chance to challenge or improve the list,” says Thobela. “But so far we have only received praise and encouragement.”

They have already been contacted by Sepedi and Setswana linguists who are keen to create bird lists in their languages. And BirdLife South Africa is on the verge of agreeing a deal with a large international app developer to create a free isiZulu bird app.

“Ultimately, we want to have bird names in all 11 languages,” says Thobela. “We started with isiZulu because of the pioneering work done by the profs and because Zulu is so widely spoken. But we want all South Africans to feel a connection with the birds that live around them.”

While Thobela hopes it won’t be another 10 years until the next list is completed, she and the rest of the team won’t be rushing it either. “Involving the local bird guides, and giving them the final say on every bird name, is what made this project so special.”

Source: theguardian