How domestic animals are sources of knowledge, social intelligence


Charles Dhewa
In African agrarian communities where livestock are part of people’s livelihoods, farmers have forged symbiotic relationships with their cattle, goats, sheep, camels, pigs and poultry, among others. While the world is elevating the role of ICTs in mediating knowledge, domestic animals have, for generations, distinguished themselves in mediating knowledge between people, the environment and the animal world.

If knowledge is the route to the truth, animals are certainly part of that route in many African countries where knowledge is complex and multi-layered. For starters, the African traditional knowledge system has always treasured an elaborate way of linking the behaviour of animals to their owners.

Cattle, goats, dogs, donkeys, camels, sheep and chickens behave differently when with their owners compared to how they behave in the presence of strangers. How livestock owners communicate with their animals reveals shared instincts between the owner and the animal. There are situations where, once the owner arrives, oxen that were misbehaving start behaving well. Some cattle may be respectful to women but disrespect children. Other cattle react differently to change of ownership.

For instance, an oxen sold 20 km away may return back, depending on reception in the new home. If it compares conditions between the old home and new home and realises that both homes are unfriendly, it can choose to hide somewhere in the middle or disappear completely. Such animal behaviours can teach human beings a great deal about compassion, love and other soft values.

Knowledge principles inspired by animals

People can glean fresh principles of knowledge from animal behaviour and instincts. Within a herd of cattle, a curious farmer can notice diverse relationships between animals.

There are cows and heifers that want to graze with bulls. Bullocks can be seen grazing with big bulls as a way of acquiring leadership skills from seniors. Some calves do not want to leave their mothers until they grow into big steers. This demonstrates slow learning, a phenomenon which can be found in human beings as in animals. All these factors influence farmers’ socio-economic decision-making.

From eMKambo’s interactions with farming communities in Southern Africa, there is a proven transfer of instincts and relationships between people and livestock.

Norms and socio-cultural values that are accorded cattle result in those animals behaving in ways that fulfil people’s expectations. For instance, in the Zimbabwean context, Mombe yeUmai /Inkomo kaMama (mother’s cow) often demonstrates motherly instincts in the herd. If a cow is given a name like MaSibanda, it certainly reflects that totem and how most MaSibandas conduct themselves.

Livestock as custodians

of memory

A farmer can name his bull Mashava, in memory of his first job in Mashava town which enabled him to buy the bull. Such memories also represent the wealth creation journey. Young children learn from how their parents started with one cow from which a big herd was built. They begin to appreciate that wealth creation is a process not a short-cut. It is difficult for them to associate cars with the same connection and instinct.

However, livestock-inspired wealth creation and distribution pathways should be monitored in such a way that a heifer can be tracked from its original home, to the new owner, its off springs, how some of its off springs go on to be used as payment for bride price and how many calves are produced along the way as well as many other factors.

This would demonstrate how a single cow creates value in many communities more than can be achieved by putting money in a bank. Tracking back should make it possible to see where the cow started and how value has been extended to many people.

Livestock communities have a lot of knowledge to contribute to the modern world, not just in producing meat, milk, hides, wool and other benefits.

Many livestock farmers are good at characterising their livestock according to factors like ease of milking, drought power performance and leadership. Unfortunately, much of such knowledge remains hidden within invisible communication between people and livestock.

On the other hand, Animal Science studies in African universities continue focusing on technical issues like breeds, growth patterns, meat yield, milk yield and other technical issues at the exclusion of behavioural and relationship issues that have enormous socio-economic influence.

Rather than studying and learning from animal behaviour, the young generation is also being exposed to digital technology and other forms of knowledge that do not adequately sharpen their contextual curiosity.

Environmental and socio-economic contribution to agricultural decisions

Cattle and other livestock connect with the environment in ways that benefit farming communities. When they are seen smelling some rain, farmers start preparing for the new farming season. In relation to pastures, researchers have not taken time to track the nutritional status of grasses, shrubs and trees that are preferred by livestock.

Although good rains result in the germination of many grasses and pastures, animals are the ones which can tell the difference between good and poor pastures.

They also know which pastures are poisonous or medicinal. That is how some farming communities and medical practitioners become aware of unique medicinal properties of different grasses, shrubs and trees. While cattle are accused of transferring anthrax, foot and mouth and other diseases to human beings, there is no knowledge on medicinal properties and cures that are transferred to people by goats, sheep and cattle through either milk or meat.

In most rural communities, farmers eat cattle which die on their own and nothing happens to the people because the animal was able to build up a collection of useful medicinal properties into its body when it was alive such that negative properties are outweighed by positive ones.

When medicinal pastures consumed by cattle are transferred to consumers through meat and milk, the animal becomes the doctor. It is important to investigate which other diseases are potentially prevented from getting into consumers through choices made by animals as they graze. All these issues are worthy becoming part of educational curricular. At the moment, if you compare an animal scientist from an African university and a livestock herder, who do you think has more knowledge about livestock?

Most animal science students have no idea about how knowledge travels between animals and farmers. As part of generating relevant knowledge, African educational institutions should be thinking about producing Masters degrees and PhDs in Animal Socio-Economic Science as opposed to ending with Animal Science only.

There are numerous knowledge aspects waiting to be explored in African communities. The Western world has become good at studying animals and simulating their thinking patterns. These have been creatively developed into educative digital cartoon strips from which our children are learning about animal behaviour.

On the other hand, Africans are doing nothing about the imaginative knowledge associated with their animals. Farmers say if you see a bullock stabbing anthills, it will be sharpening its horns. They also say some cows can deliberately hide milk from human beings and keep it for their calves. Such knowledge is a fertile ground for research and generation of contextual knowledge.

Taming animals for drought power is also a powerful skill which many new agricultural graduates have not mastered, preferring to work with tractors which are lifeless and difficult to relate to emotionally.

Improving human behaviour and widening circles of compassion

The African education system should explore sophisticated knowledge sharing between domestic animals, farmers and rural communities. Living with animals enables African communities to widen their circles of compassion towards learning by fostering psychological safety.

Besides fuelling community collaboration by increasing people’s willingness to work together, co-existing with animals builds the capacity of people to practice compassionate leadership.

Curiosity builds the power of noticing the behaviour of animals as they relate with human beings. Positive listening is also empowered through communicating with animals. A lot of useful habits become embedded in agricultural procedures like land preparation, fetching water, harvesting, milking and many others. Working and living with animals also builds people’s observational skills, prolonged learning, relationship building and trust between human beings, animals and the environment.

Through livestock, people cultivate unique literacies that cannot be acquired in a classroom. That is why livestock farmers do not just value their cattle or goats by weight alone. They consider many factors such as behaviour, leadership and social status. These opportunity cost factors constitute more than 70 percent of the negotiating power in the livestock market.

Farmers know that some cows produce two calves every second year and that means whoever is buying such beasts will own a big cattle herd in no time.

This knowledge is an integral part of animal social science — animals and their ecosystem. Some cattle come home on their own after being left in distant pastures.

Such faithful behaviour has a bearing on farmer productivity as there is no need to pay someone to go and look for them or spend time herding. Communal farmers collectively have more than a billion hours of experience in working with animals and sharing their compassion with the whole environment. By working with animals, the young generation can embrace a growth mindset which recognises that intelligence should come from hard work, perseverance, learning from the environment, animals and others in ways that fuel innovation and purposeful collaboration.

Unfortunately, animals remain unacknowledged sources of knowledge with many scientists preferring to reference publications. As if that is not enough, academic studies on livestock and agriculture rarely influence implementation of activities in farming communities. They just become part of narratives in academic conferences, workshops and journals which are read by a few like-minded people.

Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge management specialist and chief executive officer of Knowledge Transfer Africa (Pvt) ( whose flagship eMKambo ( has a presence in more than 20 agricultural markets in Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on: [email protected]; Mobile: +263 774 430 309 / 772 137 717/ 712 737 430.

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