Sacred Cows and Myths are Broken

In September of 2002 sacred cows and myths were broken in my African home village. The wider implications of the breaking of these myths are still unclear. It all started when the Tembo family decided to purchase two bulls to help with plowing crops during the coming growing season, which starts in December. The 2001 drought that affected large regions of Southern Africa was already hitting many village families whose harvests had been poor at the end of the growing season the previous April. Our family decided to increase the chances of improving next year’s subsistence farm yield as well as the cotton cash crop through the purchasing of two bulls.

Although I was born and raised in the African village, I have lived in the US for more than twelve years. Since my urban and American good looks and good clothes, shoes, hefty appearance, (fat by African standards) and smooth skin would immediately double the price of an average bull, my brothers 35, and 39, agreed to scout numerous villages for bulls. Once they found them, I was to show up at the last minute to close the deal.

My brothers scouted by bike a three hundred square mile area of dozens of villages in the Lundazi district covering the Chiefdoms of Magodi, Phikamalaza, Kapichila, and Zumwanda. What they encountered always breaks the average Westerner’s heart: people experience visible poverty when they own anywhere from ten to hundreds of cattle. They are unwilling to part with them despite the obvious attraction of receiving rare large sums of money in exchange. Two long days later, my brothers finally returned with some good news. They had found five potential bulls at a small village on the Eastern side of the district in Chief Phikamalaza’s area close to Zambia’s international border with the country of Malawi.

Early the next morning, we set off for the village on bicycles. By this time, I had been in the village for three weeks. I had made two long forty-two mile trips by bike and numerous miles of bicycle riding in African scorching heat without needing a sip of water. We arrived at the village at noon. As arranged, the forty-one herds of cattle were not released yet for the day from their kraal for grazing. The owner was Aliboo; the man in the town of Lundazi who owns a chain of lucrative businesses including wholesale and retail trade, bus and truck transportation, buying and selling of corn, peanuts, cattle, goats, and sheep. He was the Bill Gates of the small rural district.

The Chief Herder and caretaker, a young man in his mid-twenties, and his two assistants led us to the kraal. There was pandemonium in the kraal as the designated animals milled around to elude capture. The five bulls on sale were reluctantly pointed out to us. We picked two of the youngest, healthiest looking and strongest looking bulls. The herder looked as sad as if he had just lost someone very valuable and dear to his heart. He reluctantly strapped to a yoke the two bulls for the long return trek to our village.

After the formal transactions of the purchasing of the bulls were over, the herder pulled me aside. He expressed his tremendous regret and sadness that the two bulls had to leave. He expressed deep fondness for them. He reminisced how he had broken them as juveniles to become his most favorite haulers and when plowing the fields. It dawned on me then and there that there is more to selling and agreeing to part with an animal.

At two in the afternoon, the two cattle, my two brothers, two young boys who were escort herders and I, started the thirty-five mile walk to our village. My brother had already nicknamed the young red feisty bull “Gumuza” which means to “husk corn” and the calm black one “Boma” which means “town”. We briskly walked and chatted in the sizzling African afternoon sun passing several villages and a school. The two escort herders frequently whipped the young bulls back into the narrow dirt road and bush paths each time the animals broke and wildly wandered off into the bush.

At sunset, we arrived at a stream on the Western side on the outskirts of the Lundazi town. The escort herders released the two cattle from the yoke although they were still tethered to along rope. The bulls grazed for a while and drunk some water in the nearby stream while we sat down to rest. Our dinner comprised three small buns for each person with some margarine on them. We downed them with a cup of plain water sweetened with a couple of teaspoons of sugar stirred into it using a small twig.

As darkness fell, we began walking the rest of the twenty-three miles to our home village. In the moonless dark night, we followed the light glimmer of the narrow small dirt road. The flashlight drove the bulls berserk becoming belligerent and wildly taking off into the bush. We could not use the flashlight. We passed many villages and three schools with our hoofed merchandise. Two trucks passed us carrying gigantic loads of cotton from the scattered village markets back into the Lundazi town. Hour after hour we placed one foot in front of the other. We plodded along and sweated as we followed the faint glare of the narrow, meandering, rough, and sandy dirt road.

We were a few miles from our destination and we had been walking for a total of nine long hours. We were all so exhausted that each one more step required much more will power than energy since there was practically no energy left in all of us including the two bulls. At one thirty in the morning we finally arrived at our village. The two bulls; Gumuza and Boma were released from the yoke and feasted on some raw pumpkins. My sister-in-laws cooked a long awaited hot meal as we talked to my mom and dad about our long trip. I was already thinking of the two young bulls, Gumuza and Boma, not just as beasts that can be sold at a whim. They were part of the family. Even the young eight and ten year old nephews, who were to herd the cattle, were roused by the excitement and woke up to admire the two new members of the Tembo family as they grazed behind my house in the dark. I finally understood why pastoralists everywhere in Africa and the rest of the world are often reluctant to part with their animals even if they have a large herd. Two myths were broken:

  • That a “fat” African who has lived an American life style of a soft life cannot ride a bike for numerous miles let alone walk for thirty-five miles. Incidentally being “fat” is so rare among the people in the villages of Africa that it is seen as a culturally positive thing. A young American Peace Corps volunteer was shocked recently when she was called “fat” when she first arrived in the village. But she has since learnt that being “fat” is used in a positive sense among the Tumbuka people and traditional Zambians and rural Africans in general.
  • The second myth is that peasant cattle owners and pastoralists in traditional rural Africa are irrational when they refuse to willy-nilly sell their animals even sometimes in the face of hunger and starvation. They perhaps truly love and sometimes deeply care more for the animals than their own lives, money and material modern consumer commodities.