The news of livestock in one of the mission’s planted fields always rouses a certain excitement. The thrill of the chase. This thrill quickly gives way to tall grass raking the legs and burrs falling into the boots and finally descends into a series of vague imprecations upon the owner of said animals as we try to corral them into a holding pen or through the outer gate of the property.
Such was the series of events that happened Saturday as I finished paying the field hands. I immediately ran to get my walking stick (used for herding) and then dashed out to the field. As I was going, someone told me, erroneously, that the owner was coming. I did not want this to happen. As I was wearing large, ungainly galoshes, I kicked them off and took off sprinting for the gate where the cows might be shuffled from our property. Letting the owners herd them off the premises was not a good option. Catching their cows and holding them for ransom was a much better option.
According to Karimojong custom (and plain common sense), when an animal enters a field and damages a crop either by consuming it or trampling it, the owner is made to pay some sort of restitution. I was at a village Bible study recently where a group of men were discussing this very situation. The daughter of the man holding forth had lost her entire crop to a herd of sixty cows and the group assembled had settled on something on the order of ten thousand shillings per cow involved, totaling to some six-hundred thousand shillings, or the price of a medium sized cow at market, or the amount of money that one of my bean-pickers might make in a year.
While this is an accepted practice, the problem for the mission is that we are Christians and we are rich (compared to our neighbors; don’t put away the checkbooks just yet). Therefore, shepherds feel a certain impunity—that they can leave their flocks to wander into our fields and that, while we may give them a good tongue lashing, we won’t press any further for our pound of flesh. While this has largely been our practice, I think we do ourselves and our neighbors a disservice by allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of in this way. It breeds in us a level of general resentment and, quite frankly, isolates us from the community by taking us out of a culture of shrewd dealing and placing us in another social category altogether—the cow that is there to be milked. To our neighbors, we imply, however minutely, that they can act in ways that are unneighborly, or outright sinful, without fearing any repercussions.
These thoughts have been kindling in my mind during the course of this farming season, so when I got the word of cows munching happily away on our beans, I was in no mood to let it pass. With the help of some of Caleb’s friends, we drove the majority of the herd outside of the gate, and captured three cows (one with a bell around its neck, a particular boon) which we locked up on the mission. I asked a passing boy if he knew the owner of the cows and he said he did, so I sent him with a message that if the owner did not come by mid-afternoon, I was going to call the police and deliver the cows into their custody. This, of course, is our trump card. The police will likely be more than happy to hold a few cows for ransom, and the owner will almost certainly try to avoid this as they know the police will take more than I will.
Sure enough, within the hour, six men came to the gate, explaining that the herd belonged collectively to them. I reminded them that several of their children had been paid to plant the fields. Three of the men present had been paid to weed the fields. I asked why, when this farm had given them such assistance, were they so willing to let their cows come in and steal the harvest? I told them that the ransom for the three cows would be ten thousand shillings plus two high-quality walking sticks (to replace the one I broke in the course of the abduction). They complained that they didn’t have any money. I told them I would accept one thousand from each, plus the two staffs already mentioned. They continued to demur. Finally, I offered that I would let the cows go if they promised each to come on Monday and harvest for one day without pay. This they agreed to, and so I wrote their names on my roster and released the animals.
While they seemed in earnest, there really was no guarantee, and nothing I could do if they didn’t show up but to deny them future work. So we rested on Sunday, and this morning, sure enough, six men answered when I called the names, and they brought me a staff which is better than the one I lost. In the end, I get more than I originally bargained for (the harvesting wage for six people totals to twelve thousand shillings) and we remain on good terms. What’s more, these men, while they had done wrong (by proxy though the shepherd they chose), were willing to admit their mistake and take the consequences—an admirable attitude. I told them as much, and offered, because of their honest dealing, to give them a few days of paid work harvesting more beans. I told them, “So long as you don’t behave like your cows and harvest them into the stomach.” This remark met with an affable laugh and a volley of assurances to the contrary.