This story has the sub-title “not with me he couldn’t”.
Early one Saturday afternoon in rural NE Zambia I set off a string of events that could have ended up with people, probably children, being killed. I had to shut the thing down before dark.
Before I start this story, here are two definitions and a bit of background. Firstly, steers are castrated cattle and are generally of a mild temperament. Bullocks are young bulls and can be very fierce and I mean bullring fierce. They can be very dangerous and will attack people proactively. The background is that the people around Mpika, where this story takes place, are not traditional livestock keepers and are generally terrified of cattle – at least this was the case in 1989. A small aspect of the project I was working on at the time was to introduce more cattle and train them as oxen to increase farmer productivity, a process know as oxenisation!
Anyway, we were into the last 6 months of our time in Mpika and while we’d been there Bartholomew and Bertha had worked for us and generally made our lives very straight forward. Bartholomew did the garden and Bertha helped in the house which left Jane to focus on the kids including home-educating them. So our thoughts turned to what Bertha and Bartholomew were going to do when we left. They were likely to get employment with other expats but we couldn’t be sure of that so we thought we should put a Plan B in place for both of them. Bertha was pretty straight forward – Jane could teach her to use her sewing machine, which Bertha had shown an interest in, and then we’d give her the sewing machine when we left and she could sell her sewing skills in the local market. But what could we do for Bartholomew? After talking to him about various options we decided to try and find a pair of young steers and train them to pull a cart and plough so that he could work his own land for food and cash crops. This decision fitted in with my interest (and knowledge and skills) in livestock husbandry.
Within two weeks of this decision I’d found two steers for sale and we went to pick them up. One red one and one black one – they looked like they’d make a nice pair – they were a similar age and size although one was a lot more feisty than the other. To transport them back home they needed to be caught and have their feet tied up. I have no recollection of doing this so I think this may have been done by the vendor before we arrived for collection. Our home was in a compound that was created for the crew that built the Mpika to Kasama road that ran across the south side. The compound included housing for the project staff, offices, a large workshop for vehicle servicing a modest clubhouse, bar and swimming pool. It was surrounded by a 2m high chainlink fence with a single gate and fully-staffed gatehouse. We lived in the NW corner of the compound and in preparation for the arrival of the steers Bartholomew built a small holding pen against the chainlink fence as an initial holding area. This meant he only had to build 3 sides with the chainlink fence providing the fourth side.
We arrived home, reversed up to the holding pen. Our arrival created a lot of interest – the community was small and nothing much out of the ordinary happened. People – mostly children – gathered to welcome the two new arrivals. I got out of the vehicle to untie the steers and it was at this point that I realised we may have a problem. The red steer was clearly very pissed off and expressing this in a particularly forceful way especially considering he’d been tied up for a good two hours. I untied the black one first and he behaved as I would have expected, hobbling gently away into the holding pen, thankful to have his legs back. The red steer behaved like nothing I’d seen before. He came off the back of the Land Rover with the rage of a lanced bull in a bull fight. I’d given him no option but to run into the holding pen which he did but he didn’t stop when he got the chainlink fence, half scaling it and jumping out of the gap this had opened up. Children screamed and ran in all directions. All adults simply disappeared. I had a real problem on my hands which I was fully responsible for creating. Never before had I witnessed such directed rage in an animal. He was chasing any person in range. This was now a very dangerous situation and someone could get seriously hurt, or worse, if somehow I didn’t take control of the situation. This was a young bull not a steer.
What happened next is outlined in this map.
The bullock charged its way through the compound targeting anything that moved. But, I thought, fully engaging my ‘glass half full’ mind set, at least it is contained within the chainlink fence so recapturing it was not totally out of the question and all the potential targets of its aggression did have houses they could hide in. It then charged down the main pathway of the compound towards the compound entrance with me in hot pursuit. This drew out the able bodied men of the community into a very small army behind me, not in front of me, behind me. All this created quite a lot noise which drew the attention of the gate guards who, to my astonishment quickly darted out of their guard hut, opened the gates, and darted back in again! In those few seconds the situation turned from desperate to potentially catastrophic. This wild animal was no longer contained but out in the unconstrained African bush. I could have wept but there was no time. It was going to be dark in 2 hours and now anyone of hundreds of people were in danger.
My fierce friend sailed through the open gate and turned left up the Kasama Road towards Mpika Town and I and my small army continued our pursuit on foot, running so as not to lose site of the beast. My colleague, Dutch Gibson, a game hunter in his spare time, went to get his gun and his Land Rover. After a couple of kilometres we were all pretty breathless including the bullock. He entered the earth yard of the local primary school, which was thankfully unoccupied as it was the weekend. I optimistically thought he’d get cornered where two school buildings joined. But alas this was an optical illusion – they didn’t join – there was a gap and through he went.
I went through gap followed cautiously by my small army. When I got to the other side the bullock was about 20 metres away, standing still and facing back towards us. He was panting heavily, just like the rest of us. For the purposes of this story, let’s call the clearing we are now in “the bullring” (see map below) and before I continue let me explain that I did, at this stage in my life, have previous experience of being close up and personal with cattle. In my youth I participated in the annual ‘drenching’ of cattle on a friend’s farm. This was done to protect cattle from a whole range of parasites and involved putting your finger and thumb in the beast’s nostrils and your other arm across the top of the head to grab the far horn, leaning into the neck and lifting the head while someone else poured a Coke bottle full of drench down its throat. However, this was always done once the animal was contained in a crush. I’d never seen it attempted on an animal running towards you. But, hey, this was a desperate moment, the sun was getting very close to the horizon and this was the only tool I had in the toolbox.
I turned to Bartholomew and explained. Everyone should stand back and stand still, I was going to walk towards the beast and eventually he would come for me and I would try to wrestle him to the ground using a variation of the drenching technique described above. Clearly I didn’t have time to explain the full technique to him he just seemed to accept that if I said I was going to wrestle this animal to the ground then that is what I would do. Then, I said, as soon as we were both on the ground I was going to need the small army to put their innate fear of cattle to one side just for a moment and dive in to help hold the beast down as I wasn’t going to be able to hold him down for long by myself.
With the plan in place, the small army stepped back and I stepped forward. All was going according to plan until about my fourth step, when this animal started charging and with a good 15 metres run-up I didn’t stand a chance. I was pummelled into the red, dusty ground. This would have been an extremely painful and humiliating experience had there been time to process such feelings. Having done its best the beast trotted off out of the top corner of the bullring and turned sharp right into a field of 2m high maize and started walking between two rows of plants.
I’d got back on my feet and went in about 6 rows down and about 8m behind. Very fortunately, about 20m ahead there was an enormous ant hill between our routes through the maize field. I quickened my pace so that we emerged on the other side of the ant hill side by side and only about 3m apart. He charged but there was no run-up this time and I put every last ounce of energy I had left, and that wasn’t much, into the deployment of all the drenching skills I had acquired on the farm as a lad. I grabbed his nostrils and horn, leaned into his neck and down to the ground he came. My small army had started to lose faith following the previous humiliating incident so had lagged behind a bit but a sufficient number arrived in time to secure the capture. The feeling of relief as I laid there on the heaving chest of this beautiful animal, his head locked in my arms, in the dirt and in my own blood, sweat and tears was overwhelming. Any feelings of pain and humiliation had to join the queue to be dealt with later.
Coincidentally, that evening there was some sort of event going on at the clubhouse. So Jane helped me patch myself up and we made an appearance although I wasn’t going to be dancing anywhere. It turns out that a cattle wrestler is just one down from God to a community frighted of cattle and so I got a bit of a heroes’ welcome. Jane was snapped up by for a dance by the compound manager who said to her “Ah, ba-Simon, he could father 100 children” to which Jane replied “not with me he couldn’t”.
Oh sorry, I didn’t answer the second question. What gave me strength? Total and abject fear.
And the ending? Well, the captured beast was driven back to the vendor who accepted it back and a couple of weeks later provided a replacement and the training started.
While we waited for the arrival of the replacement the holding pen was repaired.
And we got to know steer number 1.
The steers needed to have names so that you could direct them to turn in the right direction. Bartholomew called them Luku and Samu (Luke and Sam). In a couple of weeks they were pulling a cart so calmly and safely that Sam went along for the ride.
They were off to move newly fired bricks and as you can see, everyone lent a hand.
The adult in these pictures is Bartholomew.
I have just found this photo of the oxen and cart. I think it was probably taken on the same day as the images above. Bartholomew is leading the oxen. Robert Dickie is in the cart and Sam is in the foreground. The building behind is our Mpika project office.