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Down on the farm in upcountry Africa


I should have had a horse, I am sure of it. The painful and audible transition to bovine adulthood should have been viewed from horseback, a dramatic observation framed against the auditorium of the heavens. Instead, I was part of it: a gasping, bloody and enthralled member of the weaning, of the Tanzanian cattle run.

Zambian floodwaters (and a newly established schedule flight between Lusaka and Dar es Salaam) had deposited my two friends and I in southern Tanzania, on a farm managed by a good friend, home to six hundred head of cattle. There, we too became farmers, assistants to a weary man and observers of a land still trying to reconcile the demands of development and immediate social need.

The farm occupies six thousand hectares of the peninsular between the ancient Swahili town of Mikindani and the enclosed calm of Kosi Bay. In the days when trade and not cultivation was the focus of the Swahili people, or at least their Omani masters, the dominant habitat would have been the layered canopy of the coastal forest. Where palm trees met acacia thorn, trade routes trailed off into the sparsely populated interior, attracting merchants, slavers, missionaries and Germans. These last visitors saw the potential of the land, not just its people, and so began to make changes, the effects of which can still be seen in the architecture, land use and politics of the area today.

In those early years of colonial confidence, regional power resided within the battlements of the imperial Boma. This fortification, constructed from bleached blocks of coral, perched half way up the coastal cliffs, surmounted the ruins of the old sultan’s palace that faced the blue bay. Inland, where the farm is now found, away from the reflected heat of the enclosed water and the clustered households of the old town, the new settlers were also making an impression. The forest was cleared and cashew nut trees and sisal plants were cultivated in geometrically pleasing rows. The local people were pressed into labour, housed in small communities of economically, but solidly, built huts. More than a century later I could still see where the window panes had sat within their frames. The pitch roofs remained and the drainage lines were simple to trace, but the human story of response to unexpected order was harder to divine.

The local governor evidently decided the area to be far more pleasing than the old town, for he built his modest house just along from the workers’ compounds. Like the Boma, his house also had a maritime aspect; sat on the veranda his face would have been cooled by the sea breeze, but his back was to the continent. I stood in his place, my neck protesting against the restriction of an imagined starched collar. Well could I understand the appeal of this place to the northern European mind, for here one could find heat, order and profit. Now, however, only the gaudy blooms of bougainvillea provide illustration of the domestication that once was. Much of the masonry has been removed for improvised use elsewhere. The surviving structure only hints at its previous form and the encroaching foliage casts dark shadows from ruined windows, like eye sockets in a disturbed skull.

World War replaced the Germans with the British, who in turn were swept away by the winds of change of the 1960s. The wind broke upon buildings of white washed walls supporting roofs of red tiles. Large sheds housed machines designed to bring automated prosperity through the processing of the cashew nut and the sisal leaf. These tangible reminders of mercantile ambition remained, resilient, while all around them the forest began to return and the ambitious economic programmes faltered and fragmented. The local people moved out of the sharp angles of German construction and back to villages of timber frames, earth walls and palm roofs. Ambition was forgotten, or perhaps, more accurately, moderated to suite local reality. Yet, beneath the growth, the geometry remained.

Maybe this was a restoration of the old rhythms, a fanciful but attractive thought resonant of soft light and lazy afternoons. Whatever it was, it could not last. Like the structures and crop rotation the European influence on Africa did not disappear with independence, the foundations always remained. So it was with the plantation, the forebear of the farm, ownership changed and ambition once again cleared the entrance track, strode the land, and, feeling like the first, discovered the ruins of what once had been. That same ambition, citing pragmatism and using the authority of ‘The Law’, moved the people off the land to the road and raised the fences. Work began again.

The farmer was not the owner and the owner was not African, but he thought he knew how things were done, or, more accurately, how things should be done. There was no longer much money to be made from sisal (though this may change in the coming years if the expansion of the bio fuel industry into Africa is successful). Furthermore, the cashew nut industry always failed to generate the income levels envisaged back in the 1950s, when its role as a cash crop was first advocated. But in South Africa, the owner had seen that money could be made from game farming; this would be the farm’s future. But first, before the land could be turned to another use, the owner must find an effective way to clear the farm of the sisal plants, cashew nut trees and the tangled growth that was the result of decades of haphazard and uncertain management.

The answer lay with cattle. Moving in herds of hoof and horn they travel across land, forcing paths, browsing on the bush and grazing in the grasslands. Value lies in the action, the meat and the hide of cattle. In the space they create, men can gain access to the bush, and wildlife, the farm’s latest produce, can flourish. But the fences are not popular: the people do not like, nor understand, why, after years of unrestricted access, they can no longer hunt or gather fire wood from the land beyond the wire. Maybe nobody explained to them that after many years lying dormant the God of Law had awoken and was now claiming its own. Of course, the fence is firstly a physical barrier, which can be climbed over, buried under or simply stolen. But these physical acts carry legal and political implications. So now, on both sides of the line, there is conflict, confrontation, enforcement and anger.

Against this backdrop, the farm must operate. Guards patrol the fence line looking for forced entry and then follow the resulting footpaths checking for snares. The farmer does his rounds, alert to the crackle of the radio. A tractor, driven by a smile below a battered straw hat, pulls its trailer on an unhurried journey. The herds of cattle spend their days grazing, watched by herd boys who must guard their charges against the consumption of too many mangoes and the bite of venomous snakes. At night, the cattle are gathered in kraals of electrified wire, leopards cough and the radios continue their sputtering communication.

We fell into this rural routine and it felt good. Our friend was a most generous guide who, in return for the limited assistance we could provide, shared with us a knowledge of rural Africa gathered during a life spent in Swaziland, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and, now, Tanzania. Morning patrols brought grazing bushbuck and an unhurried bush pig returning from a night spent nose down looking for good things. In the surface of a road we read the story of a leopard’s passing, in the skies we watched the eagles and wandered if the bateleur would ever fall.

Calves are born into a herd, which they then remain with until they are no longer reliant upon their mother for sustenance. When this point is reached, the young bull calves must be removed from the herd; they are ready to be weaned. Weaning is about noise, motion, control, pace, panic and eventual acquiescence, if not acceptance.

The cattle are brought into the kraal nearest the homestead, a rusting collection of iron bars and metal plates perched in the open field on the crest of a hill, like some elemental crown. Herd boys are gathered from all over the farm; they congregate around the kraal, watchful of us, sharing words in quite voices. Our friend, the farmer, strides amongst them; he is short, but strong and dressed in a khaki that contrasts distinctly to the motley collection of multi-coloured clothes worn by the herd boys. They are nervous of him; they are nervous of his temper, his position and the language that he speaks, but they struggle to understand.

The cattle are in the kraal; they are never still. Brown hide slides against piebald, black contrasts with red, calves congregate or press close to their mothers. Horns rise and fall, some clean, some yellowed with age, others caked in mud. Tongues loll and lick, the animals low. All is movement, all is noise. We look to our friend for guidance; he jumps into the bovine mass: the work must be done this day and his manner betrays no reticence, nor fear. The herd boys join him; some maintain an impassive mask, others are grinning with excitement, but they all maintain a watchful eye on the bull in the kraal. He takes off his hat and waves his arms, exhorting us all to do the same. Gradually, the herd begins to fragment; one by one, those who must move on filter through the crush and out into the field. There they are confronted by a human cordon, each of us armed with short lengths of plastic piping. With these we swish the air, prod and poke. We dance, shout and cajole, forming bemused and disparate creatures into an almost stationary huddle. They are ready to run.

At this point, I am no longer an observer: now I am the kraal and all that stands between a calf and the perceived freedom of the farm. The cattle begin to move, hesitantly at first, but then more swiftly. Cautious individuals nestle against their comrades, while the confident ones lead the group, or look to break away in other, more individual, directions. We shout and swish, the noise and movement enough to maintain control. The pace builds, the herd begins to run. We too run, trying to maintain the cordon and the desired control. Soon I am stretching my legs, hoping that big boots and an overbearing pride will keep me from stumbling. Now the herd has begun to run we can hope only to guide and to direct; the momentum can not be stopped, it must be exhausted.

The farmer uses his Land Cruiser as a motorised outrider, sweeping round our right and roaring to the front, so startling the herd into a hard right turn. Eyes widen in surprise and the herd presses together as it reacts to this new threat. We continue to perform, forcing the pace in order to tire the animals, but anxious not to lose control. Should the herd fragment, then many animals would evade recapture and so face the prospect of spending a night outside the safety of the kraal, immersed in darkness sharp with leopards’ teeth.

We run on, leg lift minimised to preserve energy, skin shining and sweat forming a thin layer upon us all, before condensing to drip into eyes, off elbows and soak the clothes we wear. One of the Tanzanians, at the sign of any slowing of the pace, raises both his arms above his head and drops them in time with his ducking torso, voice whooping into a snarl. This, another man assures me, imitates the action of the lion and will drive the cattle to a greater speed. To me, they just looked a little embarrassed.

The new kraal to which we are destined is several kilometres across the farm at the top of a long, gradual rise. There, adulthood is a kraal of wooden poles given shade by the overhang of old mango trees. It is not much to look at and their future is uncertain, but it is a destination at the end of a long day. As the gradient saps our energy, we all slow, cattle and men alike. The bullocks become inured to shouts, gesture and prodding; we are reduced to physically shoving the recalcitrant to movement, or tapping the swinging testicles of the unfortunate. I fell to thinking that one finds metaphors for life in the most unexpected of places.

In time, despite the heat, the hill, attempted escape and general confusion, we reached our goal. Poles were lifted and cattle followed one another until they were all within the confines of the kraal and the pole could be dropped. After an initial examination of what was new, the cattle recovered their breath and gathered once again to protest about the separation, the journey and the state of being bovine.

Once again, all is movement and all is noise.

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