Picture It

Chirombo Village Pt. 4: The Apprentice Cow Herder

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 06 July 2010

The apprentice cow herder, Yamikani. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Here in Monkey Bay, many of the locals grow their own food and raise a few animals.  Goats, sheep, and chickens wander around the streets and fill the fields.  A less popular, yet still very important, livestock is cattle.  I met up with a young apprentice herder at one of the local farms in Monkey Bay.

Calves being herded between fields. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Yamikani Paulo is 13 years old.  He has lived in the Monkey Bay area since he was born, and he has been herding cattle since he was 5.  This farm, which used to be much larger a decade ago, has  between 25 and 30 cows, nearly as many sheep, and quite a few chickens.  Corn is grown in the surrounding fields.  The cows are rotated between three different pastures, changing at least once every day.  Yamikani usually herds only in the afternoon since he is in school from 7am until 2pm.

Yamikani and his family live on the farm along with another family.  The women tend to the crops.  Yamikani’s younger brother helps him with the cattle.  Yamikani told me that he neither hates nor loves being a cow herder.  He has no other occupational dreams because he knows he will remain a herder even when he is older and has finished school.  He says he is thankful that he not only has a job, but that he found one at such a young age and has been able to hold onto it.

The cows, sheep, and chickens on the farm are either sold or eaten by the farmers.  The proceeds from selling some of the animals pays for the school fees for Yamikani and his brother.

A curious cow sticking its head out the window of the barn to inspect the people outside. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

As I mentioned before, this farm used to be much larger.  There were twice as many buildings and every one of them was spotlessly clean.  The animals numbered in the thousands. Giant walk-in refrigerators kept the food fresh before it was trucked to stores around the country.

Between tending the animals, processing the meat (steaks, jerky, and sausage), planting and picking the crops (corn and mushrooms, among others), and managing the entire operation, this farm employed over 500 people in Monkey Bay.  It was the single largest employer in the area.

Unfortunately, it fell victim to the Malawian economy.  Now, almost half of the buildings sit in ruin, leaving little more than foundations covered in encroaching vegetation.

Shortly after this shoot, I was showing these images to two gentlemen I met at the lodge.  It turns out that one of them was the owner of the farm.  He was shocked and pleased to see photos of his farm, but he was disappointed to see just how much the buildings have decayed in his absence.

Adult cows protecting a curious calf. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

He also told me the story of how the farm came to be in such a state.

Years ago, when the farm was at its peak, he had gone to South Africa to buy some more equipment so he could increase production on the farm.  At that time, the Malawian kwatcha was 1 to 1 with the South African rand.  While he was gone, the Malawian economy took a terrible hit, drastically depreciating the kwatcha overnight.  When he purchased the equipment the exchange rate had increased, unknown to him, to 16 to 1 with the rand.  He had expected to find a nine or ten million kwatcha in his bank account when he returned.  Instead, he found that he had overdrawn by nearly seventeen million kwatcha.  That, of course, was a horrific loss.  The farm was one of his many ventures to suffer the consequences.

Almost all of the 500+ workers lost their jobs when the farm was closed.  Most of them remain unemployed even years later, but since the people here grow and raise their own food, there was not the starvation that is often associated with such a drastic increase in unemployment.

Now, the remains of the giant farm are tended by two families, with Yamikani planning on becoming the main herder in a few years.

When I was photographing the cows, I was worried that my lights would frighten them, stress them, or cause them to charge me.  I was very pleased find that even though the first flash of my lights startled them, they adapted very quickly.  They were more anxious about my presence than that of my lights.

A cow looking menacing. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Inside the barn, the cows remained very curious, but kept their distance.  One calf had the nerve to come close to me, much to the dismay of the mother.  The mother somehow thought that I had caused and encouraged the calf’s curiosity, and she bobbed her head menacingly, threatening to charge every time her baby came too close to me.  Some of the other cows tried to intimidate me too, but most of them watched me intently from a safe distance.  Some of the female cows were pregnant, so they were testy and easily upset, but luckily, none of the cows made good on their threats!

The cows are usually herded between the barns and the grazing fields early in the morning and at dusk when the temperatures are not too unbearable.  The paths to the fields are not direct; they take winding trails that often add a lot of distance so they can pass watering holes and small streams.  The fields have small shelters to protect the herders from the brutal sun.  The cows usually spend the night in the barns to prevent them from getting lost or stolen.

A cow near the waterhole at dusk. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The cows and sheep share the barns peacefully.  The chickens run free around the grounds, but take shelter in some of the broken barns when necessary.  The women sit on their woven straw mats on the old, bare foundations to shuck the corn.  Piles of dry cobs are sprinkled around the cement.

Only one of the buildings still has its doors on the hinges.  Those doors are heavy and hand carved.  The owner told me that those doors protect the old walk-in refrigerators, which are still in working condition, if a little dirty.  The electricity would need to be reconnected before they can be brought back to life.

The owner has recently come back to Monkey Bay and hopes to reopen his farm and the other businesses he left when the economy crashed and bring them all back to their previous splendor.  The locals are already showing their delight at his return.  It might take a few years to bring the farm back to its former glory, but it will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on this community.

Yamikani sitting on the foundation of one of the old buildings. Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: