Herding Milk Cows In Africa

Susan Page
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Wednesday - August 22, 2007
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I didn’t really think we’d actually herd 30 milk cows, though that’s what the e-mail said. I thought the “professional cow herders” would bring the heifers along the 2-kilometer rocky, dirt road, then we’d take over the last few yards where the widows would be waiting. Wrong.

After my May 23 column, “The Huge Gift of Just One Cow” (go to www.midweek.com, under Lifestyle), readers have requested a follow-up. Briefly, part of July’s Heart for Africa mission to Kenya was to, among other things (plant gardens, fence them and deliver water tanks), present milking cows to 30 needy widows.

These widows, many HIV positive, are caring for numerous children, barely surviving on less than a dollar a week. They formed a club, calling themselves the “Seagull Widows,” to help each other with basic needs. But self-reliance is their real goal, so they met regularly at Tumaini children’s home to discuss their huge vision: a cow for each of them. When Glory Outreach Assembly head Bishop David Thagana, who runs Tumaini, got wind of this, he told Heart for Africa’s Janine Maxwell, who spear-headed fundraising for 30 cows in the U.S. and Canada.

Cut to 6 a.m. Saturday, July 14. Why so early? I grumbled, struggling out of bed. The loud Muslim call to prayer from 5 to 5:45 a.m. had blasted me out of my much-coveted slumber, but I’d finally dozed off then the knock and a cheery voice, “Susan, time to wake up.”

Every day for 10 days 70 of us Heart for Africa diehards had driven to Kinangop - an hour and a half each way - in small buses on roads so rocky they’d make the Kaena Point trail seem paved. But this morning was special: The cows - and the widows - awaited. And so did Samuel, who’d been purchasing the milk cows as money came, corralling them in a fenced yard behind Karima Church.

Our summer is winter in Kenya, and Kinangop, with its scenic backdrop of mountains, sits at more than 8,000 feet elevation. The sunlit morning was jacket-chilly for the 12 of us designated “cow herders.” As a West Texas native, I was leery. Us “real cowgirls” wouldn’t be nuts enough to lead steers on foot. That’s what quarter horses are saddled up for. Nevertheless, out the gate came the cows - some feisty, a few pregnant - and off we went (yeehah!), little sticks in hand, not sure which species was herd (yeehah!), little sticks in hand, not sure which species was herding which. When the thirsty cows veered down a hill to the creek, the “pros” had to step in. Down the road the rest of our group joined the cow parade to make it a wild bovine-human mélange. Only in Africa!

As it turned out the cow-widow meeting didn’t happen immediately.

A celebration of Tumaini’s fifth anniversary came first, including entertainment by the children, speeches, even a beautiful hula by Malia Tauanu’u, a Hawaii team member, and, most touching, a song of thank you by the widows. By now, we knew them. We’d been to their homes planting gardens.

There singing, face full of joy, was Peninah Wanjiru, 29, who the day before had shown us the painful, active leprosy (her term) lesions on her leg. Her mother Teresiah Nyambura, a Seagull Widow, struggles to pay for Peninah’s life-saving medication. And there, front row, was Josephine Nyambura, whose left arm, dislocated in 2004 and never set, just hangs, making field work to feed her three grandchildren impossible. Singing, too, was Rakeli Wanjiru, who is deaf, and Mary Wangari Njoroge, mother of five, blind from AIDS - all rejoicing before us. All but Milka Muthoni - she died of AIDS before realizing her dream of a cow.

Finally, the cow presentations. Nothing in my life experience could match this. A cold front had moved in from the mountains threatening rain, but nothing would dampen this moment. It was filled with chaos and joy; tears and thanksgiving. In the nearby cow pen, each widow, holding a number matching a cow, was called up. The women, whose lives others have beaten down, pushed in on cow-giving choreographer Maxwell, afraid they might be turned away last minute. When they finally met their cows, tears of joy, praising and hand-clapping ensued. One recipient, her five children beside her, said she was naming her cow “Dorcas” from the Bible, known for her work for the needy. Josephine named her cow after me, the best namesake I could ever hope for.

“I have no words. I have been chased out of several homes and my empty cup thrown out when I went to beg for some little milk for my child,” said Hanna Njeri. “When I took the cow home yesterday evening, we had enough milk to drink with all my children, and after the morning milking it was too much to drink and we sold four litres at Sh. 15 (about 70 shillings make a dollar), making Sh. 60. This is a miracle! God has remembered me at last and I do not have to beg for milk again.”

All I can say is yeehah! .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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