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The Bank of Cow July 10, 2007

Posted by isabelleinnamibia in Cows, Culture, Home and away, Money, Namibia, Oh..interesting, Ovitoto, The job.
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As I have mentioned before, Ovitoto is a rural farming community. This is not the ploughs-and-tractor type of farming, but more livestock farming. Especially cows. The Hereros are well-known for their love of bovines. Cows are everything: money, status, livelihood, food, gifts. The women even traditionally wear hats which resemble cow horns, coupled of course with an abundance of Victorian-style dresses, layered one on top of the other.

Hereros, like many African groups, don’t tend to use banks as readily as people do in the West. They instead use the Bank of Cow, with their money tied up in cows and other livestock. This makes a lot of sense really. Livestock grow, they reproduce and create offspring which will also reproduce, which means your investment will increase naturally – a better inflation rate than any bank will offer.

With a cow priced on average between N$3000-5000 (about £200-450), and goats around N$300-600 (£20-45), it is also a good way to keep track of how much money you have just by looking in your kraal (animal pen/paddock). Every farmer knows how much livestock they have, and are very attentive to their cows. The Bank of Cow is also pretty low maintenance. In the morning, you milk whichever animals are milkable, and then you let them out for a day of lazy grazing around the area. Ovitoto is communal land so the animals wander all over the place, but always return to the kraal by nightfall. Livestock are given as presents, and any wedding, funeral or other family event will involve the slaughtering of some animal for the feast. The only time they don’t work so well is during droughts or when there are too many cows, like there are in Ovitoto.

The Hereros though are cow crazy. They have something like 40 different words for cow in their language, name people and places after their cows, and hold their cows as closely as they do their family. Cattle rustling is a huge crime, punishable by up to 20 years in prison (to put it in perspective, rape only gets 4-5 years in prison). Cows are serious business. I am also under the impression that they would rather have their children not go to school, than sell a cow to pay for the school fees. The decision to sell off cows is not taken lightly.

So when I heard that the Ovitoto Farming Show was taking place last week, I had to check it out. Tjono had arranged to sell Tso-tso stoves there, and I had to go along to supervise and mingle with the community. I also decided to invite a few friends to show them where I work. We set off early last Saturday, also accompanied by a musician friend who I had bumped into the night before, who is actually from Ovitoto. He hadn’t been back in years so was eager to see his family. When we arrived late morning, the auction kraal was getting busy. The kraals were packed with goats and massive bulls, with their owners proudly standing around doing the cow-talk. It was a little like men back home and their cars, showing off their wealth and status through their possessions. The shebeen (local bar) was already over-flowing with drunken farmers who were very interested to find out who these three white girls were, and whether any of us were married yet. As I attended to business, our musician friend took my friends off to meet his family. They return 45 minutes later, having met the entire community, as is often the way in these communities: everyone is related to everyone in some way.

After a tour of my ECO Centre and the village, we returned to the auction kraal, just at the end of the show’s introductory speeches. And so the show was officially open. What we were witnessing was a cow and goat competition. A bit like a dog show, but with cows and goats. In turn, proud goat owners would enter the arena with their feisty rams, and try to make them walk around in a nice circle. This becomes more entertaining when the ram decides against this and runs off, dragging the owner behind. Then two women come forward and spend about 10 minutes discussing which is the best goat. Since this was in Otjiherero, it wasn’t clear what the criteria was, but I believe how much meat the goat carried won more points than good behaviour, silky hair or their ability to stand in the arena without relieving themselves.

We did have a moment of panic when our friend realised she’d locked her keys in the car. This would be a problem in most places, but Tjono promptly found a friend who is known for breaking into vehicles and had the car open in a matter of minutes. We thanked him with a bottle of beer from the shebeen; it is possible that during this visit to the shebeen, I may have gotten married, but since I didn’t understand what was being discussed, I am ignoring it (my so-called husband was so drunk, it is unlikely he remembers anyway).

As the afternoon wore on, we wandered around the kraal, watching the animals and the people parading themselves around. There was also a Herero Lady Pageant, with many women in their finest cow hats and delicately embroidered poofy dresses, sat elegantly in the stand. Quite a day of excitement for the men of Ovitoto: not only a goat and cow pageant, but a women’s pageant too. A show of their finest favourite specimens.

We couldn’t stay on to see the cow show part, but the goats were enough excitement for one day. With fat cakes in hand, we piled into the car and many of the community waved us on our way. We were all cowed out.

See pictures on my Flickr site, link to the right.

For information on Isabelle’s future tours to Ovitoto: please write to i-love-cows@ovitoto.com . Tour fees can be made in chickens or sheep or on Mastercow. No chicks accepted.

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