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No Honor Among Cattle Thieves in Africa

Rustling used to be carried out with sportsmanlike respect. But in a culture where livestock are pivotal, even children are killed.

October 21, 2003|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

KATAKWI, Uganda — The invaders had no ideology to push or grievances to avenge -- they just wanted the cows.

Hundreds strong, they dashed into this village on tire-track sandals, their beaded collars flapping and red mini-kilts folded high on the thigh -- the warrior way.

By the end of that afternoon last month, the fighters had taken away scores of sheep, 300 goats and 600 head of cattle.

And 30 villagers -- mostly women and children -- were dead.

In much of the eastern Ugandan and western Kenyan frontiers, people are killing and dying for livestock. In this arid region where seeds often burn in the sand as soon as they're planted, hardy humpbacked cattle are the pivot around which these cultures turn.

Families name their sons after their favorite bulls and stake their prestige on their herds. Cows are doted on and spared hard labor. And when a young man seeks to acquire the sheen of heroism and daring, he goes cattle rustling.

Glory isn't the only thing the young men are after -- they're also driven by love. Dowries are paid in beef, so without a phalanx of bovines -- the bigger and fatter, the better -- a man stands no chance of starting a family.

For most of their history, cattle raids were sanctioned by village elders and carried out by a select cadre of fighters. Tribes usually participated in the raids with sportsmanlike respect for rules and procedures: no raiding during drought or famine, no killing unless absolutely necessary, no taking livestock other than cows, no harming women or children, no looting or burning.

But the abundance of casualties during last month's raid by members of the fearsome Karamojong tribe was a sure sign that old conventions are eroding and the fair fight is a thing of the past. When the attack came, most of the village men, members of the more agriculturally based Teso, were fighting the rebel Lord's Resistance Army in the north.

Florence Janet Akello, 36, ran into a hut with five of her children and cowered behind two other women. A Karamojong warrior kicked open the door and fired, killing the women in front of her.

Ten years ago, spears and arrows were the weapons of choice in the border areas. Now it is the assault rifle. Small arms are floating into Kenya and Uganda from Somalia and Ethiopia as well as Sudan, home to one of the world's oldest civil wars. The AK-47 is changing pastoral cultures, increasing the frequency and lethality of cattle raids and destabilizing large swaths of East Africa.

Many tribes engage in cross-border raids, lending the clashes a dangerous international dimension. Occasionally, Ugandan and Kenyan troops have pursued the bandits across each other's borders, sparking sharp words in both capitals.

With so much rustling, shepherds are moving cattle to more remote and arid pastures to avoid thieves. The herds' increased mobility is hindering their reproduction and spreading bovine illnesses. Anecdotal reports from the region estimate that cattle stocks in some areas have dropped by half in the past three years.

All of this is straining old tribal customs and hierarchies. In the dusty foothills of western Kenya, the Pokot tribe is entering high season for cattle raids.

In August, scores of young women underwent genital excision -- a painful and dangerous procedure in which the vulva is scarred and the clitoris removed. Soon, they will be ready for marriage.

But first, young Pokot suitors will need herds. Nameri Komolimo, 20, who lives outside the village of Makutano, has had his eye on a village girl for several years but hasn't married her because he lacks 40 cows for the dowry. There are many young men like Komolimo in the village -- ready to wed but with no animals in pasture.

Lately, Komolimo has been tracking some cows across the border in Uganda -- they belong to the Karamojong.

"When I go on a successful raid and come back with many cows, that is when my father will say that I am grown up," said Komolimo, sporting a hiphop-style Fubu shirt over a traditional kilt. "I am determined. I have been over the mountain and watched their footprints. If I am courageous enough, bullets will not harm me."

But Komolimo has been wrong before. Last year, he and several dozen other suitors raided the Karamojong on the other side of Mt. Elgon, which straddles the border. They brought back scores of cows and goats.

"Some days later, they came in large numbers for revenge," Komolimo recalled.

"They killed 86 animals, 16 young men and seven mothers. We were displaced from our village. Yes, we made a mistake, but what can we do?

"We wanted the cows. A person without animals has no respect. He is nothing."

Komolimo plans to improve his luck this time by consulting a different libon, or oracle. Traditionally, warriors preparing for raids consult these elders to receive their blessings and guidance.

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