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Richard’s oxen

africa_01Richard O’Dwyer SJ is half-way through his second year in Sudan, and has weathered some hard times since we last heard from him in November. His latest message is upbeat, and focuses on oxen. “Last year, I had the good fortune to meet Professor Todd Whitmore from the University of Notre Dame in the Catechists Training Centre in Gulu.  Todd specialises in the area of Catholic Social Teaching and is on the board of a marvellous organisation called Peace Harvest.   Peace Harvest has been working in agricultural development in northern Uganda, especially in the use of oxen for ploughing. You may remember that this was a special interest of mine. Last October, Todd told me that Peace Harvest hoped to organise an ox-ploughing workshop in Lokung, Uganda in spring 2010.  Lokung is only a one hour drive from Lobone and there is a good maram road from the border to Lokung.  I asked if I could bring a small group from Sudan to the workshop. For months I heard nothing, so in January I wrote to Todd by e-mail and he wrote back and said that he hoped to come to northern Uganda in March and that our Sudanese would be most welcome at the workshop. I had asked our local chapels to nominate 2 people from each chapel for the workshop.  On Sunday 7th March I assembled the would-be oxen carers and we headed to Lokung on Monday morning.

As soon as we arrived, I realised we had come to the right workshop!  Straight away our group was put to work with anvil and charcoal forge whose bellows was operated by turning the pedals of an upturned bicycle to power a fan from a disused engine!  Bob Okello and Opira Noah, the workshop facilitators after welcoming our participants and introducing themselves, gave our guys hacksaws and measuring tape.  In no time, they cut mild steel square and circular section bars to make rings and staple pins for the oxen harness.  The next day they were fashioning the wooden yokes and collars made from plastic waste pipes that plumbers in Ireland use to take waste water from our sinks and showers.

The following days covered oxen husbandry, illnesses and veterinary care of the oxen, use of the plough and how to set the plough using vertical and horizontal.  I was able to observe our trainees sitting attentively and soaking up the content of the workshop as blotting paper is wont to do to ink.

Providentially, on Wednesday, the halfway point in the workshop, the long awaited delivery of 4 oxen for our chapels in Sudan came to pass.  A promise made last year was brought to fulfilment.  Okello and Opira selected 4 healthy oxen from the 8 who were on sale. Our participants were able to spend the next 3 days grooming, feeding and bonding with the oxen.  They were required to give the oxen names and to use the names at all times.  In typical Sudanese fashion, one of the oxen was named Richard and another called Lam after our Project Director who accompanied me to the workshop!  The final act on Saturday morning was castration of the poor oxen.  Apparently, normal levels testosterone in young bulls is not compatible with happy dedication to ploughing. I was not present for this act, which I am told is quite painless, I was grateful I had to travel to Kampala!