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Women and oxen

oxen_01Richard O’Dwyer SJ, who in an earlier existence was a chartered quantity surveyor, has learned a lot since he was posted to East Africa Jesuit Refugee Service three years ago. No man tells a story better. His work has taken him to Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda as well as Southern Sudan where he is now based. He  clearly brings out the best in the border guards he encounters. It was more difficult to break new ground in social structures, especially touching the role of women. Richard was apprehensive about his plan to teach women how to plough with oxen and train them for ox-carts. Would the women rise to it? And would their menfolk allow them to? Handling the patient oxen was simple compared with organising a workshop for women. Read Richard’s story below.

Ploughing new furrows in Sudan

Richard O’Dwyer SJ

On Sunday 13th March I travelled to Gulu, northern Uganda to pick up two motor mechanics at St Joseph’s Garage which is run by the Catholic Archdiocese of Gulu. No, I am not about to become part of the motor vehicle industry in Sudan, which, while it is its infancy now, holds huge potential, tempting as that might be! While Bob and Boniface, the mechanics I was meeting on the morning of 14th March, both repair and service all kinds of vehicles owned by the Archdiocese and other organisations, they double as experts in the use of oxen for ploughing. Bob, in fact was trained by Tillers International, an Amish organisation in Michigan, USA, which instructs all comers in the art of ox ploughing.

Having bought a couple of dozen lengths of rope for use as halters, some 25mm blue plastic pipe for use as collars, enough food to feed around 30 people for 10 days and having loaded a generator and a brand new ox cart onto our vehicle, we set out on the 170 kilometre trip back to Sudan. We were still in Gulu when we were stopped by traffic police, as the bed of the ox cart which we had had to load vertically was projecting beyond the roof of the cab of our Toyota Hilux. The said projection made the police very unhappy and they asked why we had not loaded the cart onto a truck. I simply told them that trucking the cart to Sudan was not in my budget, thanks to the unexpected generosity of the Archdiocese of Gulu in donating the cart to oxen project! Hey presto, my explanation seemed to  work with the police and we were on our way again!

We made good progress and we were approaching the border where we had to meet our third oxen expert facilitator, Susan, who had been waiting patiently for most of the day for our arrival. She was waiting in Lokung, a small town close to the Sudanese/Ugandan border. We reached the border and the Ugandan border policemen, who know us very well from constant journeys into Uganda, were friendly as usual. I told them that I hoped to buy and bring around 9 oxen from Uganda into Sudan over the course of the next week or so and they were fine with that. I knew it was better to let them know in advance rather than show up with a cattle truck unannounced because, let us say, there is always a little horse trading – or should that be oxen trading? –  to be done at borders when bringing animals across.

The next day, Tuesday 15th March was Day One of our workshop. We had decided that this workshop would be run mainly for women participants. My one fear was that the women would not be allowed by their husbands and partners to show up. However, JRS has a very good reputation for training workshops, and people know they will learn valuable skills at them. We had also arranged to collect everyone with a JRS vehicle from the villages of Lerwa, Palwar, Lomarati, Kicenga, and the town of Pajok. Twenty women came to workshop.

As we began, we asked the women about their expectations. It became clear that there was a fair amount of apprehension among the 20 women who had gathered for the workshop. I had a strong sense that we were breaking new ground, in more ways than one, by offering to impart ploughing skills to women! We had three nursing mothers among the women, so it was a great idea by Bob and Boniface to provide electric light for about three hours every evening, from dusk at 7 until 10 pm, using a generator. It also made the women feel much more secure.

The workshop was held in a community resource centre built for the people of Lobone by JRS. The women often complained of minor ailments, such as aches, pains and headaches. I was happy to provide them with paracetemol. I felt a lot of the pain was somehow psychosomatic, caused by people attempting to grow into the unfamiliar. Such attempts take courage and determination. A few blister packs of paracetemol are a tiny price to pay for pushing out the boat from the oppressive social structures that bind women in Sudan.

As the workshop  progressed, it was immensely satisfying to see the women grow in confidence as regards working with oxen. To show the women the benefit of using an ox cart as a means of transport, Bob asked for a volunteer to lift and carry Boniface, who is quite a hefty lad. The women dissolved into laughter and then Bob invited Boniface to hop into the ox-cart. Bob again asked for a volunteer to move the cart and a woman moved the in-cart Boniface with relative ease. Inevitably, every group from each village clamoured for an ox-cart. The lesson was well taken!

Buying the oxen proved problematic, as the price of oxen has increased in Uganda, which has a worryingly high annual rate of inflation of around 10% per annum and a scarcity of good-quality oxen. On our first outing we managed to find 7 oxen out of a truckload of about 25. To say the women were overjoyed and excited with the arrival of the oxen would be an understatement; we witnessed an near-Lucan experience of promise and fulfilment!

The women also learned to care for, feed and clean the animals during the latter half of the workshop. Finally, in the last 3 to 4 days of the workshop, the women were able to plough land in Lobone that will be cultivated with oxen donated to their villages. I have to say, that brought me immense joy. I think every human being on the planet should have the privilege of working with domesticated animals in an agricultural setting. There is a harmony and unity in humans and animals working towards a common goal that leads one to an understanding of how creation ought to be: free of the bleakness of exploitation and individualism and full of the life-giving warmth of cooperation and teamwork.

This purchase of the oxen was made possible by generous donations from my family and friends in Ireland and the cost of the workshop was borne by Peace Harvest, a non-government organisation founded by faculty and friends of Notre Dame University, South Bend, Indian, USA. Thank you everyone!