Goats and the meaning of life

MBARARA, Uganda It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and we are in a motorized canoe, headed to the Rwandan border to buy five goats.


It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning and we are in a motorized canoe, headed to the Rwandan border to buy five goats.

Not six or seven, nor three or four. Five.

This magic number was decided upon by sheer financial acumen of the calibre only witnessed in the most successful business circles.

“I have $100 from some friends in Canada,” the volunteer accountant Chris said earlier in the week as we lounged around Bushara Island’s restaurant.

“They asked that I spend it helping someone less fortunate.”

Myta and I carefully assessed each other and shook our heads, dismissing our own volunteer status as not-quite deserving.

Several weeks into a six-month internship funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, we were based on a lake in the far southwestern corner of Uganda, assisting a local development company (and its Canadian partner Africa Community Technical Services) with health education and water-safety projects.

It was our boss who suggested an initiative that we would soon refer to as the GGA, our Great Goat Adventure.

“Goats are a good price at the moment” he mused. “Why don’t you buy some goats? They’re easy to raise and, if you get at least one male, they’ll propagate themselves.”

He entered into a hushed discussion with the restaurant manager, and then conferred with us.

“Rosette thinks that Bruce could use some goats.”

A trainee at the restaurant, 16-year-old Bruce is the head of his family.

He recently lost both of his parents to AIDS and is now looking after his four younger brothers and sister.

Bruce soon appeared from the back of the kitchen and hesitantly approached us, a smile breaking across his face as he was asked if he might like some goats.

“Yes, it’s a good idea!” he said, and then offered to arrange a motorized canoe to take us to the Saturday market at Chevo.

The GGA had begun.

The trip from Bushara Island to Chevo is just over 45 minutes by boat along the length of Lake Bunyonyi.

The beauty of this corner of Uganda is truly breathtaking.

The lake is surrounded by terraced hills and is dotted with islands both forested and farmed.

The high altitude means that it never gets unbearably hot, and the lake is even (and unlike most other parts of Uganda) schistosomiasis free, and therefore entirely swimmable.

On the way we pass Punishment Island — a tiny one-treed island where pregnant unwed girls used to be dumped.

A girl left there had few options: she could starve, drown trying to swim to the mainland or pray to be rescued by a suitor.

Chevo is a village situated on a steep slope at one of the southern arms of the lake and is within walking distance of Rwanda.

Bruce told us that its weekly Saturday market would be the best place to purchase goats as many people travel through with their goods on their way to the trading centre at the border.

Performing some astonishing mental gymnastics during the week leading up to the GGA, we calculated that $100 would be enough, with a bit of luck, to buy five goats.

Chris generously offered to foot the bill for the boat ride, and any incidental goat over expenditure.

Arriving at the village shortly before 9 a.m., we were slightly surprised to find Chevo less than busy.

Actually, less than busy is an understatement.

Besides the three children staring at us from the dock, the market was deserted.

A man wandered down the slope between market stalls and disappeared into a house, Rihanna’s Under My Umbrella echoing from a battered radio resting on his shoulder.

Bruce sensed our confusion and hastened to reassure us.

“The market will not begin until noon,” he said. “But the goats will come very soon!”

“How soon?” I asked, knowing even as the words left my mouth that it is a futile question to ask anyone in Uganda.

In a country where ‘now’ means ‘possibly never’ and ‘now now’ means ‘within a few hours,’ any precise measurement of time is pointless.

“The goats are coming from that side,” Bruce said, knowledgeably pointing to an island slope perhaps 300 metres away.

“The people selling will come now — faster than 30 minutes.”

Armed with this information, we climbed the path that snaked its way up the hillside and settled in the shade of a large tree, prepared for a very long wait and lamenting the fact that none of us had thought to bring a book, some cards or even a pillow.

Over the next hour, we began to amass an entourage as children materialize singly or in pairs from the surrounding houses, forming a loose circle around us.

Once in a while, a boy blurted out, “How are you?” which results in general hilarity.

The girls gravitated towards Myta, who is showing them how to play a game on her cellphone. I attempted to teach the remaining kids birdcalls.

Bruce is unfazed by the attention, his gaze focused on the lake below.

After a while he gets our attention by pointing to a canoe pulling up to a dock below.

“See, the cows are coming,” he points out. “The goats will be coming soon.”

To our astonishment, four cows emerged from the water beside the canoe, let their horns be untied and casually ambled up the hillside.

Apparently cows are stronger swimmers than any of us had imagined.

About 166 minutes later (not that we were counting in the hopes of getting an estimate of the Ugandan definition of “30 minutes”) goats did, in fact, start trickling into the still empty market.

Their owners grab a front hoof and drag them along, the same way a mom drags a cranky child through the junk food section of the supermarket.

At this point, Bruce began to shine.

Casually he approached a man, inspected his goat, exchanged a few words and then, just as casually, ambled back to us.

“Will you buy that goat?” Chris asked excitedly, the prospect of some action after all of the waiting evidently tantalizing.

“No, this goat is too expensive, it is 40,000 shillings. It is also too young.” Bruce shrugged.

And so it went.

Over the next hour, Bruce ran between goat vendors, haggling, inspecting, arguing and laughing.

By noon we had reached our goat quota, including a very vocal female we name Muffin (I tried calling her Wolverine at first, but the name didn’t stick) and an impressive billy goat called Studley.

After another 20 minutes of haggling with vendors regarding landing fees, market fees and the general Muzungu (or rich foreigner) fees, we tiredly wave goodbye to our young companions, each grab a goat or two by the hoof, and lead them down the slope back to the canoe.

After several protests from Muffin, and a few well-placed pushes, most of the goats settled comfortably enough in the front of the canoe.

I say most because the smallest kept getting head-butted, stepped on and generally bullied by Studley.

But then, any big group in close confines has its problems, doesn’t it? Hence the success of reality TV shows.

Some time later, we arrived at Bruce’s home, a small mud-brick house a short paddle from Bushara Island.

With a few more loud complaints from Muffin, the goats were herded (with difficulty) out of the canoe and onto land.

Bruce’s eight-year old sister excitedly emerged from the banana trees and ran barefoot down the hill to greet the new arrivals and tell us that her brothers are all away collecting firewood.

Bruce proudly led us up to his house, gave a quick tour and graciously allowed us to take his picture.

“I am a wealthy man now!” he joked, his sister giggling beside him.

With the Great Goat Adventure having successfully reached its conclusion, I’m suddenly, forcefully reminded of how lucky we are in the West, and how the little things in life matter most.