As Africa becomes more Westernized, cattle are quickly losing their place in the market to the power of cash. Has the almighty dollar replaced this venerable trading practice?
Shifts have been taking place in several rural East African communities as people have begun to abandon the ancient traditional means of paying cattle for bride price and adopting the money idea instead. Coming from the Teso tribe, which is nomadic by nature and a first cousin to the Karamojong peoples, cattle means everything to us. As a child, I grew up believing that cattle were a unique aspect of a family’s lifestyle. We had to have a kind of kraal, learn to milk cows whenever we went to the countryside on holiday, and just enjoyed admiring our cattle. There has not been a time during my life that I have seen my parents and grandparents slaughter a cow for food unless it has fallen prey to disease.
Among the Teso, Karamojong, Turkana and Masaai peoples of East Africa, cattle has been and is still a great symbol of wealth and respect. A family’s wealth is measured by how many cattle they have; even if they are living under some grass-thatched shack, if they have a hundred herds of cattle, they are considered wealthy. Yet in East Africa today, the economy and culture are changing drastically; there is a huge move from farming to industrialization and so, people are forced to migrate to the urban centers to seek professional employment or pursue an education in a field that will lead them away from farming. As a result, the nomadic tribes of East Africa are losing their grip on cattle as a means of trade and a symbol of wealth.
Ekaidu, a 28-year-old woman, who is educated and has traveled widely, who has parents who are educated as well, her father being a strict Etesot man from eastern Uganda, still believes in cattle as a symbol of wealth and believes greatly in bride price. Ekaidu is arranging a wedding for her and her fiancé who has been living abroad; her parents insist on cattle as dowry, but in terms of cash because he lives in the city and has worked there as a government official for over twenty-five years. She is one of many who go through parents insisting bride price is paid in cash and not real cattle. Although during the time of valuing, the bride price is called cattle but the actual dowry is handed over in cash form.
Because of the rapid modernization happening in East Africa, many cultures prefer cash to cattle for a number of reasons. Transportation of the cattle across the country from one part to another covering long distances means that they are prone to accidents, robbery, as well as other unforeseen circumstances. It is easier to transact business cash deals through the electronic banking systems than it would be to move cattle.
Today, many have decided to seek the more professional way of life, which is now being considered the more “proper” way of living, and, as a result, some people have gone as far as selling off their cattle and land and have moved into the urban centers seeking employment. This has resulted in an increased unemployment in the cities and so has increased the crime rate. A more recent example is the increasing number of street women and children in Kampala city. These women have moved from Karamojong in the north east of Uganda and have sold all they had to move into the city in search of wealth. More people today also prefer ready-cash because of the ever-pressing demand to make investment in terms of acquiring land and real estate, so the cattle transaction would take a longer time in converting them to money.
Cattle were once a sign of wealth and a man was gauged according to the number of heads he owned. That has changed now and a man is measured by how much money he has and the manifestation of that in terms of tangible things.
It is also very important to note that the Karamojong tribe has not bought this vie. In the 1980s, there was great insurgency in the Teso region to Uganda; it has been suggested that the Karamojong people believe that God created cattle exclusively for them and that, as a result, they believe that it is only them who should own cattle. During this time, it is said that they went on to raid homes in Teso and took away huge herds of cattle. Even today, in a growing economy, the Karamojong people will not accept cash for cattle. It is said that they will go without clothes, food, or shelter; as long as they own cattle, their lives are fine. In January, 2007, the military was alerted of a situation in Teso where Karamojong had taken a number of cattle. It was followed up by the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF), and when they finally traced the homestead in Karamojong where the cattle had been taken and the Iteso people were asked to pick out their cattle from the kraal, the Karamojong were seen to have been wailing and mourning over the fact that the cattle were being taken away from them. In a world of contrasts, cattle have and may never quite lose their significance as a symbol of wealth and respect in East Africa.