Monday, May 21, 2007

Moo - Part 1

Driving through the South African countryside is similar to driving across central Texas.

Bucolic rolling hills, farms, pastures, cows, and big big skies.

Very few fences, though.

Many cows, few fences.

Last night, in the fading twilight, as I drove around a dark corner, the high cow-to-fence ratio of this part of the world became immediately and abundantly clear.

The sun had just set over the distant horizon. The beautiful shroud of colors reminded me of the sun going down at home.

Daylight had plunged far into the earth. My rearview mirror was deep purple, roughly the color of venous blood. All ahead was bile-black.

Pitch, charcoal black.

The moon was either new or had fallen from the sky, for moonlight there was none.

As I rounded the bend, a form in my headlights took shape. Even the shape was midnight black. Big and midnight black.

Oil black.

The whole sudden affair had no precedent, at least not in the life of Ryan Phelps. Well, actually, the shape was not unprecedented. I knew exactly what it was shaping up to be. The unprecedented part was the speed at which the shape-taking took place.

While I was traveling well beneath the speed limit, the obstacle spryly leapt from the soupy darkness as if I were breaking the nighttime land speed record.

It was only in retrospect, as I stood beneath the new moon, that I realized that I had been warned.


I was returning from Pretoria after a long weekend of camping, eating, and sightseeing. Highlights of sights seen included a big white rhinoceros and baby lions. While the rhino was wild, the cubs were not (see photo below).

Ryan and lion.

A wild rhino is an impressive sight. It is like an armored car, except it grazes and has legs.

Many would argue that the lion cubs pictured do not belong in captivity. I tend to agree, and actually feel that they also do not belong in my arms. There are two reasons for this. Claws and teeth. Actually, I counted eight claws and two particularly long teeth per cat.

Eight plus two is ten reasons…so at least ten reasons not to carry lions around, even cute little ones.

Well, some lessons come later in life than they should.


I am from Texas.

The first time I saw rhinos and lions, it was at the Ft. Worth Texas Zoo. I did not know at the time that the animals were of African origin, but eventually I figured out (with age) that not all big and impressive animals were native Texans.

While the continent of Africa did not make it into my primary and secondary public school curriculum, Texas definitely did.

I had two years of Texas history at ten years of age. World history was a one-year course seven years later..

Texas, I learned as a preteen, is historically oil and cattle country. We took the oil out of the ground and put it in barrels and we took the large cattle herds of the central plains, herded them, and put ‘em in corrals.

Yee haw.

Swaziland has little “Texas tea” (a.k.a. black gold, oil, etc.), but it is, like my home state, very much cattle country. While the history of Swaziland was not covered at Denison, TX’s B. McDaniel Middle School, I have been here for the better part of a year and I can tell you with confidence that cattle play heavily into daily life.

While Texas cow culture is now for the most part a thing of museums and while roping and riding is now largely for rodeo performances, raising cattle here remains an essential, life-preserving vocation for Swazis. There are still cowboys in Texas, of course, and the steakhouses are hard to beat, but here in Swaziland bovine ownership represents financial and nutritional security. In many rural areas, wealth is still measured in cows.

Cows, after all, provide milk and meat and usually retain their value.


(To be continued…)


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