In most of Madagascar, a zebu is the most valuable thing you can own. Investing in zebus is the Madagascar equivalent of owning a portfolio of blue chip stocks, because you can expect your herd to increase in size and value over time. But it’s much more than that. The zebu can also pull a cart or a plow for you. It provides meat, and possibly a little milk. Zebus are a symbol of power and prestige. You must sacrifice a zebu on certain important occasions, such as the building of a new house or the death of a relative, in order to assure future success, well-being, and the good favor of the ancestors.
Minding the zebu is a task often relegated to the boys; in return they are compensated with one zebu per year. By the time the boy is 18, he may have acquired 12 zebus, which is enough to fund his education (assuming he stayed in school through high school), or enable him to get married.
Only 5% of zebu in Madagascar are slaughtered each year for food. Assuming that about 50% are cows kept for breeding, and a small additional percentage are kept for a variety of other purposes, that still leaves a large number of cattle that are kept only to inflate the size of the herd and the prestige of the owners. The tragedy in this is that the forests of Madagascar have been relentlessly destroyed to provide better grazing for these cattle.
Zebu theft is, not surprisingly, a major problem throughout the country. It is even a sort of rite of passage in some areas. In the Bara region, for example, the tradition is that a man must steal a zebu in order to pay the bride price, and perhaps serve a year or two in prison for the crime, in order to prove his love for his fiancée. My guess is that this whole drama is carried out with a wink and a nod, facilitated by elders, but what a romantic image these people have of themselves: a tribe of passionate outlaws!
Near the end of our last full day of our river trip, we entered another gorge. We didn’t see any lemurs, but the scenery was beautiful and the air was, for a change, free of smoke. “Let’s camp here,” I suggested, as a perfectly good sandbar came into view.
Ludo gazed around, clearly tempted, but then shook his head. “No, this isn’t a good place to camp.” He didn’t offer any more.
“Why not?” Karel and I were definitely not demanding customers, but no reasonable request was ever refused.
“The zebu rustlers like to hide their cattle here. They could decide to drive the zebu across the river tonight, right through our camp. They may demand that we take them somewhere in the pirogues. We definitely don’t want to meet them.”
And so the tourists were paddled along in their safe little bubble to the next safe little campsite.This entry was posted in Madagascar, Vacation 2016: East/South Africa