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He had the skinniest legs I think I’ve ever seen on a 15-year-old boy and one of the most disarming smiles, though it took a few minutes for that to appear. Being the mother of two boys and now, too soon, an empty-nester, I can’t help but notice these things.
He was standing next to a stretch of rough dirt road in front of a herd of cows so thin their ribs cast shadows on their hides. They were moving slowly in the heat of the morning, almost as if they were sleep walking. We were on our way to the village of Melka Guba in southern Ethiopia where drought has killed countless cattle and plunged millions of people into crisis. We had pulled over to wait for our colleagues who had stopped some miles back to repair a flat tire. When we finally turned our attention to our surroundings, there he was with his cows, studying our dust-coated truck. We were as curious to him as he was to us. We started to talk.
He told us he was on his way to find water and pasture, still a day’s walk from where we stood. He had left his own village the day before and was weaving his way through the bush, crackling and gray, as his cows nosed for any bit of green on the ground they could find. Ten of them—so vital for his family’s survival —had recently died. Other families, he said, had lost their entire herds and the boys he used to meet on the way to pasture no longer made the journey. He now spends his days and nights mostly by himself, he said.
Slung over his shoulder was an axe with a simple handle cut from a tree limb and a blade so sharp I imagined it could do its work swiftly. He used it, he said, to make enclosures for the cattle at night, hacking at the thorny brush and heaping it into a circle—a two-hour task. But that’s not all he needed the axe for: Some nights, it became a weapon for fending off hyenas.
He had tied a bright pink shawl about his waist and slung there, also, was a battered plastic water jug and a cup. Buried deep in the pocket of his shorts he carried a box of matches for making a fire, and set on the ground at his feet was a gallon-sized can—it once contained vegetable oil—outfitted with a string. It was his cooking pot. Inside, nestled at the bottom, was the small bit of sorghum that would feed him for the week.
As he spoke, his face had that open, confident look of someone sure of his work and comfortable in his skin, even as he discussed, without a hint of self-consciousness, the loneliness of his days and the fear he sometimes felt through the long dark nights at the thought of hyenas lurking. I marveled at his independence, the efficiency of his gear, and the huge responsibility he bore at 15: care for his family’s most prized asset—their cattle.
In this region, the fate of families hangs on the health of their herds. They depend on the milk from their animals for sustenance. And when there’s an important purchase to be made—of grain, of school supplies, of medicine—they turn to their livestock the way people in developed countries turn to their savings in the bank: Herders will sell a cow and use the cash to buy what they need.
But with a severe drought now wiping out pastureland and drying up watering holes, that generations-old economic contract is tottering dangerously, tipping untold numbers of families into destitution. Their cattle are dying and they have nothing on which to fall back.
Lost in conversation with the boy, we looked up and suddenly realized his cows had wandered across the road and out of sight into the brambles. He dashed. We followed.
Dodging thorns and side stepping a snake as it slithered into its hole, we shouted our farewells. He found his cows and we returned to our truck, grateful for a chance encounter with a boy who had never been to school but knew the world in a way we never would and shared his knowledge as only the best teachers can—with frankness and grace.