Willy and the cow

For our big project closure party, everyone was clear -- we needed meat. Big meat. (Well not everyone. Nurse Maartje is a vegetarian and would be quite happy if we left the meat alone).

For our big project closure party, everyone was clear -- we needed meat. Big meat. (Well not everyone. Nurse Maartje is a vegetarian and would be quite happy if we left the meat alone).

Kindamba used to be awash in cattle, but then the civil war broke out, and that was it for the cows. Rumour has it that the villagers are thinking of bringing them back, if the peace continues to hold.

Anyway, this is going to be a big party, and there’s no way we can feed everyone on chicken and fish. Fortunately we were able to track down a suitable cow a few villages away thanks to Willy, one of the MSF guards.

Apart from being a stand-up chap willing to do whatever is necessary to get a good party off the ground, Willy also used to be some kind of Congolese cowboy. He volunteered to go and retrieve the cow.Where Willy was going the Land Cruisers couldn’t follow, so his instructions were to escort our cow to a pick-up point on the Kinkakassa road. The plan seemed straightforward; Willy hit the road, and people began talking about recipes, occasionally lapsing into little beef daydreams.

Now and then Willy would climb a mountain in order to get cell phone reception and update us on his progress. Everything seemed to be going well until about the fourth day, when Eric came to see me wearing a grave expression. He had received a call from Willy. “The cow has escaped,” Eric informed me.

How the cow had managed to escape was unclear. I was confused because it seemed to me that the whole point of thousands of years of cattle domestication was that cows shouldn’t escape so easily, especially when there’s only one of them under direct human supervision.

The plan to recapture the cow was also vague. “Willy’s going to wait until dark. The cow will stop moving at night,” Eric told me. Stalking a cow through the Congolese bush at night sounded a bit off. But more experienced heads were nodding all around me, so I accepted this as the wisest course of action.

Days passed, rains fell and suns blazed, with still no word from Willy. Talk of a rescue mission began. But where to begin? The cow’s speed and direction were unknown. 

Finally, almost a week after departing Kindamba, Willy phoned in from a mountaintop near Mounkomo, where he was staying with the village chief. He had tracked the cow about 50km through the bush and had finally recaptured it.

“Come and get me,” he shouted through the static, sounding exhausted. “Bring food.”

Everyone was pretty surprised at how far Willy and the cow had managed to trek. Apart from being thoroughly impressed by his stamina and perseverance, I was excited about the rescue mission, because this meant a trip up the Kimba road and into wild elephant territory.

Alas it was not to be. Once known as a cowboy organization, MSF has matured over the years, and retrieving our own cowboy in unfamiliar territory would have required going all the way up the chain of command to Toronto headquarters, for official permission.

Since Willy wasn’t loitering on mountaintops, we had no way of communicating with him. Even if we could reach him, he would probably have been unimpressed to learn that we needed him to drag the cow another 30km south from Mounkomo to the Mbemba crossroads because of security rules. So we set about hiring someone to go and fetch him and the cow.

As it turns out, there are at least three villages in the area called Mounkomo. The one guy in Kindamba with a viable truck demanded an appalling sum of money to carry out the rescue mission, but we soon realized that he was planning to go to the wrong Mounkomo. When Eric explained that we wanted him to go up the Kimba road, he laughed and refused to make the trip at any price. Maybe he’s already seen the elephants.

Now if I had just chased a cow all over the countryside, I would have simply stayed put in Mounkomo growing increasingly resentful as my rescuers failed to appear. Fortunately Willy is a more sensible fellow, and when help did not materialize he began making his way south along the Kimba road.

As the prospects of hiring an independent transporter declined, we decided to send Eric and Richard up to the Mbemba crossroads to see if Willy might turn up. Eric was pretty sure he would.

When the rescuers radioed back to base to tell us they had found Willy and the cow alive and well, a great cheer went up. Once again talk turned to beef: recipes, butchery, and how to slaughter the cow in a Halal manner so that Dr. Ahmed could also partake.

The consensus was that Willy should be rewarded with the choicest cut, which around here is the head. Fine by me.