The old man and the cow

2010-06-07 00:00

THE ikhehla had been waiting for me for a while, sitting ram-rod straight, his shoes polished like a mirror, his hat in his hand. He had a big nkinga. One of his cows had been battling to give birth for at least two days and needed some urgent veterinary attention. It was Friday 4 pm, bad timing.

I piled him into my pick-up with a heavy heart and left our littered city, climbing up the hills to the upper reaches of Sweetwaters township.

His homestead was a reflection of himself. His daub-and-wattle house had been recently whitewashed and a small garden of pink and white flowers greeted the entrance.The yard was devoid of grass but had recently been raked and brushed. A poor man’s abode but one that was maintained with pride and devotion.

I was greeted with courtesy (if not optimism) by his wife, a gnarled and genteel old woman, his daughter and her husband, a thin and sickly man, who was unlikely to be of any assistance if strength and energy were required.

A corner of the yard was enclosed with a miscellany of wire and planks. Here, the herd (which comprised two cows, a heifer and a calf) was kraaled at night. A recent downpour had created a quagmire, the depth of which, in places, would have possibly drowned a short man. The heifer was tied to a post in a relatively dry corner of the kraal and was easily distinguishable by the swarm of flies hovering around her rear end.

While I changed into gumboots and overalls and collected impahla zami together, two strips of corrugated iron were detached from the roof of a nearby lean-to and placed over the worst of the mud, creating a path to the heifer.

My examination of the animal was not at all encouraging. The dead calf was firmly wedged in her pelvis and putrefaction had ballooned the carcase with putrid- smelling gas and liquid. The calf would never be delivered in its entirety through the pelvis. The heifer would also never survive a Caesarean section. I looked across at a line of expectant faces. Failure would mean the death of the cow, one third of the breeding herd. It was not an option

I resigned myself to a long, tedious and smelly procedure of pulling the calf out bit by bit.

By this time we had enlisted the aid of a passer-by who had been spotted weaving his way home from the local shebeen, a quart bottle firmly clasped in his fist and a song on his lips. Important tasks were delegated to my merry band of assistants. The gogo was tasked with ensuring that the heifer remained attached to the fence pole, the daughter held the tail up and away from the rear end, and the pulling crew, consisting of the sick, the drunk and the aged, were lined up behind me.

The procedure involved an epidural which anaesthetised the back area allowing me to get a wire saw inside the heifer and around the calf’s neck. The drunk was tasked with sawing the head of the calf off and pulling the severed head out, the traction provided by a rope attached to the head with hooks inserted into the eye sockets. This gory and strenuous exercise proved too much for the poor man who retired to his warm Black Label and was last seen ambling down the lane, smelling like a blocked drain, eyes as big as saucers and no longer with a song in his heart.

Using similar techniques we cut and ripped off the front legs. The torso was by now protruding but stuck like a fat pig in a small hole. The sick man by now had also retired to the shade of a stunted paperbark tree and the old man was providing as much energy as a torch with a flat battery.I resorted to tying a thick rope to the torso of the dismembered calf and the other end to the old man’s aged arm and wedging him behind a pole. I then straddled the rope, bouncing up and down on it until,at last,the rest of the calf suddenly exploded from the heifer like the sneeze from a kid with a cold, leaving the ikhehla and myself in a heap in the mud and the dung

His hat had long since been discarded, his shoes were no longer recognisable, his starched shirt and ironed pants could have been used as props in Dirty Jobs and his arm was almost detached from his body but, as he lay on his back in the mud, for the first time a smile appeared on his weathered countenance.

And I had to sleep in the spare room that night.



• The author is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.

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