email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOmo River
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IT WAS THE CATTLE that betrayed Dunga's secret. When he disappeared, leaving his family's herd in the bush, the beasts circled around and grazed their way home, a cloud of dust rising behind them. At the village, Dunga's brother, Kornan, was surprised the animals were returning so soon—without Dunga.

This was in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Lions, leopards, and hyenas roamed the savanna. Elephants and buffalo occasionally came bulldozing out of the bush. Enemy tribes patrolled it too: The Nyangatom, the people who had killed the brothers' father, had been pushing into the area, armed with automatic rifles. Since their father's murder, Kornan had taken charge of family matters, but he wasn't worried about his brother's safety. He had an idea where Dunga had gone, and he was furious.

The brothers had grown up as Kara boys do—chasing animals through the bush with bows and arrows. They pulled guard duty in the sorghum fields, slinging clay pellets at thieving birds. They learned to beware of crocodiles during the wet season, when the Omo runs high and dark with sediment. And they learned the foundation of male responsibility: care for the herds.

Along the Omo, cattle and goats embody wealth and prestige. Without them a man is considered poor and, in most tribes, cannot get married because he has nothing to offer as a bride-price. In time of famine the animals can be sold for food or their milk, and blood can be slowly siphoned off, like interest. Abandoning your cattle is like dumping your family's savings into the river.

Kornan selected a slender stick, then marched to the nearby schoolhouse and found Dunga there. The brothers were close, but this? Leaving the herd for school? Kornan beat Dunga until the boy wept. Some 15 years later Dunga tenses as he remembers the blows. The next morning, sore and chastened, Dunga led the cattle to water at dawn. But a few days later he ran away to school again. And Kornan beat him again.

"I loved Kornan," Dunga said. "He was a father for me, he was everything. But my mind was going to school."

The beatings hardened Dunga's resolve, but they seemed to soften Kornan's. He had been to school himself for a few years, and he eventually realized punishment wouldn't dissuade Dunga. They struck a deal. The boy could go to school as long as he achieved good grades. If his performance fell, he'd be back in the bush with the herd. Dunga was ecstatic. He advanced to a boarding school in a nearby town, each grade taking him deeper into a new world. He returned home less frequently.

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