Letter from the livestock auction yard
By Andrew Kipkemboi

Goats at an auction yard [Courtesy]

In the yard are hundreds, perhaps thousands of cattle, sheep and goats. No one is allowed to count them. It is taboo. Even the county official issuing receipts at the gate cannot tell how many cows have walked in.

There are also dogs and sometimes cats – wild cats.

Huddled in one corner are the buyers, also called Wanjurusi, and the other corner has been taken over by the sellers.

Those yet to bring in their cattle are wolf-whistling and whipping the stubborn cows urging them to move ahead. Time is running out. The sun is beating down hard. It is getting really hot and sweaty in the auction yard situated on the bed of the Kerio Valley. Many of the animals are making hesitant strides.

An old lady passionately urges on her only cow: “Uii eeh cheptuolyon si kosoman lagook.” (Go in, the one who carries the bell so that the children can go to school) – an apparent plea to the buyers to buy the cow so that proceeds from the sale can be used to pay school fees for her children.

 There are loud murmurs. The auctioneer is late again!

“I hope his car did not break down,” one of the wanjurusi panics.

“Or maybe his car ran out of fuel again… Last evening there were long queues at the petrol station,” says another.

Nobody can really tell as it is apparent that no one has his number. Most people his age consider the mobile phone a nuisance and choose not to own one.

One cannot fail to notice that it is the wanjurusi who are talking in loud voices while the opposite side sits in grave silence.

Participants from each side steal glances at the path leading to the auction yard then back at the animals. It is the onset of the dry season and all of them want to sell off their livestock before the drought sets in.

A cloud of dust rises from near the entrance and an air of excitement lights up on the peoples’ faces. That means the auctioneer is finally here. The farmers start talking amongst themselves.

A bull makes a thunderous entry into the yard sending everyone scampering for safety. The bulky dark brown beast plants itself smack in the middle of the frightened crowd, who try to shoo it away by shouting and gesturing animatedly at it. Some brave men step in front and literally grab the bull by its horns, and subdue the one-tonne beast in no time. The owner, an old man carrying a stool heaves a sigh of relief. His little dog follows him to the shade as the bull is led to the stanchion.

“Are you alone?” one of the men who wrestled the bull asks the old man, as a middle-aged woman hands him a cup of hot porridge and boiled cassava.

“No, I was with your age mates! And they couldn’t catch that bull,” he says spitting onto the ground.

From his pockets, he takes out a brown vial, shakes it then opens and snuffs ground tobacco. Achoo! he sneezes. “Useless young men without muscle,” he says clearing his nose by blocking one at a time and blowing out, he cleans his hands then gets back to his meal. Hungrily, he devours the two mounds of boiled cassava.

Laid out in a mat next to him is a mixture of herbs, ground tobacco and millet on sale by some women standing by the fence. There is a crowd milling around them.

An old man is selling a jembe handle, another is selling cooking sticks, another one honey, and yet another skins and hides. And, there is someone secretly hawking arrows and bows and pangas. He knows that the chief will want to have a word with him if he is found out.

A group of teenagers are trying out the clothes on display at the second-hand shelter. Some are buying the clothes, others are just trying them for the fun of it.

There is a burst of excitement as the auctioneer is driven in. It is all systems go as he gets down to business, but first after greeting the crowds and excusing himself.

“I hope all of you are well and ready to do good business today, better late than never,” he says. The crowd nods. They just call him Auctioneer. People care less to know his real name.

“Who will set us off?”

He is handed a set of receipts by the county official and he reads them.

Ano Cheptarus?” (Where is Cheptarus)

Ata no Kiprono? he asks one of the Munjurisi as he calls out for bids.

Raising his right hand in a clenched fist with his thumb in between his index and middle fingers and snapping the index and the middle finger to signal Sh17,000, Kiprono makes his bid.

“Seventeen, seventeen five, eighteen… that is a nice start,” the auctioneer says.

Cheptarus grins, another Munjurusi winks and the prize hits Sh18,500. Another one raises his cap twice and that ups it to Sh19,500.

Finally, it is sold at Sh32,000. This is repeated for the rest of the other cattle, the goats and the sheep.

Suddenly, there is a stampede and people lie down flat on the ground as others cover their heads. They are dodging a swarm of bees.

The climax is the sale of a bull, that starts at Sh40,000 and ends at Sh90,000. The crowd cheers as the Wanjurusi outwit each other, each trying to take home the nearly five-feet tall bull.

As the cattle are led out of the yard, each has a paint mark for the owner to identify his herd. It is the start of their final journey that leads to the abattoir.