SALEM, Ohio — After the rebels killed her husband, Santa didn’t know what to do. Her country had been ripped apart by a civil war, resources were scarce and she was suddenly all alone with five children.
How would she feed their empty bellies? How would she put a roof over their heads? How would she find clothes to cover their backs?
And it wasn’t just her children she worried about. She had to take care of her mother, too. Santa wasn’t even 40, but so many lives depended on her.
How would she take care of everyone?
Unfortunately, there are many families in Uganda just like Santa’s. Her country is full of widows and orphans and desolate souls. For years, they’ve grasped at anything they can to survive.
But now, after decades of struggle, there’s hope. And it’s coming a few oxen at a time.
As the sun beat down on Lokung — a large village near the equator in northern Uganda — Geauga County farmer Vicki Solomon patiently demonstrated how to adjust the chain length on a team of oxen.
Half a world away from her Huntsburg, Ohio, home, Solomon encouraged the villagers as they practiced hitching the oxen and driving them back and forth across the dry, dusty field.
It was probably 100 degrees, but she kept working as her ankle-length skirt swished against her boots.
There was so much to teach and only a couple of weeks to get it all in.
In March, Solomon joined the Cross Border Animal Power Project for Peace, a program designed to teach the Acholi people in the Gulu district of Uganda how to farm using oxen.
The area has been devastated by a civil war that lasted more than 20 years. Many Acholi have been living in refugee camps their whole lives and depending on international food aid for survival.
Even those who remember life before the war are struggling to find their independence. The area was once the breadbasket of the nation, but the cattle are gone and most of the people have forgotten how to work them anyway. The land is overgrown and hand hoes are the best tools available.
There’s a desperate need for people who can teach ox-driving skills, according to Solomon. With ox power, people can farm. If they can farm, they can lay the foundation to heal the country’s economy.
Solomon has been raising oxen since 2000 and became involved with the Cross Border Animal Power Project for Peace through Tillers International, an organization devoted to low-capital technology and sustainable agriculture.
Tillers completed a successful animal power project pilot program two years ago and the organization planned to return to Uganda for another training session this year.
When Solomon heard about the opportunity to share her ox-driving skills, she couldn’t wait to get on board.
With ox power, people can farm. If they can farm, they can lay the foundation to heal the country’s economy.
The Tillers’ team purchased eight native cattle — 3- to 5-year-old Zebu bulls weighing about 400 pounds each — from eastern Uganda. They also bought an Ankole calf team to be trained by the villagers.
By the end of the two-week training session, the adult oxen had learned to plow. With the rainy season — and crop season — beginning just after Solomon left in mid-March, the oxen will give a big boost to the amount of millet, sorghum, sesame, cassava, maize, beans and rice grown in Lokung.
During the training session, the Tillers’ group was joined by four Acholi who had participated in the Cross Border Animal Power Project for Peace pilot project in 2006.
They have become skilled enough at driving oxen to share their knowledge with others.
Santa was among the Acholi teachers. After completing the pilot program, she began sharing a team of oxen from Tillers with a group of farmers in her village. Since getting the oxen and learning how to work them, the farmers have begun growing their own food and they make a little money by hiring themselves out to plow fields and haul bricks.
The money they make goes into a community fund and it is distributed among all the farmers in the group.
Besides building a farming industry, the animal power project is also a chance for women to gain independence, according to Solomon. Women do most of the agricultural work in Uganda, partly because so many men have died from war and sickness.
During the first day of training, Solomon went out with a team of oxen and several women from the village. As the oxen hauled some large logs for conditioning, Solomon noticed the women gathering firewood and carrying it on their heads.
When the same scene played out on the second day, she suggested the women let the oxen haul the firewood. And just like that, the women were relieved from the backbreaking work.
“I began to see how the oxen can literally be a women’s liberation for the Acholi,” Solomon said.
For women like Santa, oxen can also provide a rare sense of security. Although the team she shares with her community is keeping her family afloat for now, Santa’s sights are set on something higher.
The cow she owns produced a calf this year — perfect for half a team of oxen. Her goal is to buy one more calf, which would allow her to have a team of her own. If she had her own team, she could keep all the money she makes from plowing and hauling.
For Santa, it’s a pursuit of sustainability, independence and hope. It’s a pursuit pulled by oxen.