When goats inspire greater cooperation

This week I want to tell a story. About goats. Yes, goats, those hardy creatures that are the most likely animals to withstand the effects of climate change.

This week I want to tell a story. About goats. Yes, goats, those hardy creatures that are the most likely animals to withstand the effects of climate change.

They are so adaptable they can survive on little water – they are actually averse to contact with water – and feed on vegetation other animals won’t get anywhere near.

Since there appears little the world intends to do to reverse climate change, goats might very well be the livestock of the future.

Goats are perhaps East Africa’s most populous livestock. But they rarely get a mention, and when they do, they are dismissed as being of low status, which is hypocritical because they are much sought after as nyama choma. It is a story of loved dead and shunned alive.

This story is not about goats’ survival abilities or their palate-pleasing qualities. It is about them as a source of inspiration to a higher level of human conduct.

Many years ago when I was still in shorts in secondary school – I don’t know why boys don’t wear shorts any more, at least to remind them they are not men yet -  there was a very interesting picture of goats in the headmaster’s office.

The goats were the first thing you saw when you entered his office, except, of course, for the great man himself. Initially, it wasn’t easy to know what he was doing with goats.

For all we knew, they didn’t keep many in England. Then it became clear. This was a school in East Africa and, although goats can be found in most parts of the world, they are a typically east African species and had a story to tell that we could understand.

The picture had two goats tethered together in the middle of the frame looking in opposite directions.

At either end of the picture were lush shrubs which the goats eyed longingly. Unable to resist the temptation to feed on the obviously attractive vegetation, each goat pulled towards the shrub nearest to it. But being tied to each other neither could get to its object of desire.

After pulling for long and getting nowhere, the goats, exhausted, sat down to consider their next move. The shrubs were still there and the urge to get their teeth into the delectable delicacy so near yet unreachable was growing stronger.

After some moments of consideration, they got up and, together, went to one shrub, fed on it and moved to the other, and did the same. They then retired to the centre of the picture and lay down, obviously satisfied, and started chewing the cud in a sleepy and contented manner. 

Like every good story, this one of the headmaster’s goats had a moral to it. It taught us the primacy of discussion and cooperation in reaching objectives. Competition, while ordinarily a good thing, did not always ensure that one’s needs were met, especially where common interests were concerned.

And crucially, once a decision has been reached, it is important to stick to it. You do not first agree on a course of action together, and then midway, decide to pull in a different direction.

The goats in the headmaster’s office taught this moral so effectively; he never had to preach to us about the need for cooperation. Of course, the same moral was repeated in the chapel, without the goats, and in a more prosaic way.

The preachers said we were fated to live together, especially neighbours, and we had to cooperate to advance our common interests.

The way humankind goes on about cooperation – and we in this region have gone a step farther – shows that many must have learnt the same lesson I did, maybe without the benefit of goats or regular visits to the chapel and getting free counsel from the chaplain on good neighbourliness.

It is a lesson as relevant to humans as being each other’s keeper, but which sadly is often easily forgotten.

It is now many years since my first encounter with the goats in Mr Edward Batchelor’s office. A few days ago, the story returned to me, but in a rather different way.

I started wondering: what would happen if a third shrub suddenly appeared after the goats had reached an agreement to feed on the first two, one after the other? Would the selfish instinct for individual gratification reassert itself and scuttle the agreement to tackle things together?

Would individual interest override the need for a common stand and lead to a shift in the terms of the agreement?

Goats being, well, goats, will probably be inclined to go their separate ways until they are reminded of the futility of unilateral action. This attitude is not surprising since they are reputed to be headstrong creatures and will always stray where their whim takes them or when the urge comes.

This was only a fleeting thought, though.  But based on what I see and hear, it is not far from the realm of possibility.

I returned to the more comforting story of the headmaster’s goats. They were at least more reassuring and in a way inspiring. Being typical East African creatures and their story being an East African story, they may perhaps teach us a thing or two about eschewing selfishness where cooperation can bring better benefits, reaching and respecting agreements, and avoiding unnecessary competition.



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