The Day I Almost Bought A Goatherd’s Son

The last part of our road trip took us into the mountains of Munnar, where the strange-looking tea plantations sat in amongst some of the cooler corners of Kerala.

The tea plantations of Munnar, Kerala

It was here that I was touched by a chance meeting with a goat-herder. The same age as me, we couldn’t have been more different.

At around five the sun prepared for an evening behind the Western Ghats and I made my way to the highest point in the Munnar region for some sunset pics. As I got the tripod ready a goat emerged from the road below, followed by another, and then another. A man hobbled behind them, staff in hand and foot bandaged.

This was Chella Duri, the local goatherd who worked on the land belonging to the Deshadan Resort, Kerala’s highest holiday retreat. At 40 years old he was the same age as me but he wore a face that had seen far more hardship than I. He was a Hindu from Tamil Nadu, the neighbouring state. It was not uncommon to find Tamils working in Kerala. With Kerala being the most educated state in India finding labour for the manual jobs normally meant employing people from Kerala’s poorer, neighbouring state.

Using his staff he hoisted himself upon a small brick pedastal and, turning to the vast mountains beyond, proceeded to shout “Bah, bah!”, the Malayalam word for “come here”.


He smiled for a while as his goats hopped up the mountain to the path where we were standing. Despite his satisfaction he looked uncomfortable and glanced quickly at his bandaged foot. I asked our driver what was wrong.

“I broke my foot on a stone whilst climbing after my goats”, he explained. “I bandaged it up but it got infected and now it is painful”. Why not get it seen to? “I have two children, a boy and a girl, and all my money has to be spent on them. I work from 8am to 6pm and I earn Rs 4,000 a month”. That’s around €60. Sixty euros to spend on his family of four. No wonder he couldn’t afford the medical attention required to mend his ankle.

I carried on photographing as the goat-herder chatted to the driver. The goats continued to appear from beneath the fence, grazing and fighting around us.  The driver took me to one side and suggested I give the herder Rs10 for his troubles, emphasizing that this was the driver’s idea, not the injured man’s. I’d intended to give him Rs100 but after hearing of his ailment I slipped him Rs500. I only mention the amount to put in perspective what I was giving him for a few photographs, compared to his paltry salary that barely put food on the table for his family.

The herder was genuinely grateful of the money and he took the driver to one side to discuss something. The driver had already explained that I lived on a boat. “The goat herder would like to know if you are interested in buying his son”, explained my driver. I thought the joke was in poor taste but smiled anyway. “He is serious”, continued the driver. “He cannot earn enough money for his family and if you were to offer his son a place on your boat you could feed him and educate him. Then the goat-herder would have enough money feed his wife and daughter, and might even have enough to get his ankle seen to”.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Had this man really just offered the services of his nine year old son? Indeed he had. I was dumbstruck and ran back to Liz, trying to explain this strange encounter.

You know, I actually went as far as working out the logistics of such an arrangement. Where the boy would sleep, what work we could get him to do, how we’d allow him telephone calls to his family to avoid homesickness, and what entertainment we could provide for him in the evenings.

It didn’t come to anything and needless to say we have met people far more needy, at least the goat-herder’s son had a father earning some money. Still, I was touched by that encounter and I will never forget Chella Duri, foot bandaged, shouting “Bah” at the mountains, wishing for something better for his family.

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12 thoughts on “The Day I Almost Bought A Goatherd’s Son”

  1. I live in USA and experienced engineer. I like to talk to the goatherd. In my child I was cowherd! Nothing stops a cowherd to become bright engineer. Population is the main reason. Mother nature (100% feminine) can’t provide food to all if population keeps increasing. Human beings are the worst predators to mother earth and mother nature. You may se my postings in LinkedIn.

    Pani Ranganath.

    1. FYI: Kerala’s low birth-rate, the lowest in India, it is one of the most exemplary in the world. Indeed, Sir David Attenborough cites it as one of the best examples of sensible birth-control in this ever-increasingly unsustainable over-populated planet of ours. Kerala has the highest rate of literacy and, so says Attenborough:

      ‘Wherever women have the vote, wherever they are literate, and have the medical facilities to control the number of children they bear, the birth rate falls. All those civilised conditions exist in the southern Indian state of Kerala. In India as a whole the total fertility rate is 2.8 births per woman. In Kerala it is 1.7 births per woman. In Thailand last year, it was 1.8 per woman, similar to that in Kerala. But compare that with the Catholic Philippines where it is 3.3.’

      Attenborough for Pope, I say!

  2. Very moving Jamie and I’m sure that guy wasn’t trying to scam you. You probably did the right thing.

    Just be careful on your journey, a lot of people are out to scam visitors in some countries. If you had ‘bought’ the child you could have been accused of kidnapping! Be careful, but don’t be paranoid.

    An example of a sick scam a friend of mine encountered in India was ‘The Baby Milk Scam’. It is both very clever and incredibly disgusting.

    The con works like this:

    A very poor looking woman approaches you with a starving baby in her arms, she claims she has no money and just wants to buy some baby milk and she’ll show you the shop and it’s not a con. Who wouldn’t give money to feed a starving child?

    What are your options?

    You give money (or not), or if you’re wise you buy the milk yourself and give it to the mum, and make sure the baby gets to drink it.

    Don’t go away until the baby is drinking the milk, what some scummy people do is sell the baby milk back to the shop where you bought it so they can sell it again! If it is open nobody else will buy it again so the scam falls flat and the baby still won’t get fed. The business model needs a starving baby to exploit its customer base.

    A friend of mine opened the milk for a woman and she got really angry and poured it on the ground! It was open, she couldn’t sell it back to the shop, she needed the starving baby to beg! A happy well-fed baby would be no good for her begging ‘business’.

    I’m not saying don’t be charitable to less fortunate souls than yourself, but rather don’t be misled and cheated. There are some very cold people in this world.

    I donate a little money to UNICEF (a great charity), and always buy a copy of The Big Issue if I see a seller. Just be careful about who you give to. Again, giving the hardworking India goatherd enough money to get his foot sorted so he can provide for his family was a great move.

    Charity can sometimes do more harm than good, and can even encourage a culture of dependency. Give, but give wisely.

    Apologies for the over-long post. I just thought I’d share a close friend’s experience in India. My pal ‘S’ has a love-hate relationship with the place and has spent a lot of time there.

  3. Touching story and a great shot of the guy on the post, with weather behind. It deserves to be in National Geographic. Why not just send it to them with the story?

  4. connie Lockwood

    This tugged my heartstrings too but you knew what you had to do Jamie. I respect you for your understanding and the empathetic manner in which you handled the entire situation. I am learning so much more about Life elsewhere through people such as yourself, who are realistically facing it every day in your travels throughout this amazing world.

    Thank you for sharing this touching story.

  5. Norie Enriquez-Sharma

    Having lived in Mumbai for almost 4 years now, I realized how lucky I was. This is because of the same stories I heard and see not at the outskirts of Mumbai but within the city itself. It is heart breaking to read the story and yes it is an eye opener for all, this is why I stopped complaining. Me & my husband are one of many couples who adopted a child, for what reason, still I can’t comprehend. For now one thing we know we are happy to have been blessed with a daughter like her!

  6. Neil Holtzhausen

    Great story, tends to put everything in perspective. There was a cruiser in Yacht Marin who came on the net one morning, complaining that there were too many holes in the Turkish bread. I hope he subscribes to your blog.

    1. Dear oh dear, Neil. We all need a reality check every now and then. Sometimes I need to remind myself just how good I have it, but please shoot me when you hear me complain about there being too many holes in the bread!

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