There is an old joke about young man who moves to a village in Wales and gets talking to an old man from the village.
He asks the old man what his name is. The old man gets very irate at this point and says: “See that line of houses over there? I built them all, but do they call me Jones the house builder? Do they hell! See those railway lines over there? I laid them all, but do they call me Jones the engineer? Do they hell! See those bridges over that river? I built them all, but do they call me Jones the bridge builder? Do they hell!
But, a long time ago, I fucked *one* sheep…”
It’s a good joke, and not really racist because the Welsh are one of the few peoples who name their people with the suffix of their occupation.
Unfortunately though there’s more than a little truth in the moral this joke. National Security and Civil Defence Corps recently were mobilised to disperse a crowd that had assembled outside the Fakon Idi Veterinary Clinic, Sokoto, Nigeria.
A deformed lamb was delivered there on January 22nd, it, superficially, resembled a human baby. The crowd were demanding that the farmer who owned the sheep which delivered the lamb come out and explain why the creature had human-like features.
I first heard of this kind of thing as a child. My father was employed as a welfare officer and one day he parked the car outside a farm workers cottage on the edge of a Dorset village, told me to wait, and was away for about twenty minutes.
I whiled away some time looking at the pictures in an old copy of the Reader’s Digest, which happened to be in the car. When this proved insufficiently stimulating I then drew faces on the inside of the car windows, which had misted up as I waited.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was as I have written was no more than twenty minutes, my father returned.
When I asked what he had been doing he explained that he had to collect a handicapped child from the house later in the week and drive her to a special residential school. He had called to inform the parents of the arrangement.
Naturally I asked: ‘what is a handicapped child?’ I had not heard of handicapped children before.
“It’s a child who is damaged in some way, either at birth, or even before”, he explained.
“Sometimes they are unable to move their arms, or legs as you are able; sometimes they just cannot think properly. Some are really ugly in appearance, but you must never show if their appearance shocks you when you meet them because nobody can help their appearance and many are open-hearted people when you spend time with them.”
This was a satisfying explanation for an eight year old, and indeed over fifty years later it has lost nothing in its direct simplicity. My father had both alerted me to the facts that some are physically and mentally challenged, and told me that all are to be respected whatever difficulties fate places upon us.
Of course there was more to our conversation than this, for it was on this day during our journey towards home that he told me of some of the kinds of disabilities that children may suffer.
Some, he explained, were due to malnutrition. Others because the mother carrying a child was stricken with illness. One child, he had met, he told me, had the head of a pig and the body of a human. He could neither walk, nor talk, spending his days in a cot in front of the kitchen range. He was fed a diet of bread soaked in warm milk, or cocoa.
How is this possible? I asked. I was quite alarmed.
“I don’t know”, my father replied. “Nobody does.”
“What has happened to him?”
“He died when he was just a few years old. It often happens that way. One day his mother came downstairs and he was dead in the cot.”
“It was natural. The child’s heart was deformed and he had difficulty in breathing.”
In later years, on the back wards of British psychiatric institutions, I was to encounter such people. Some placid, some tormented, many completely helpless smelling of stale food, faeces, urine, and hospital disinfectant. Many had to be rubbed with ointment to treat sores and other skin conditions. A few had a steel grip and would grab my tie, drawing me closer to explore my face, or even plant a kiss.
When I entered such a place for the first time my father’s words came back to me. They seemed far removed from the way in which the hospital superintendent physician would wheel people onto a stage in the lecture theatre and introduce them with such words as:
“This is a very unusual sight in England today. It is a Cretin.”
“You rarely see congenital hypothyroidism today because it’s diagnosed during pregnancy and treated.”
Now what about that sheep? I pity the poor farmer whose lamb gave birth to the deformed lamb because, no matter how well supported he is by the veterinary establishment who know that congenital deformities are not uncommon, he, and his family, are always likely to be the recipients of suspicion in their own community.
The question will remain in may people’s minds, “Could he have had intercourse with a sheep?”
In some cultures even today he might be stoned to death.
It’s the kind of thing that children will use taunt those of the farmer’s family. Some will lay accusations at the wife claiming that she must be frigid if the man found it necesary to find relief in his animals.
It’s terribly unjust and, of course, tells far more about crowd behaviour than the peccadilloes of shepherds.
It’s the kind of accusation that is rarely lived down. It can affect future generations even when buried back in time.
It’s an awful thing to have happened, but not an abomination.