By Violet Barasa

The dry Arusha landscape. Image: Sarah Cleaveland

I have just completed a three-month socio-economic household survey of 300 people in four pastoralist sub-villages in the Arusha region of Tanzania. It was the culmination of months of planning, logistics preparation and scoping studies as part of my PhD work exploring behaviours and practices that might impact the local spread and persistence of diseases spread from animals to people (zoonotic diseases).

The months leading up to this survey were characterised by drought and unusually hot conditions. Many farmers that I talked to were becoming increasingly concerned about their wellbeing. Livestock losses and increasingly scarce water and pasture were impacting their diet of milk and meat. Every morning as I passed by villages, I came across numerous animal carcasses. One herder I interviewed told me his family had lost 40 cattle to drought in just under a month. People were desperate and young men walked long distances to the remote district near the Lokisale mountains in Monduli in their search for pasture and water.

A serious consequence of this drought has been that desperate villagers have been eating meat from animals whose cause of death could not be verified. The local thinking was such that these animals had died of starvation and therefore the meat was safe for consumption.

Preparing meat for the family meal

Olelengu prepares the meat from his dead animal for the family dinner.

Take Olelengu, for example, a 46-year-old livestock keeper who told me he can differentiate between an animal that has died from disease and one which hasn’t just by looking at the state of the liver and kidney after skinning the animal. He assured me: “The Maasai have been eating meat since the beginning of time. Even if the animal is sick, we slaughter it and remove the sick part and throw it away. The rest of the meat will be safe for consumption after it is boiled well.

Pointing at the meat, he added: “How can I throw away my beautiful animal like this one? I loved him so much and if I knew that he was going to die, I would have to slaughter him before he died because since my second wife became a Christian, she would not touch a carcass. But our livestock are like us. They get sick sometimes. You treat them, and if you see they are not getting well you call the men and you eat them. If you get sick you use traditional medicine and get well. Only if the disease is emburuo [anthrax] do we not eat that animal. You can see that the meat is black and the blood is as black as an old man’s. If a person or even a dog eats the meat from such an animal, they can die.”

Olelengu is not alone in thinking like this. Most of my respondents behave in the same way. I was often invited to eat meat in many homes as the drought ensued – invitations I had to politely decline.

Eating habits and the spread of zoonoses

The situation raised questions for me as to how this attitude towards meat consumption might impact the transmission, spread and control of zoonotic diseases. Because these practices are widespread, I believe there is a case for exploring whether or not they can potentially expose pastoralists to zoonotic pathogens.

As the above observations suggest, people don’t seem to perceive risk of zoonotic disease transmission as high, nor their eating habits as putting themselves at risk of contagion, despite their awareness of animal diseases. At least one in three respondents that we interviewed listed a number of endemic livestock diseases that affected them. These included orlomilo (a disease common in small ruminants that causes dizziness), anthrax, ndigana kali (East Coast fever) and Rift Valley fever. Other diseases mentioned were homa ya mbuzi (goat fever), that people believe they can catch from sharing a house with goats and sheep.

Some of these diseases, respondents told us, have existed within the communities for a long time. For example, endorobo (trypanosomiasis) and ndigana kali have a long history in the community and their symptoms and remedies (biomedical and herbal) are well known. My research suggests that people have, over time, developed their own disease prevention and mitigation strategies that help them cope with zoonotic diseases. For example, the removal of an infected part of a dead animal is meant to ensure that people can only eat parts of the animal they deem safe for human consumption. As an added precaution, the meat is mixed with traditional medicinal herbs (the same ones used to treat human illness) before eating to reduce the risk of human infection.

Additionally, Olelengu, the respondent quoted above, explained that upon any sign of serious malaise such as anthrax (which is characterised by severe bloody diarrhoea, nose-bleeding and sores on the face and body of an animal) the dead animal would be disposed of. The seriousness of the disease in animals is determined by the physical appearance of the meat after slaughter and skinning. If the meat and/or blood has lost its natural colour, people have learned to dispose of it immediately for fear of infection.

Mobiles and a health information revolution

Pastoralist holding a mobile phone

A woman holding a mobile phone during an interview. Inset: translator Lazaro.

Mobile telephony is revolutionising how pastoralists approach health information for themselves and their animals. Many of my interviews with farmers were interrupted by phone calls and I could overhear farmers and callers describing disease symptoms and discussing advice. Many respondents told me that they would call a neighbour on their mobile and compare notes regarding particular symptoms in animals and what cure to use. They seek advice on herbal remedies and also biomedical treatments.

During an interview with Eseli, a farmer in his 60s, a call came through from an animal drug-store keeper in the village advising him on what treatment to give an animal of his that had aborted. Calls such as this not only save farmers’ time, they also make treatment more efficient as they learn to understand what medicines work under which circumstances.

Such knowledge-sharing is not a new phenomenon, being common in other parts of the world inhabited by smallholder livestock farmers, such as India and Bangladesh. However, it is still embryonic in the pastoralist villages where I am researching.

Back to the field

After a month’s break reflecting on my survey data back at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), I am returning to the study area for another three months of ethnography where I hope to build upon the initial findings. I will investigate the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of what people are doing regarding illness, eating habits, use of technology and social networks in the control of zoonotic disease.

Watch out for the next blog post on the final phase of my fieldwork!

Violet Barasa is a ZELS-AS student, based at IDS. Read her previous blogs:

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