Monday, March 5, 2012

Kenya Diaries: Day 11, Part 3 - Interview with a Maasai Man, Part 2

I spent the eleventh day of my trip with a Maasai family in the town of Kajiado (or just outside it perhaps) in Rift Valley Province. First, I met with a Maasai man named Sidney and we spoke for about an hour before heading out to see his uncle, who lives in a traditional Maasai home. This is the second part of our conversation, transcribed below. In it he speaks about the climate crisis, changes in the breeds kept by the Maasai, and about the Maasai diet.

Sidney began by talking about the climate crisis, which he had hinted at before.

Now, something else that has created a big problem in the last 10 years is that the climate pendulum shifted. Just took a drastic turn.

JR: Since 2002?

SQ: Yes. And a cycle of - a vicious cycle of drought. 2002 itself. We experienced a bad drought the year 2000 all the way up to 2002. Then it rained 2002. Heavy rains. Brought us serious problems. Floods came in. Flash floods came in. Invasive plants came in. And in fact, a very big area you'll see of where we are going - there is an area that is no longer usable for grazing because an invasive weed came in. And covered the entire area so there is no grass. And it has come in and it has flooded an area. They tried getting rid of it but it keeps on coming back. That is now wasteland. Unless there's a way of completely destroying it without destroying the grass and other plants that are there, that land is no longer useful. And this came with the heavy rains that we had.

We've also experienced some livestock diseases that were not there before. Some of the diseases that were totally eradicated by the government years ago came back. Rinderpest was eradicated in Kenya. Completely. There were cases of rinderpest in Tanzania even up til now. But with the rains and with people crossing because when it was dry they went to Tanzania because it was green then, and when it rained they came back, so rinderpest reappeared.

Then a disease that our elders say they experienced 50 years ago came back. Something called blue tongue. Blue tongue affects sheep. You know they just swollen, swollen, and then they pass and they die. That was a very strange one because the younger Kenyans had never seen that before. That came back the year 2003. We experienced a lot of deaths of our sheep. They were just dying in the hundreds. Some people were just totally wiped out. Families lost - first of all, in the drought they lost their livestock. Then the few that remained, and particularly the cows and the sheep, wiped out by rinderpest and by blue tongue.

JR: In a typical year, in the past, did most people purchase medicines for their cows?

SQ: They still do. But the difference is ten years ago - or slightly more than ten years ago - the Government of Kenya's Veterinary Extension Service collapsed. The government used to provide medicine. They used to do campaigns. They would vaccinate animals against blah blah blah. Every year. Countrywide exercise.

And the government also provided cattle dips, where you take your animals and you dip them. And they would also provide the drugs that are needed.

JR: What does the dip do? How does it protect the cattle?

SQ: What happens is that the dip is like say for example a very simple pool. It goes in, there's the water, and the medicine has already been put in there. It gets in, gets wet, and when it comes out it has already been cleaned. All the ticks and stuff out, and it gets protection for another seven days, then you take them back. Every seven days we used to do that...

So the government used to provide that, free of charge. They'd give you the medicine, they'd get you the vets who'd come. Every other time they used to be out there in the field with the people. The minute they notice an outbreak or the minute they suspect there's a disease that could be dangerous to everyone, they would vaccinate, they would isolate, and the Veterinary Department was very effective.

But unfortunately, the last years of the Moi regime [Kenya's second president, whose decades of power ended in 2007], the institution started collapsing. The Ministry of Livestock was [inaudible], the management became poor and services just deteriorated. And then, the unfortunate thing is that some of the people who were in charge of those deals - in every area there was a community committee - the people would elect a people to manage on their behalf, the facilities. But when the people realized that the government officers started stealing, privatizing, slowly then some people decided to individualize public property. So today as I speak, in this town we used to have two cattle dips. They are now private.

JR: So you must pay to use them?

SQ: Yes. One of them was just the other day demolished and they've come up with a housing estate. We have absolutely nowhere now to go for such service.

What is happening now, we'll be forced to buy small pumps, hand pumps. So can you imagine, if you have about 50 cows, you're going to do that physically yourself. Pump, wash them weekly... So you're not going to give them the attention that they'd get in a dip where they'd just go in and come out cleanly done. The challenge first of all with the pump is that you don't have water. Water is a challenge. So if you don't have piped water, it means going to a river, it means going to get the water. Bring it, imagine the time lost - the women are the ones who do this business, getting the water. Go get the water, bring, and now start. Then at the end of it all, they still need water for the house, for their domestic needs. So it has destabilized some people.

But I have seen some groups in other parts of Kajiado where neighbors have come together and have said, "Fine... Let us raise funds." And they do that themselves. Then they just say, OK, we have land here, somebody decides if there is no public land they donate a small piece of land. They put up a cattle dip which is now a communal [dip] but each one of you has a share, you are a stakeholder. So at the end of the year you know, you have to do A, B, C, D. So there is money you need to put in there because you need an attendant to take care of it. So, that is at a community level with no government input.

JR: You said you've changed the breed of cattle over the years. When did that happen?

SQ: Yes. Actually, I'd give it about 20 years. From 1990 - slightly more - from 1990, we started adopting other breeds.

JR: What was your old breed?

SQ: Our old breed was Zebu cow. And then we saw some few of our Maasai leaders started bringing in other breeds. They started bringing in the Boran... they started bringing the Sahiwal, then they started bringing another bigger one called the Simintal. Simintal is actually not a Kenyan breed. Sahiwal and Boran are similar, but Sahiwal has more milk. Boran is really for beef.

Then, Simintal is a breed that came from southern Africa, but it is an exotic breed. But of course, after being in Africa for so long, it has adapted to the environment and actually it is a hearty animal.

Once we interbreeded them with our Zebu, we now have a much better breed. And also we have some other exotic breeds, we have Jerseys, we have Guernseys. The first breed of course does not do very well. But once it has gotten a local Zebu or a Boran [i.e. mated with and produced offspring], then the second, third generations is okay. Because it has adapted. And there are quite a number of those.

JR: When you say the new ones are better, better in which ways? More milk, more beef?

SQ: Just more milk and that. But then there's a lot - they are so tender. The new breeds, when they come in, there's a lot that needs to be done for them to survive. Particularly the exotic breeds. The Borans are fine, and the Simintals are fine because the conditions in southern Africa and some of those arid areas are also dry. And they graze - open grazing. But these are the ones that you guys have on the other side [i.e. European breeds]. Those ones can't do it, can't make it here.

JR: What harms them?

SQ: Actually, the difficulties are for one, we do not have good management. Because, for one, you can't just let them graze. You need to confine them. Confining means having a nice, nicely constructed structure for them, feeds for them -

JR: So you bring the feed to them? Like zero grazing [the Kenyan term for livestock confinement]?

SQ: Yes. Proper zero grazing. Here I don't see how I can do that because I am challenged in terms of water. I have piped water but it hardly comes. So I end up getting a tanker to bring water from far [inaudible]. So that alone destabilizes you because - actually the expenditure to maintain one is not more than the income you're going to get.

JR: Which breeds require zero grazing?

SQ: I'm talking about the Jerseys, the Guernseys, there are several. Then there's the - what are they called - there's this big animal.

JR: Not the Holstein?

SQ: Yes. Holstein. They require zero grazing and they require good management. The way we do our animals, you just let them graze, you don't bother, you don't even clean up where they sleep and stuff, but those ones [exotic breeds] need a hygienic place, nice room temperature, clean environment.

JR: Do they get sick?

SQ: Yeah they do get sick. Like one of the diseases that is very common here is the Foot and Mouth. And it could be confined there, but maybe somebody might make a mistake you know, like one of your workers. They just go out, they come in, they don't clean up before they get into where the animals are and carry on that stuff.

JR: Does it ever cross into wild animals here?

SQ: Yeah. It does. The biggest challenge here is the wildebeest.

JR: So even if the cows don't have it, they can get it from a sick wildebeest?

SQ: Yes.

JR: So, the traditional breeds, the Zebu, Simintal, Boran, do they suffer from these diseases too?

SQ: They do but they are heartier. So the mortality rate is not as high as those exotic breeds.

JR: So would it be correct to say that the exotic breeds, when managed properly, give you high production, but they are higher risk? And they are more expensive to maintain?

SQ: Oh yes. You can say that, precisely, yes.

JR: Do you know which is more profitable?

SQ: Actually, realistically, the local breeds are good. In terms of quick returns, if you are specifically doing commercial ranching, it's very profitable.

JR: To use local breeds?

SQ: Yes. Particularly the bigger breeds, the Boran and the Sahiwal. They give you good money... Let's just look at the steers. If you just keep the steers, fatten them, and take them to the market at the right time, there's good money. Because there isn't much in terms of investment, other than making sure they get regular vaccination... there is pasture for them. You also give them supplements in terms of buying hay and molasses and stuff, so that they can gain weight, and make sure that they have water very often, every day, there's water. And they are taken care of, you know, the person taking care of does not allow them to go areas where there's contamination, where you get plastic papers and stuff. You get your money. And it is less stressful...

As opposed to these exotic animals that you must do a lot for. They must not miss water. They must not be exposed to any sort of scarcity or shortage of food. They must be maintained well. So there's big investment there. But I've seen, of course, people managing them at a very low level. But of course the returns are not as high.

I have a neighbor, somewhere here, he keeps a few of those. But they are always stressed because every morning in town there, they go to the market to collect some garbage, to collect peels of cabbage and potatoes and stuff. All that, because they don't have enough pasture because their land is small. He is always looking for food for the cows and he spends literally the entire day, because once in the morning, you go, you come back at lunch time and now you're busy in the home doing your other things. Please. That is actually expensive at the end of the day.

JR: What kind of cows do you have?

SQ: I have Zebus. But they've been improved. Plus a few Sahiwals and a few Borans.

JR: By improved you mean mixed with other breeds?

SQ: Yes. They are mixed with the Simintal and the Sahiwal. It makes them bigger.

JR: Are yours for meat, milk, or both?

SQ: Both. I keep a small herd. I keep a herd of about 50. [Recall that earlier in the interview he said in the past even a poor man would have 100 cows.] And they moved just recently [to a place with pasture and water].

JR: Do you have goats?

SQ: Yes, about 100.

JR: For meat?

SQ: Yes, just for meat because I don't keep the ones for milk. These are just traditional breeds.

JR: What's the typical Maasai diet?

SQ: Maasai diet. Things have changed a bit but -

JR: Can you tell me about the past?

SQ: In the past it was purely milk and meat.

JR: Meat from cows and goats?

SQ: Yes.

JR: And milk from cows?

SQ: Yes.

JR: Goats too?

SQ: Goats would only become useful in a dry period when the cows are very dry, they are not producing, but milk from the goats is still available.

JR: In the past, was meat a common meal or just for special occasions?

SQ: Meat, of course, there would be special occasions - for a ceremony or what - but then there would be specific activities. For example, if your wife is pregnant, you have to slaughter occasionally to ensure that she is well fed. And of course, as a family, you'd also slaughter a goat once in a while. Slaughtering a cow would be a major occasion. A wedding, something like that, or a major traditional activity. But cows would never really be sold unless there was need.

JR: So if your herd is too large, you sell a cow?

SQ: Then you sell a cow. And that just changed over the years because in the past, there was this business of wanting to appear to be wealthy with so many cows. And they're not really, as far as your level is concerned, nothing is getting improved, because you have the animals, fine, but you're still off to this poor way of living.

JR: Was blood part of the diet?

SQ: Yeah.

JR: Can you describe that to me?

SQ: Yeah. Blood would be used in many ways.

JR: How do you obtain it?

SQ: Two ways. First, when you are slaughtering. The minute you slaughter a goat or a cow, you make sure that you let the blood run off into a container and keep it. Then add some little salt so that it doesn't clot. Then after that, there's some parts of the body that would be put aside together with the fat of the stomach. You remove all that fat. Then it's cooked, cooked for some time. Then when it's almost ready, you put the blood. Then you stir it until it is well cooked. Then you remove it. And eat that.

That's a special delicacy. In fact it's called munono. Munono is a special meal. It's blood, fatty meat, and some steak. That's a special meal for young mothers because it gives you blood and it makes you strong. And elderly. And, of course, for the morans [warriors], it is a special meal, the warriors. It is the first meal you take. Because you slaughter, take the blood, cook it, eat it. Then later on you take different parts of the goat or the cow and they'll be eaten slowly over time.

Then, we had of course, ways of preserving our meat. So we slaughter a cow like that, it's in a big group, and once you've had your fill, you now cut pieces, and then dry them. And you can eat that meat over a period of time. And it's ready to eat. It's been dried out there so you really don't want to go into the business of cooking. You just cut a piece, or if you want to prepare with a little bit of stew or put it in warm water and add whatever else, but Maasais really don't - they even up til now, they'd rather not cook that.

JR: How was the animal hide used?

SQ: There's always been a market for hides and skins, so the bigger proportion's always been sold. Of course, they have to remain some for the bed, some would remain for the belts, for shoes. But most of it would go into the tanneries. People used to come and buy in bulk and then sell in Nairobi.

JR: What about the second way to obtain blood?

SQ: The other one is normally from a bull, a strong bull. And that is basically for ceremonies, for the ritual of passage. When the young men get initiated to become warriors they slaughter two bulls. The two bulls are chased by the young men, held by the young men, then a marksman, somebody who is really good with the arrows, shoots at the artery. It doesn't die, of course. It's an art, because if you hit the wrong one it will die. But you hit the right one, and then they would twist the head like this and make sure that they would drain off the blood, put it in a container. And after that it would be used. That one would be drunk raw, directly hot by the warriors as it is on the spot and by their fathers...

But blood was never really a daily diet as such. It was special. But of course, when you slaughter a goat or anything, you have to do that. It's a delicious meal. I wish I knew you were coming or else I would have organized -

JR: I'm a vegetarian.

SQ: Oh, I see. So of course, meat is a big part of the diet but milk is the main one. Like it or not, on the homestead [inaudible]. Before the British came to corrupt us with their ways of tea, it was always milk for us.

JR: Was it fresh out of the cow?

SQ: Yeah, fresh out of the cow! You didn't even waste your time boiling it. Direct!

JR: Was it ever consumed curdled or soured?

SQ: Yeah, we had of course, take it fresh, or let it sour. You could also - there were many things that we were doing. We would make ghee. There were two ways of doing that. First you can get the fresh milk, put it in a gourd, then shake it, shake it several times, let it rest a bit, shake it again, then you remove the top layer and now you keep it. Then after about a week, it was boiled. Then the particles come out, and what remains there is left to cool and then you have that.

Eventually, when the British guys started talking of milk diseases and what and people encouraged to boil their milk, that changed. Now we started taking the cream. After you boiled your milk and it has settled, when it has cooled, you start removing the cream, and you continue doing that for a couple of days or maybe a week or so. If you have lots of milk, a week is enough. And you cook the same, then you have your ghee.

We never went to the next level of doing cheese and doing yogurt and other things, but we always had our sour milk, which was special for young kids. That was special for them. Any time they come out from school, they take that. And the older men, the respected friend of yours, will keep a whole container of it for your age-mate, the men you were circumcised together, you are bonded, you went through moranism together. You keep a special container for such kind of a special friend. And in the household, people take it, but it will not be a very serious thing as such.

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