6 April 2001, p. 15,
by Declan Walsh.
FOR KENYA'S Masai herders it has been a roller-coaster year. A devastating drought turned the vast, lush plains into scorched dustbowls. Tens of thousands of cattle died, and the sight of their shriveled carcasses caused great distress to the pastoralists, whose reverence for four-legged ruminants borders on the religious.
By June it got so bad that the spear-wielding herders had driven their animals into down- town Nairobi in a desperate search for green grass. Public parks were invaded by hordes of liberally defecating animals while "cattle-jams" introduced a novel twist to Nairobi's chronic traffic problem.
This year, however, it's the Masai who are laughing. The rains have come, the Rift Valley is bursting with life, and the adored cattle are growing fat.
But in the Masai manyatta villages, word is starting to filter through of utter folly in faraway Europe. Apparently, people say, hundreds of thousands of healthy cattle are being slaughtered and incinerated in massive beef pyres. And just because they have foot-and-mouth disease.
"These are very, very foolish people," said Loseti Bois with barely concealed disdain at Kiserian slaughterhouse, 20 miles south of Nairobi. The one-eyed herder, standing in the blood of freshly slaughtered cattle, grimaced as a fellow herder explained the horror of European disease containment.
"Don't these people know the cattle can be cured?" he demanded. "They need a punishment for killing them. They should be shot too."
John Parsoi was also disgusted. "If I see you burning your cattle I feel bad in the heart," he said solemnly. "The cow is the closest friend of the Masai."
Foot-and-mouth has been endemic in Kenyan cattle herds for as long as anyone can remember. But the discovery of a fresh outbreak does not see hordes of panicked herders calling in the men in white suits. Instead, they set about the quiet process of nursing their animals back to health.
Herbs are extracted from tree bark and plants, then diluted with water and fed to the affected cattle. Foot-and-mouth sores are treated with cold ash, then sealed with cow dung to prevent flies spreading the virus. If there is a fast-flowing stream nearby, the herd is marched through it.
And then it is isolated, bush style, before being taken to the vet for an injection. "We make a sign at the entrance," explained 75-year-old Otopokie Ole Kereya. "Nobody is allowed eat or sleep there for two days. Afterwards we take the cow to the vet."
The disease is so benignly regarded that it shares a name with the common cold: oloirobi. And vaccination is fully embraced by the Masai. A herd of 20 cattle can be treated for about £8. Even the white man can see sense in the policy.
There are solid reasons why Kenyans can afford the occasional foot-and-mouth outbreak. The Kenyan Zebu cattle are more resistant than their fragile northern cousins, such as Friesians. Kenya has no export industry to speak of, apart from cross-border raids by rival tribes, and a slaughter policy would mean herds of migrating wildebeest and zebra would also have to be culled – not something well-heeled tourists would appreciate in the Masai Mara.
But the real difference is cultural. Cattle are much more than just walking hamburger factories for the Masai. They are held in the greatest respect as the source of wealth and status. Songs are sung about them, brides are bought with them and, if necessary battles are fought over them. God help any government inspector that tried to take them away "They would probably get violent," ventured Dr Antony Masoke of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi. "The Masai believe that all of the cows in the world originally belonged to them. Anyone else who owns one, they say, is just borrowing it for the time being."