A Shared Passion For Animals

Posted by on Sep 2, 2016 in From the Field

Beth goat POG
Veterinarians International received requests for assistance from 2 groups of Kenyan farmers working with livestock like goats, camels and donkeys.  All of the farmers also had dogs for companionship and protection. Dr. Beth Miller visited the groups to assess the extent of their need, and their ability to implement the project. Dr. Miller was delighted that both groups were even better prepared than expected!  The members were passionate about helping each other and taking the best possible care of their animals. Please join Dr. Miller to learn about their land, their culture and their animals.

Arrival in Kenya


I arrived yesterday afternoon in Nanyuki Kenya, and my mood lifted immediately. Nairobi was cold, rainy and dirty, while Nanyuki, just 3 hours north by car, was sunny and green. The rains have been good this year, which means healthy animals in this part of the world where people depend on their livestock for the largest part of the livelihoods.

Last night, I met Ramson Karmushu, to make our plans for my four-day visit. He is the leader of the “Laramata” Youth group, on IL Ngwesi Maasai Ranch, and we met 6 months ago at a conference on the future of pastoral people.No road

We had decided that I needed to rent a vehicle to visit the villages where the people lived, and to see their animals. There is no public transportation, and taxis are expensive and do not go onto the dirt roads that criss-cross the Game Reserve. Most people walk wherever they need to go, although a few enterprising young men have bought motor bikes, and act as informal taxis. I have not seen a single helmet though, and they terrify me. Motorbike accidents are one of the leading causes of death in Kenya, and the Peace Corps has prohibited volunteers from using them.

So today, we are supposed to pick up a 4 WD Toyota Land Cruiser, but then I just got a call that we need to get a new battery for it first. Am I surprised? No, this is Kenya.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates once said that diseases like malaria could be eradicated in Africa in 5 years with enough money. He has retracted that statement, acknowledging that he had not understood how insufficient all the infrastructure was in Africa; not just roads but also institutions, accountability, record keeping, communication, education. He has redoubled his efforts to support Africa’s ability to feed and heal itself by addressing the underlying problems.

In the veterinary field, animals are suffering and dying due to lack of adequate feed and medicine, and also expertise. There is 1 veterinarian for an area the size of New Jersey.

Evalinn's sheep1

The best news I heard last night was a young woman from IL Ngwesi community is now in vet school, and plans to come back and work with her people. This remarkable woman, Nasnipae Sueeteti, has agreed to work with Veterinarians International on our Rabies Clinic and the Goat Project.

So I am waiting for Ramson to arrive and we will buy a car battery (I will let him install it), and then we need to pick up some cardboard boxes to store all of the supplies that I brought from America. We’ll need to buy bottled water for the day, since tap water (when available) is not drinkable. Then we will head off the road into IL Ngwesi Group Ranch, and start meeting the people. And the animals!

Roads,Schools and Dogs


July is winter in Kenya. So while I am enjoying the pleasant 60 degree weather and sunshine, people are wearing winter coats, sweaters and wool scarves. And students are in school, wishing it were December and time for “summer break.” It’s just one more reminder that I am not at home in the USA.

I spent the day with Ramson, driving around some of the most remote parts of the Il Ngwesi group ranch, over “roads” that are mostly dry rivers (or waterfalls), or animal trails through the mountains. The vehicle is good, but my whole body aches. The Ranch is divided into 6 “villages,” and each has a chief, who administers local affairs. The most distant villages have no electricity or running water. The rainy season has ended, so women must walk to the dry riverbed, dig 6-12 inches into the sand and then collect drinking water. The children who go to school must walk 2-10 kilometers.

Yet everyone we meet is friendly and eager to talk and share stories. We give many people rides, because there is no public transit, few people have vehicles and the motor scooter “taxis” are expensive.

Evalinn's dog

Evalinn Maison is a 26 year old woman with 4 children. She also has 37 goats, 10 chickens and 3 dogs. When I ask why so many dogs, she said, “we like dogs!” She called over Joy, her favorite dog, who immediately wagged her tail and rubbed against us. There is no medical care for dogs in the village, on the whole Ranch, and even in the districts, and no one thinks of taking a dog to a vet, or vaccinating them. People do know that dogs transmit rabies, but they do not know about dog worms causing disease in humans. People say they keep dogs to warn them against intruders (humans or lions!), but it is clear they also enjoy their company. And they want to learn how to care for them.

school solar panels

As we drive to the different villages, over increasingly bad roads, I see many giraffe, zebra, impala, and dik-dik but no elephants. Oh sure, there is lots of elephant manure, and broken trees show where they have been. And there are fences to keep them out of crops and homes. We visited the new school that was just built. It is a boarding school, because the distance is too far for most students to walk. There was no electricity, but the roof had solar panels. However, very few students were enrolled. The main reason? There is no fence to keep out the elephants, so parents are afraid to send their children there.

The school was built with the money from tourists who visited IL Ngwesi Lodge, and went on wildlife safaris. The Maasai appreciate the value of the wildlife, and how connected they are all interconnected with the land. But their lives are so vulnerable that the wild animals are also a source of worry. Could you imagine if the lions were not safely in a zoo, but just outside your walls, and hungry for your goats? Or your children? It is a different way to see the world.

From Traditional to Modern


I met 5 members of the “Laramata” Youth Group, including the chair Ramson, and the treasurer Fausten. “Laramata” means livestock keepers in the “Maa” language, spoken by the Maasai people. The name indicates that they will honor their cultural tie to livestock keeping, while using modern methods of raising and marketing healthy stock. They have a group of 20 members, and will raise and market their goats as a group, using Ranch grazing land.

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The youth grew up with wildlife, and can identify the animals and birds from the slightest movement in the bush, or smallest sample of scat. For the young men, the connection is especially intimate because they must live in the bush for 2 years as part of their training to become the “morani” or warriors who will protect their people. The youth at IL Ngwesi (the name means “wildlife” in Maa) also appreciate the wildlife because the income from tourist safaris funds the schools they attended on the Ranch.

Beth checking goat

So how will raising goats benefit the wildlife and the environment? Ramson told me that first you have to understand Maasai life before they were forced to settle on the reservations.
Traditionally, the nomadic Maasai enjoyed unlimited space, and managed their herds of cattle, sheep and goats across all of East Africa, following the rains and new grass. The Maasai diet was based on milk and dairy products, supplemented by meat at festivals, and would exchange animals for corn grown by the sedentary farmers. They did not need money, since livestock provided everything they needed. Their songs, stories, and cultural practices all celebrated the interdependence of people and livestock.

Now that they are settled on the Ranches, it has been difficult for the older generation to make the shift into a money economy. Even with limited space, older people want to raise the maximum number of cattle, sheep and goats, which causes overgrazing, and drives out the wildlife.

The youth understand that the modern economy is unavoidable, whether they want it or not so they want to learn modern methods of animal husbandry in order to escape their poverty. But the Ranch is quite isolated and government services like agriculture extension is non-existent. Jobs are limited to working on industrial flower farms for low pay, and exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Ransom explained how the young people are different from the Maasai of the past. “If you come to my home, and tell my father to sell half of his livestock for the money, he will chase you away with a stick! But we [young people] understand that raising livestock is a business. We want to raise goats because we have land as a resource. The goats can graze the best on our land. The cows are heavy feeders, and they must migrate to other pastures when it is dry. Then the sheep go next, but the goats can remain well fed here even when it is dry, because they can browse the shrubs, even when the grass is poor. We want to sell our goats, and use the money to buy food for a diverse diet, get married and send our children to good schools, and join the modern world with electricity, piped water and computers. We want to be modern Maasai, with pride in our heritage but using the benefits of new technology to improve our lives.”

The youth are better educated than their parents, and speak and write English, Swahili (the national language of Kenya), as well as Maa. The parents and grandparents, who were mostly illiterate, have rejected attempts to improve the health and quality of livestock because it meant decreasing the size of the herds. After decades of strained relationships with government and development agencies, the youth are on their own to find partners who will support their desire for change.

The “Laramata” Goat Group has 15 paid members, but I was only able to visit on a Sunday, when only 5 were available. We talked about their lives and aspirations as we worked out the activities for their groups. They struck me as serious and hard working.

I gave Fausten the treasurer a ledger book and some pencils, and instructions to record all of their financial transactions on paper, as well as the medical and production history of their goats.  This group hopes to become a model for modern goat rearing in the community, and they will need to get in the habit of keeping good records.

Samburu woman and vet meds

The most significant part of my visit to IL Ngwesi was meeting the government veterinarian Dr. Francis M. Muselela, and the livestock extension agent, Mr. Osinga Protas, in the town of Daldal, which is about 3 hours away. They were not aware that the youth were interested in their services, but became enthusiastic while talking to Ramson. The veterinarian, who was not Maasai, said he would be happy to come to Chivu and organize training to prevent disease in goats and dogs. He was even willing to sleep in a tent, but he asked if lions and wild animals would be there. Ramson answered that of course the wild animals were there because the Maasai live with them, but that he should not worry because the Morans (warriors) patrol the living areas, and protect people from danger.

Beth and Samburu women
We then stopped to meet some women who make traditional Maasai beaded jewelry.  We had a good time trying on all the jewelry, dancing and talking about cats and dogs.  Of course, I bought some of their gorgeous jewelry!

Relationships between people are the key to Maasai life in the past and present, and they welcome Veterinarians International into their lives for the future. The Maasai people have a fearsome reputation but they will protect their friends to the very end.  Loyalty is a key value for both the elders and the youth.

Answering to Climate Change


Climate change is real and devastating in Northern Kenya. The rains have become erratic, meaning that the grass is no longer predictable. When the rains fail, and drought comes, both the animals and the people suffer. Livestock slowly starve, while women trudge longer and longer distances to find water, and carry it home in pails on their heads. Men leave for the cities to earn money in low paying jobs. The wild animals try to migrate off the reserves, but are stopped by fences, roads and poachers.

Beth and Samburu group 1

IL Ngwesi Group Ranch is one of the few Maasai-owned areas to take action to protect their grasslands. They organized a system of rotational grazing, which requires each herder to coordinate the use of hundreds of small blocks of land. Each block is grazed for several days by many many animals, which results in large amounts of precious manure to be concentrated on the land. The sharp hooves drive seeds of different native grasses deep into the soil. When the rains do come, the young seedlings are protected and nourished by the manure. Best of all? The rotation gives those young plants the time to grow strong roots before the animals return to graze, and replenish the roots with more manure.

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There is a reason that manure is called the second gift of the animals to the people. The first gift is the milk from cows, goats and sheep, which for millennia has formed the basis of the Maasai diet. But nothing that nature produces goes to waste in this harsh environment, and even the manure is appreciated as a gift.

The interactions of the plants, animals and people are all related, and when in harmony and balance, each can nurture the other. The circle of life continues.

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