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Why pastoralists don't sell their livestock even in the face of death

By Beldeen Waliaula - January 26th 2022

Dead animals due to drough in North Horr [Courtesy]

Pastoralists communities in northern Kenya have been counting losses due to biting drought. Domestic animals — which are their source of livelihood — have been succumbing to the harsh climatic conditions, leaving them destitute.

Often these communities resist the temptation to sell livestock and hold on to them until they die. It has become the norm now so much so that when herders in North Horr wake up, they first check their cowsheds and remove dead animals. But why can’t they sell these animals before they succumb?

George Galgalo, who lives in Hurr Hills, says they cannot sell all their animals during the dry season, because they cling onto the hope that it will rain and they will once again have plenty of pasture and water.

“We can’t sell, what if it rains tomorrow, we cannot predict. We only sell a few heads of cattle and we remain with the rest so that when it rains they will multiply again,” he says.

He notes that if the herders could be getting regular weather forecast, they would be selling livestock early enough than watch them die

“Nowadays we are open to selling our livestock but also during drought there are no traders,” he says.

A camel costs approximately Sh150,000. The more camels one has, the more he is considered wealthy and commands respect. It has been three years since Marsabit North received seasonal rainfall. Mohammed Sharif says they traditionally sell male livestock and keep female ones. But the drought has pushed them to sell the female livestock as well.

The only way out for them is to move to new places where they can graze the livestock but they have since run out of options after Fora, Hurr Hills and Forole were hard hit by drought. In the fields, the cattle are grazed in groups according to the manyatta or homestead they come from to avoid conflict and confusion. The cattle belong to the community and only a few men are sent out to graze them.

Even when hunger pangs strike, the herders are not supposed to slaughter and eat the animals. It’s an honour for the community to entrust you to take care of their livestock

“The only advantage you have while grazing the cattle is you can milk them any time, and when a cow delivers a she calf while in the field it belongs to the herder. A he calf belongs to the owner,” Sharif says.

During this period, most animals die due to walking long distances, diseases, or the effects of drought. But the herder cannot sell or slaughter any animal until they get permission from the owner. Bulls come in handy during ceremonies or when a family needs to dispose off one to pay bills. 

“When one needs to pay school fees and they only have a female camel, they will exchange with a neighbor who will offer them two male camels which they can sell. If not that child will not go to school,” says Galgalo Duye.

Camels are also slaughtered only during ceremonies. There are parts of the animal that can only be eaten by women and others by men.

“You can’t slaughter a camel when grazing because who will eat the part that belongs to the first son, the neighbour and the women, so it would rather die though it’s painful to watch them die,” explains Duye

Ironically, when it rains, the fight for pasture sparks inter-community conflict, especially between the Gabbra, Borana and Samburu. The Kenyan border with Ethiopia has become unsafe for the pastoralists due to insecurity cases, so Kenyan herders only take their animals there for water during the day.

“With this jilali (drought) You wake up wondering what to do with cattle,” says Godhana Sharam

Hadija Godhana and her husband Godhana Sharam have lost about 200 cows. The couple says they cannot eat the meat of a starving animal.

“Once the cow has no milk, no blood and no meat how do you eat it?” Poses Hadija.

Duye says their main source of livelihood is livestock and they cannot try any other venture. 

“It not going to be easy to change our nomadic lifestyle despite the drought,” he says. “This time around people were ready to sell their animals because of the prolonged drought, and they heavily depended on the government offtake programme to buy the animals but it never happened. The Government failed its people”.

Duye regrets that with the ongoing drought it will difficult to recover the loss even if it rains.

“It’s going to take us about eight to ten years to recover from this drought if it rains today,” he says.

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