Kenya's Masai call Europe's slaughter of cattle foolish

April 9, 2001 The Gazette (Montreal) by Sudarsan Raghavan

Ask Loseti Bois about the hundreds of thousands of cattle that have been slaughtered to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe, and he winces and groans, then shakes his head in disbelief.

"Those governments are foolish. This disease is curable," said an angry Bois, a Masai herder who owns 150 cows. "They should be shot or burned like those animals."

Foot-and-mouth disease is widespread in Kenya, as it is in other African nations and across Asia, South America and the Middle East. An outbreak of the infectious illness, which causes sores in the mouths and on the feet of cattle and other livestock, hardly causes a stir here.

In fact, the Masai call foot-and-mouth disease "oloirobi," the same word they use for the common cold. The last outbreak occurred about two years ago.

When outbreaks do happen in these green hills, the Masai quarantine the infected animals. They grind traditional herbs with hot salt water and apply them to the sores. Or they burn tree roots and apply the ashes. They paste cow dung on the wounds to stop flies from hovering and spreading the virus. Sometimes, a village elder performs traditional rituals to help the cattle.

Then, Masai herders simply wait a few days. If their cattle aren't cured, they head to the nearest veterinarian to get the foot-and-mouth vaccine.

In Kenya, said Antony Musoke, a senior veterinary scientist at Nairobi's International Livestock Research Institute, most of the meat and milk are not exported. And cattle have greater resistance to foot-and-mouth disease than herds in Europe and elsewhere, reducing concerns that the virus will spread.

"Under the circumstances in Africa, the killing and slaughtering of animals is not practical, culturally and financially, because they won't get compensation from anybody," Musoke said.

Food, Clothing and Money

In no culture, perhaps, are cattle more precious than they are to the Masai, one of east Africa's great nomadic tribes. According to their folklore, the Masai believe they own all the cattle in the world.

Their herds provide the Masai with food, clothing and money - even the means to acquire wives. It takes at least 10 cows to wed a beautiful Masai woman. Young children slice the skin of cattle and suck on the protein-rich blood for nourishment, but the cattle are killed only when needed: to pay school fees, as a sacrifice to God or to celebrate a wedding.

"I've killed a lion to protect my cows," growled Bois, dressed in a traditional red-checkered shawl with colourful beads around his neck and wrists.

The Masai were horrified to learn that nearly a half-million cattle, pigs and sheep were being butchered and burned in Britain - and that more slaughter was possible as other European nations tried to stamp out foot-and-mouth disease.

"The cow is the closest friend of the Masai," said Ibrahim Paranai, 23, who owns 10. "Instead of killing their cows, the (Europeans) should give them to us."

In Europe, vaccinations are costly and can hinder tracking of the disease because vaccinated livestock carry the same antibodies as those that are infected. Still, Britain announced last week that it would start injecting livestock and would rethink ways to care for infected animals.

The debilitating disease poses no health risks to humans, but the losses from the reduced production of meat and milk are severe. It was first detected in Britain on Feb. 19 and has spread to France, the Netherlands and Ireland, jeopardizing businesses and shutting down horse tracks, parks and nature reserves.

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