When a cow is part of the family

In his village, Kiliwehiri in northeastern Kenya, Abdullah Mohamed is known as "that mentally disturbed man".

"It is difficult to be normal after you have watched your entire life's savings get wiped out before your eyes," said Ibrahim Abdi, assistant chief of the village. "We are Somalis, we look after each other," explained Abdi, so the village shares their rations with Mohamed's family.

A month ago, Mohamed was just another pastoralist battling soaring temperatures and drought in the arid Mandera district - identified by the UN, with other parts of the Horn of Africa, as just one step away from famine on a five-point scale. It has not rained in his village for more than a year.

Over 10 days, Mohamed watched 40 of his cattle collapse and die - one by one - as they waited their turn at a water-point along the border between southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, a few kilometres from his village.

For the people of Mandera and neighbouring Wajir district, their animals are not just an investment but part of the family.

"These carcasses meant the world to someone," said Kennedy Agoi Lumadede, an official with Vétérinaires Sans Frontières-Suisse (VSF-Suisse) as he pointed out heaps of bones along the dirt tracks linking the two districts..

"They [the animals] are like our family members," said an emotional Abdille Muhamed of Garse Koftu village in Wajir district as he knelt beside the carcass of the last of his cows. "I spent 20 years building this herd [of 40 cattle and 270 goats] - you nurture them like your children."

"We were sharing with this cow whatever relief food we were receiving," he said. They did not have enough aid to begin with. Muhamed, his two wives and 12 children, had moved back to his village when he was down to his last cow.

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
Abdullah Mohamed from Kiliwehiri village

The village has been living off relief food for almost a year. "But we have at least five or six families moving back to the village every day now as their animals die," says a resident. "Each family's portion of aid is getting smaller by the day - the food only lasts a week [from the day it is distributed]."

Muhamed, like many others, had walked about four to five hours every day to raid bird nests in the few remaining trees to feed his cow. "It is the only bit of grass left in this desert. My animals worked with me and walked with me for long distances - it was my duty."

Famine looming

Wajir is also a step away from famine. Two remaining calves in the Garse Koftu village tug at a bit of cloth and an empty food sack. "We have heard of instances where the cows are even trying to eat sand," said Muna Ahmed of Arid Lands Development Focus Kenya, an NGO based in Wajir.

Muhamed said: "Today [when he lost his last cow] is a very sad day but I knew it was coming - the worst day was when I lost 17 goats in one day."

"With these members of my family gone, now I worry about my other children." His 12 children are, unsurprisingly, not healthy either. They have not had any milk for almost a year and have been living on a single meal for most of 2011.

All the money he had saved from selling milk and his goats was re-invested in buying more animals. This year, the value of a cow has plummeted from almost KSh8,000 (about US$88.50) to about Ksh5,800 ($64). His emaciated cow would not have even made that much.

But if Muhamed had had access to a destocking programme such as the one run by VSF, he could have ended the life of his animals in a more humane way, and been paid some money.

VSF-Suisse uses the Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS) for interventions such as destocking. "But unfortunately we only cover a small part of Mandera district - everyone is working with limited resources," said Lumadede.

Even so, convincing the pastoralists to part with their animals is extremely difficult "because of their relationship with the animals and the pastoralists are eternal optimists - they always think it might just rain the next day or the day after and the situation will change", Lumadede added.

With pasture land completely depleted in Mandera and Wajir, pastoralists have taken their herds to Ethiopia hoping to find some grazing land and water.

"But their animals are too weak - they will all probably die before they can even get there," said Muhamed.

As Mohamed told his story in Mandera, a newsreader over somebody's radio was talking about budgetary constraints on public pensions in Italy.

"Everyone is suffering in the world," remarked a Kenyan in our entourage. But Muhamed's and Mohamed's animals meant a lot more than mere savings.