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The plight of a “pastoralist drop-out”

Kenya, July 13, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    One of many dead cows at today's Garissa Livestock Market. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Joy Portella/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A buyer checks out the merchandise at Garissa Livestock Market. Photo: Joy Portella/Mercy Corps

I’m a big fan of visiting markets, especially during Mercy Corps trips. It seems that even in the bleakest parts of the world, markets are vibrant, dynamic and often colorful places.

That wasn’t quite the scene when I visited the Garissa Municipal Livestock Market this morning. This market is huge; it’s a regional hub with buyers and sellers coming from the Kenyan cities of Garissa, Wajir and Mandera, and even neighboring Somalia. The market happens every Wednesday, and usually involves 4,000-5,000 cows.

All of this should lead to market vibrancy, but not when most of the animals are weak, skinny, dead or dying. Sadly, that’s what I observed at the Garissa market today.

One quick note before I go on: Mercy Corps focuses on helping people, not animals. But in this part of the world, the two are tightly connected. Most people here are pastoralists, meaning that they herd and sell animals for a living — and livestock like goats, cows and camels are all they have in the world. When the welfare of animals takes a dramatic turn for the worse, so does the welfare of humans.

The cows I saw this morning were in bad shape. Over the course of the past eight months, prices have plummeted as people have rushed to sell the animals they cannot feed. In addition, the condition of hungry, thirsty animals has deteriorated, further driving down prices. A cow that used to fetch $300 now brings in only $60. Middlemen who aggregate animals from small-time herders understand this new reality, and predictably, they exploit it.

We arrived at the market around 7:30 a.m. and were informed that 15 cows had already died. We were traveling with Dr. Ismail Abdi Abdille — an animal health specialist with a local group called CNFA — who told us that was many as 30 cows now die each market day. He added that doesn’t count the ones that die in transit and are dumped roadside. In addition, many cows were weak and dying, and certainly no one would buy them.

We met a man Ahmed who had brought his cattle down from Wajir. Ahmed used to own 100 cows but many of them had died off. Two weeks ago, he decided to sell his remaining animals, and started the long trek to Garissa. Only 40 of his cows — skinny and worn — are still alive and he was trying to sell them all at market today.

Ahmed is what’s called a “pastoralist drop-out”, which means he’s so desperate he wants to sell all his cattle and “drop out” of his established way of life. What Ahmed will do in the future remains uncertain, but it will likely involve odd jobs or some other kind of subsistence labor.

“Things are really bad,” Ahmed told me. “I’m so frustrated and depressed.”

I later visited a village on the way from Garissa to Wajir and heard echoes of the same sad story: most animals had died, and only a few were left. Many had migrated to southern Somalia — where there’s supposed to be more access to water — led by their herders, usually men who leave their wives and children behind.

I asked when the villagers had last consumed milk. They looked incredulous and told me it was one-and-a-half to two years ago.

I was wondering how bad things would get before these villagers would also become drop-outs and move away. “We would move if things got much worse,” one of them told me. “But we don’t want to. This is our home.”