Foot-and-mouth disease -- the Maasai caught between two worlds

A Maasai herder with cattle in the background.
Photo: L. Belpietro/Campi ya Kanzi

A virulent strain of foot-and-mouth disease in Europe in 2001 led to the controversial slaughter of almost four million animals. But East Africa's cattle-raising Maasai people don't kill their infected cattle. For them, foot-and-mouth disease has almost become a part of everyday life -- it's so common they refer to it using the same word they use for the common cold: oloirobi. It occurs almost every rainy season with minimal loss of life.

This is the crucial difference between the strictly commercial approach to livestock and the Maasai approach, which is far more complex and incorporates both modern and traditional husbandry techniques. Because the disease occurs infrequently in Europe, the farmers' response is to quickly eliminate infection by killing the infected animals and so avoid long-term financial losses caused by public fears of tainted meat.

The Maasai people, however, consider their cattle as more than simply financial assets -- a man and his herd are bound together in relationship defined by centuries of culture and survival in a harsh environment, and tempered by the changes brought about by European influences.

Maasai communities in the United Republic of Tanzania and Kenya are in a critical transition period. A pastoralist people, their traditional economy is based on nomadic herding of cattle from water hole to water hole. This process is at odds with the settled imperatives of commercial farming, which is central to both countries' developing economies.

FAO, which is working to maintain and strengthen food security for all, tries to balance the needs of the predominant cash economy with the cultural sensitivities of traditional peoples such as the Maasai.

To vaccinate or not?

One of the points of difference between Maasai herders and commercial livestock farmers in Europe is vaccination. In developing countries vaccination is the prime measure for controlling foot-and-mouth disease. It is about 80 percent effective, says FAO's Mark Rweyemamu, an expert in livestock diseases.

Animals who get the disease and recover are slow to regain weight, and they produce less milk. Commercial farmers in Europe reject vaccination because of the risk of masking disease and the associated loss of productivity and the loss of trade, while Maasai herders vaccinate their animals when they can afford it.

Commercial farmers regard their cattle primarily as financial assets.
Photo: O. Thuillier

"A commercial farmer in Europe would not accept a mixed herd of healthy and recovered cattle," says Dr. Rweyemamu. "The disease hampers productivity. Foot-and-mouth is like a wildcat strike in the manufacturing industry -- it doesn't shut down the factory, but it does compromise the production."

And, he says, it does the same with the Maasai herds. "The disease traps the Maasai into an 'ethnic poverty' trap," he explains. "Their cow recovers, but its value is compromised and this can lead to a rift with neighbouring commercial farmers who see the Maasai cattle as contaminated."

In Maasailand, however, simply organizing a mass vaccination without taking into account the cultural role of cattle would be inappropriate, if not impossible. "We have to work with communities' values, not despite them," says Dr. Rweyemamu. "Vaccination is our primary weapon against the disease, but we have to understand and respect the whole social and economic dimension of a clinical problem."

Cattle, communities and culture

The Maasai also rely on natural medicine. So since September 2000, FAO's project on local indigenous knowledge systems (LinKS) has been supporting a study on the use of medicinal plants among Maasai communities in the United Republic of Tanzania.

"We wanted to see how traditional herbal medicines can contribute to improved animal health care in a situation where pastoral communities are going through changes," says FAO's Lars Otto Naess, who is working on the LinKS project. "And we want to increase understanding about the value of indigenous knowledge among development workers, researchers and policy makers in Tanzania and abroad."

The Maasai have a saying, 'Meeki Lenkaina ilala-lenyana', which translates as 'An elephant is never burdened by its tusks'. In the same way, the Maasai have traditionally never been burdened by the ecosystem on which they live. Nor by the myriad diseases that are part of their world.


Recorded outbreaks of FMD 1996-2000 - before the UK outbreak of February 2001. Source: University of Otago, NZ

Medicines on the hoof

This doesn't mean that Maasai communities are passive in the face of illness or injury, but rather that prophylaxes and cures exist within their natural world order and are transmitted in complex rituals that initiate boys into manhood and ensure the cultural and physical survival of the group.

When a Maasai cow, sheep or goat exhibits the symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease -- fever and painfully ulcerated soft tissue -- they are treated with a paste made of cattle urine, dried bark from the olchilhili tree and the leaves of the alaiskirai and oloiyapasei bushes.

The mixture is not a cure for the disease, but it helps to relieve pain and aid the recovery, says Dr. Rweyemamu. After being quarantined for up to a month, the animal is returned to the field -- or sometimes, if the owners can afford it and if there is a clinic nearby, to the vet for a vaccination against further infection.

When, rarely, an infected animal dies, the meat is sold for human consumption because, unlike the European public, Maasai consumers understand that this brings no risk to themselves. "In fact, animals with foot-and-mouth disease are deliberately selected by Maasai herders in the markets," says Steven Moiko, a Maasai researcher with the Kenya Economic Pastoralist Development Association. "They slaughter the cow to sell the meat rather than kill a healthy animal."

A natural pharmacopoeia threatened by development

Steven Moiko is a Maasai working with the Kenya Economic Pastoralist Development Association (KEPDA) in Kenya, which promotes understanding about pastoralist issues. He lives 50 km west of Nairobi, and considers himself advantaged because he has a university education and his family owns land and many cattle. Click here to read his thoughts on the role of cattle in Maasai life.

New systems, new diseases and even new remedies threaten the existence of their natural pharmacopoeia and the Maasai pastoral tradition. Clearing the bush for commercial agriculture or mining has increased contact with diseases such as East Coast Fever and trypanosomiasis which can only be cured by modern drugs.

Economic development is also destroying the environment and is forcing young men, the conduits of medicinal lore, to seek work elsewhere. When they go, they leave the community dependent on imported drugs or half-remembered -- therefore ineffective -- herbal remedies. The transition to a cash economy also means that cows are increasingly being treated as commercial assets.

Paradoxically the loss of ethnoveterinary lore hits the poorest members of the community -- those with fewest cattle -- the most. They can't afford drugs, are more likely to be illiterate and live far from urban centres. This further strains the traditional Maasai economy, which depends on the exchange of livestock to secure a bride, cement clan alliances and promote genetic diversity.

The LinKS project, says Mr. Naess, is aiming to raise awareness of local knowledge and practises that can help improve the pastoral production systems while conserving medicinal plants. But, says Dr. Mweyemamu, the international community also needs to support programmes to vaccinate the Maasai animals and ensure that their way of life is not destroyed by a disease which can be controlled.

4 January 2002


Related links



 FAO Home page 

 Search our site 



©FAO, 2001