The Man Who Feeds His Cow Everything

“Here, take this passion fruit. I can’t get the cow to eat it.”

Many of my days are spent traveling around Kamachumu Division, tagging along with one of the KAVIPE board members while we check up on the loaned dairy cows. We set out on a pikipiki (motorbike), or on foot, and trek through the most confusing networks of tiny roads, among the banana trees. Today, I went to Bulembo (boo-lay-m-bo) with Steven.

We saw more cows this morning than we do most days. We saw both the best and the worst I’ve seen so far. The worst was a family with two cows, who had complained they weren’t getting pregnant. This is a common complaint, although I can rarely figure out whether or not the cows have actually been bred. Usually, when I ask that question, we get pulled into a rant about how badly the farmers need access to AI (artificial insemination). But that is a debate for another day.

These two unpregnant cows were pacing franticly in their rickety pens, causing liquid manure to fly everywhere. Meanwhile, a few feet away, a woman and two children were within flying-shit-flecks reach, hulling beans! I got splattered standing next to them. Both pens had empty feed troughs, whose wooden bottoms were falling out, and no feed was produced even when we asked. Suffice it to say that both cows were extremely skinny. As to my question, had they been bred, I really hope they hadn’t wasted their money taking them to a bull, since generally in order for conception to occur, the animal must be fed. In this case, we advised to clean the pens, add bedding, fix the troughs and FEED THE COWS! We will return and check within the next two weeks that the issues have been addressed. To blame? Lack of education on proper care, lack of money, lack of time… but the first is the major issue, that I hope to help change.

I contrast now with the last farmer we visited. He had clearly been waiting for us (word travels quickly when visitors are around!) and when we pulled up he leapt, as only an old man can, from his porch and started to show us all the different feedstuffs his cow was eating: grass, bean hulls, avocado leaves, a green avocado (I doubt she’ll eat it, but he said she does…?!), young corn plants, and a coarse grass I’ve seen before. To top it off? Fresh, clean water and 5 inches of dry grass as bedding. I told the old man I wanted to bring him in to train the other farmers. It’s not really fair to compare this retired man with all the other families we saw this morning, but it’s also difficult to avoid. In some ways, I guess it’s the same anywhere: some people are passionate about cows and some aren’t. Difference is, at home, the people who aren’t passionate about cows can afford to buy milk from the grocery store, and don’t keep cows. Maybe having children to care for and no help also decreases your passion, about anything.

I was glad to finish the day smiling, however, when the old man ran into the house and emerged with a single passion fruit in his outstretched hand. I’m used to receiving gifts, but this one was more of a cast-off: “I have many, many,” he said, gesturing to the gardens surrounding the house, “but I just can’t get the cow to eat them! So here, I guess I can spare this one for you.”

Oh yes, and please let me know if you’ve heard that avocados are poisonous to cows.

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KAVIPE

It’s long past time to introduce my workplace. KAVIPE has welcomed me with open arms and exceeded my every expectation. As with anywhere, it’s the people that make KAVIPE wonderful. My coworkers, the Board, are all volunteers. I can say with certainty that they appear at the office more often than many a paid worker in Africa.

                                 

KAVIPE’s mission is to promote agricultural development in the region. They work throughout Kamachumu Division, in 18 villages and with many more Community Based Organisations (CBO’s). The biggest ongoing project is the provision of dairy cows to members. Spread throughout the Division, there are 138 Friesian cows (Holsteins, in North American terms, but these girls are much smaller like the European variety), on loan to suitable KAVIPE members. For a moderate price, a member gets a heifer and training to keep a dairy cow. They must have an appropriate facility, which entails a partially-roofed enclosure, a little crush gate and a feed trough.

Female calves are property of KAVIPE and are again distributed to members. The idea is that families can supplement their diets and add income from the milk, and this has been somewhat successful. As you can imagine, however, the cultural adjustment from keeping Zebu cattle with a hired herdsman for traditional free-grazing, to keeping Friesians on zero-graze, is huge. In a zero-graze system, the grass is cut and brought to the cow. I have yet to encounter a cow producing more than 5-6 litres per day. My first training priority: nutrition.

Other projects include dairy goats and poultry (also on loan), small-scale irrigation, provision of certified vegetable seeds, and community animal health care. The first week I was here, everyone was under the impression I was a vet. Due to the fact that my Kiswahili is only slightly worse than KAVIPE’s cumulative English, I was unable to explain that M.Sc. does not equal D.V.M. This led to awkward situations, for example a CBO meeting in which Wilson cried “and that is why they’re so happy to have you… you’re a DOCTOR!” followed by a visit to a sick calf where I tried to look intelligent while saying “ahhhhh yes, East Coast Fever….” I was pretty happy when some guy showed up with antibiotics because I was terrified they were about to hand me a needle and syringe.

After that, I got my fellow VSO, James (from Uganda, he also works in Kamachumu), to call the Chairman of KAVIPE and explain the situation. The Chairman, Mr. Sunday Buberwa, apologized profusely to me, as is his usual reaction to the slightest hiccup. He is always worried about my wellbeing!

Back to KAVIPE. The organisation was put in place by World Vision upon the phase-out of their 15 year presence in Kamachumu Division. Also established were a Community Care Coalition – Safina, dealing with vulnerable people (people living with HIV, orphans, etc.), and a credit entity, or SACCOS (Savings and Credit Cooperative Society) for lending money to members. World Vision left very little capacity in terms of procuring funding, starting new projects, or even maintaining what was there. An example is the on-site processing facility with a grinder and oil press for peanuts, sunflower seeds, blenders for making fruit juices, etc., none of which are operational. It’s the typical story, after the funding agency pulls out, things grind to a stop…. I think KAVIPE has done very well, considering. They meet regularly, do frequent inspections on loaned animals, and most importantly, recognize the need for more capacity. They strived to acquire someone (me!) to get the organisation energized, to build the knowledge base, and, I pray, to get them some funding.

I couldn’t ask for more. Motivation to work is not a problem when you have a team of willing and enthusiastic people surrounding you.