Let’s talk about cows.
Unless you’re a farmer or live in a rural community, you may have little interaction with the beasts, save that piece of red meat on the BBQ or what you find in the dairy aisle.
In Zimbabwe, the humble cow has esteemed status. It’s a source of food and milk, of course. A cow can also help a family earn an income.
Economic troubles in this country have made access to money a challenge. Cash is hard to come by and cows can serve as their own form of capital, a physical currency that can be sold or traded for goods and services. The term “bank account” is frequently used in reference to the animal.
Owning a cow is also a source of pride.
“If you have a cow you can sell it and then pay for school fees, but without you can’t get money to do it,” says Christopher Mashanda.
He’s 65 years old and a member of a CARE-supported village saving and loans association I met in Bikita district of Masvingo province, southern Zimbabwe.
The group calls themselves the Sunshine VSL. I sit with them, hiding from the morning sun on a shaded porch. Christopher sits on a ledge with another man. He notes there is a gender-balance problem with his group. The rest of the group members, over a dozen women, laugh.
Christopher speaks the best English here and does most of the talking.
Every month, members contribute money to the group – some earn through selling vegetables, others brew beer – the pool is then put towards buying a cow for one of the participants.
“It’s far easier to acquire cattle than doing it on their own,” says Christopher.
CARE also provides additional training to group members to be prepared for drought or harsh weather. The introduction of conservation farming, an approach that protect crops and makes better use of soil in dry environments, is cited as popular in a region facing the threat of climate change.
Thanks to this support and training, a couple of the women note they been able to pay their children’s school fees. They are eager to learn more so they can share with other community members.
Community 'paravets' for healthy cows
While these women and men save their money to buy cows, support is also needed to keep the animals healthy. During the rainy season in particular, there is a rise of tick-bourne diseases that can affect and even kill the cattle.
For those who rely on income from the cow to cover school fees, an ailing cow can mean an uncertain education, and an uncertain future, for their child.
Like the Sunshine group members, Vavarirai Shaka, 44, also owns cows. And he’s helped lead an effort that has made a real difference in the health of his community’s livestock.
Sporting a ballcap and wearing blue coveralls, he looks the part of someone that has led a construction job.
Vavarirai is head of his local livestock development committee and with the support of CARE’s donors they have built a dip tank to disinfect cattle.
A short drive from the Sunshine group, in the middle of a grassy field with a few trees scattered about, this tank is essentially two cattle pens with a narrow cement pool in between. The stone walls to each pen are high enough to prevent the cows from jumping out and they are led into a liquid bath which kills off harmful ticks.
Vavarirai provides a short tour of the tank and it’s clear he’s pleased with this job. It’s “high quality,” he says, noting that the people in the area are very happy.
He now makes sure to disinfect his cattle and he says many others in the community are also participating, which has led to a decline in disease. The tank is now used by 1,400 cattle from 160 households in two wards in the area.
The reason for the drop in illness seen here goes beyond the dip tank. It’s also thanks to women, as well as men like Richard Runesu Ziwewe.
He’s 54 years old and father to five kids. Richard has lived in this community his whole life.
Along with 16 others, CARE has trained him to be a paravet, which he describes as a local “link between the veterinarian and the farmers.” These individuals have received lessons in animal health, are able to diagnose a variety of ailments and offer basic treatments such as medication.
Richard says after the training of paravets in the community, “there’s been a reduction in the number of diseases and death of animals.”
Part of the reason for this, he says, is that they are only a short phone call away. Previously, if a farmer had a problem, they would need to pay bus fare to head off to acquire the services of a vet.
“But now since we are here, it’s only a walk or a phone call and, in less than an hour, we’re there.”
This benefit extends both ways for the community and regional livestock veterinarians.
“The ripple effects do not only cover the local community that we serve in. It goes beyond,” says Richard. “We’ve lessened the work of the government’s Department of Livestock and Veterinary Services, in that they no longer have to travel long distances on daily basis to attend to the diseases that cattle have since we are here.
“They only come to help us and supervise us at intervals so that is a benefit to the community and the government itself in that we have reduced the amount of work that the government has to do.”
He says this with pride and for good reason. Healthy cows offer so much to this community.
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