Our new cow, Rembo (Beauty).

Some of the readers of Reports from Kenya appreciate postings on normal activities we do here in Kenya. We just bought a new cow named, Rembo (Beauty), a week ago. Buying a cow here in Kenya is a much more significant activity than just buying a bag of beans or any other item.

First a cow is an economic asset as it gives milk, calves, and manure. The milk is an important resource for a family – here we put it mostly in tea. This is very healthy particularly for children. The Rwandan government has a national plan where every family is supposed to have a cow. This is not only for the nutrition but so that the manure can be put on the fields to increase agricultural productivity. Since a cow gives birth to a calf about every year or a little more, the calf becomes an additional asset for the family. Female calves are worth more than male calves.

Here in Kenya some of the male calves are castrated and become oxen to pull carts and to plow the fields. There are about four people with ox carts and one with donkey carts here in Lumakanda – they carry sand, gravel, bricks, stones, firewood, water (particularly for building projects), maize (corn) harvests from distant fields, and so on. It seems to me to be a good business for those people with the oxen. Usually two or four oxen plow a field, but I have seen up to 16 oxen plowing a large field. Surprisingly, people in Rwanda and Burundi do not use oxen for plowing or transportation of bulky items.

Second, cows are a method of banking. Note that some of our financial terms originate from words associated with cattle. For example, “pecuniary” derives for the Latin work, “pecus” meaning “cattle.” With a new calf every year or a little more, the “interest” is much higher than a person can obtain from a bank – currently in the US, we are getting 0.05% interest and in Kenya we get 7% interest. Moreover, since a cow can easily be sold, the cattle can be considered a “savings account” to draw upon in times of need such as illness, school fees, home improvements, and so on. Every Thursday there is an active livestock market in nearby Kipkarren River where anyone can buy or sell cattle, goats, and/or sheep.

Lastly cattle have a large cultural component. At a wedding or funeral a bull must be slaughtered. They are part of the dowry in any marriage as the groom’s family gives one or more cows to the bride’s family. An interesting example recently occurred at Lumakanda Friend Church – the former youth pastor had been given a sheep about five years ago when he finished his tour of duty and was assigned elsewhere. He returned to the church with a good sized calf. He said that he had used the sheep and its offsprings to buy a calf which in due time gave birth and in appreciation he was giving the first born calf to the church. The calf itself was brought directly into the service for observation. It was given to one of church members to take care of until it got bigger and could be sold. In understanding the cultural dynamics of cows, the pastor could have sold the calf and given the money directly to the church, but this would have been devoid of symbolism.

Cows are special animals. They are given names. My late father-in-law, David Okwemba, always had one or two cows. He had a four room house but kept one room at night for the cows. His children tried to convince him to build a small barn for the cows but he wanted them to be near him at night. When he visited us for three months in the US shortly after we were married, he wanted to get back home to see how his cows were doing since he didn’t think the family would be taking proper care of his cows. One of the reasons we moved from our old house in Lumakanda to the new one is that the old house was on too small a plot to keep cows and Gladys wanted to keep cows which was possible in our larger plot with the new house.

All these three aspects of cattle keeping were involved with our purchase.

Our issue was this. We had three adult cows, two giving milk, and the last one about to give birth. In addition we had two two-year old calves, one male and one female, and two young heifers under six months. We wanted to sell one of the milking cows which we had for at least four years and was getting old plus the two two-year olds. With these funds we would buy a much better cow which I will describe below. We took the cows to the Kipkarren market and sold the milking cow for 33,000/- ($330) and the small heifer for 20,000/- ($200). Our brother-in-law, Samson Kemoli, who lives nearby, wanted the male calf to be used as part of the dowry for his son, Johnstone. He bought this for 15,000/- ($150). We had a total of 68,000/- ($680) for the three cows. To this we added 7,000/- ($70) of our own funds for a total of 75,000/- ($750) and used this to buy another cow. Why was the new cow, Rembo, so expensive?

Zebu cow. Note the hump and drooping ears. Notice also the harsh environment with little grass and lots of bush.  Photo by Dr Alberto Zorioni

The traditional cow in Kenya and much of the tropics is called the zebu cow. It is noted for its hump and sometimes drooping ears. It is adapted to the harsh environment of the tropics with resistance to disease and tolerance of intense heat, sun, and humidity. They are able to tolerate thirst and can walk long distances in search for water and grass. But in Kenya a zebu cow gives only two liters (two quarts) of milk per day. A European grade cow can give 40 liters (10 gallons) of milk per day. But it is necessary to give a grade cow much more care as they can’t walk far, are susceptible to disease, and require good food such as Napier/elephant grass, hay, salt, molasses, and special feeds if one wants to obtain a high yield of milk.

With artificial insemination it is easy to cross a zebu cow with a grade cow. In fact in Lumakanda there are no longer any pure zebu cows. A half zebu/half grade cow can be artificially inseminated from a grade cow and one has a calf which is 1/4 zebu and 3/4 grade. This can continue so that in the third generation the calf is 1/8 and 7/8; the fourth generation is 1/16 and 15/16, the fifth generation is 1/32 and 31/32; the sixth generation is 1/64 and 63/64; and the seventh generation is 1/128 and 127/128 – since this is less than 1% zebu cow it is considered a grade cow. Our cows were probably 3/4 to 7/8 grade cow and giving us about 8 liters (2 gallons) of milk each. With Rembo we were upgrading to a 63/64 grade cow which should give us at least 32 liters (8 gallons) of milk per day – if we are able to obtain the necessary inputs. So this new cow means a considerable upgrade of our milk possibilities. This is occurring throughout East Africa and as the local cows are slowly upgraded, there will be sufficient milk for the doubling of the population expected in the next 35 years.

We have only three-quarters of an acre of land so there is no room to graze cows. We do “zero grazing.” In this system we bring the grass and hay to the cows who always stay in the barn except once in a week or so when we bring them to cut the grass on our lawn. Each Saturday morning they are also let out as we spray them for ticks which carry a number of deadly diseases.

Although the owner, Solomon Boit, lived about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from us, we learned that Rembo was for sale from our veterinarian who serves both of us. Boit bought his 32 acre farm in 1974 and has been upgrading his cows since that time. He had a nice herd – I didn’t count how many – of good grade cows. Boit needed to sell a cow because he had medical expenses – his daughter had her appendix removed and his son had the tips of his three fingers cut off by the machine that cuts the grass and hay for the cows. First Wycliffe Mudavadi, the man who takes care of our cows – he is Gladys’ relative as his grandfather and Gladys’s father were cousins (you can figure out what this relationship is called in English because I can’t) – went to see the cow and took a picture of it with his cell phone. This looked promising so on Tuesday last week Mudavadi, Gladys, and I went to look at the cow. We were satisfied. It was a young cow which aborted its first calf at seven months as a reaction to injections it was given for cattle diseases. We agreed to purchase the cow and gave a down payment of 35,000/- from the two cows we had already sold. A local teacher came by to write a receipt since Mudavadi, when he was herding the cow from Boit’s home to ours, would need documentation so that no one would accuse him of stealing the cow.

Our first problem was that we still had to sell the remaining cow not only for the cash but also because we did not have sufficient space in our barn for another mature cow. On Thursday Mudavadi took our big cow to the Kipkarren River livestock market, sold it, Gladys M-pesa-ed (mobile money) the remaining 40,000/- ($400) to Boit and Mudavadi went to get the cow and walked it slowly from its old home to our homestead. The only issue he had was in crossing the footpath on the long bridge over the Kipkarren River. Rembo was afraid to cross so Mudavadi saw a man grazing some cows nearby and asked him to cross his cows over the bridge; when he did so, Rembo quickly followed. After about a six hour walk, Rembo was in our yard and I took the picture above.

There were, as usual, unexpected issues. The first was that the calf of the cow we sold, although old enough to be weaned, was still suckling the last drops of milk after we milked her mother. She was quite upset that her mom was no longer around and mooed most of the day, night, and some the following day. More surprisingly was the fact that the other cow that we were keeping and had lived with the cow we sold for at least the last three years was also upset that her companion was no longer around so she mooed a lot also. She adjusted by the next day when she became accustomed to Rembo.

A week later Rembo has settled in nicely. We will need to wait about six months before her new calf is born. We will hope that it is a female which will be a full grade cow and things will go well so that we will receive a good yield of milk every morning and afternoon. If so we would plan on keeping her for the next ten years or so until she becomes old.


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From 1998 to 2016, David Zarembka was the Coordinator of the African Great Lakes Initiative of the Friends Peace Teams. He continues his peacemaking work in East Africa with Transforming Communities for Social Change (TCSC) and Friends Church Peace Team (FCPT). He has been involved with East and Central Africa since 1964 when he taught Rwandan refugees in Tanzania. David is married to Gladys Kamonya and lives in western Kenya. David is the author of A Peace of Africa: Reflections on Life in the Great Lakes Region.


David Zarembka

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