Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre Internship Program :: Center for Science and Technology Policy Research

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notes from the field

These field notes are personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre

Drew Zackary


Blog Post 3

I have a deceptively simple and strange question for this blog post. Can goats prevent children from dying of diarrheal disease?. This is counter-intuitive in many ways. In fact, one of the accepted truisms in anthropology is that as humans began to domesticate animals and live near them, diseases increased. Moreover, some dismisses the subsidized increase of livestock in agro-pastoralist cultures as destructive. The truth is they can, and do.  It’s working.  Here in Karimoja, PfR have a program of introducing hybrid goats to communities.  This program has had some surprising effects.  While sitting through a week of “goat sensitizations” does not make NGO internships seem “adventurous”, the occational mid-meeting singing and dancing as well as the ease of conversation with local people makes each outing worth it.

Women dance and sing during a break at a community meeting with PfR
While speaking with Marco Lomongo, chairperson of a goat group in Nabwal parish, he explained how the goats have helped his village.  Marco described how the communities worked with PfR to implement a sustainable program that the people would be invested in.  These communities chose help with goats.  The government, through another program has bred hybrid goats that grow larger, are hardy in rural environments, and produce more offspring.  PfR then purchases these goats and gives them to local “goat committees” that are formed at the village level.  Twenty-five goats are given per participating village.  As time has passed over the past year the numbers of goats have increased. People love this project.  Near the end of his explanation Marco said, “ Now the children have less disease because of this, and that is good.”  How as this possible?  I asked him to explain further.  Marco said, “Our community sold some extra goats together, then used the money to get supplies and labor to build latrines. Now we have cleaner areas and children are less sick.” 

Villager in Nabwal parish shows his goat that PfR donated
It seemed so simple.  But what is really going on here is very complex.  PfR has found a way to utilize cooperative village groups to facilitate desired development projects that thus increase resiliency.  Next, I want to take a moment to unpack a few ideas that help to understand how complicated the goat program really is, and how PfR are able to collaborate in unique ways that are laudable.
At first blush, it is easy to theorize that all people are “maximizers”, selfish agents in the world who seek to increase assets, socially and economically in each market, ecological, and interpersonal exchange.  At the core of this is the idea that the household, as a nuclear family embedded in “tribal” clan relationships is the center of the moral-social universe, and people seek to increase wealth and prestige from within this nuclear structure. It then follows that that the goats would be used, during the worst times, for mitigating personal household vulnerabilities; paying for school fees, medical care for spouses and kin,  ect.  Or, during good times, selling goats would be used to maximize personal household wealth through hiring of labor, buying more livestock and bridewealth payments for elder sons. While some people reported this behavior, other events were occurring. Latrines were being built, and everyone’s children were benefitting. How can we think through this use of PfR donated resources?

The household is indeed a very important unit of social relation here in Karimoja, but the cooperation between clans and households in order to build latrines to benefit children, regardless of status, hints at a much more complicated world. The action of communally building public latrines for multiple households and clans is linked to a system of shared labor and cooperation that has been in place long before the colonial era in Karimojong.  One way to understand this current layer of cooperation is to look into how the goats are distributed after they are given to community members. 

Emmanuel, another PfR intern, translates goat care advice to local villagers.
            [Caution!! Goat System Explanation below! ]

There is a cardinal rule for the goat program: Each community member with a goat donated by PfR must give away the first ‘kid’. The rules of this goat giving have been integrated into how communal village living occurs.  Briefly I explain the rules here (don’t get dizzy, carry on and read on): If your donated goat is female, then the first ‘kid’ from it, regardless of sex, is yours.  If your goat is a male, when it gets a female pregnant then the goat from that female is the property of the female goats owner. The next one is yours, or if they are twins, you get the male one in case of differing sex goat ‘kids’. Two females then are given away separately, but this has not yet been reported.   Now, if the first goat is male, the owner keeps it. If it is female it is given away to someone who does not have this type of hybrid goat. Phew!

 So, the first three rules of goat group are: 1) Only singular, first time female ‘kids’ can be given away 2) The first ‘kid’, if male, is property of the female goat owner, 3) Recipients of the first female ‘kid’ must be community members who have no hybrid goats.  That’s all fine and dandy, (for those following this…or not) but theres a much more interesting question at the core of cooperative village level goat giveaways:  who gets the second generation female goat ‘kids’ and why?

It is here I want to delve into some ideas about giving and sharing. (To the reader, I apologize. But my internship at some point should showcase that that we are grad students out here and not just smiling tourists, even if it makes for some discussion of theory in a blog once and awhile! Trust me, it can be fun!)

While speaking with people here in Karamoja about the goat project I began to think about a little known, at least outside of anthropology and sociology, work from long dead French sociologist Marcel Mauss titled “ The Gift”.  This surprised me, because I had read it only once along time ago and had discarded it as needlessly hair-splitting, obtuse and a relic of long gone armchair comparative anthropological traditions that had no use in this modern world of development, abject poverty, and climate crises. Yet, somehow, I remembered the short book. Trust me, this leads to goats! And it never hurts to learn some anthropology, even if you are in another disciplinary world.

Marcel Mauss, 1938.
Mauss published “The Gift” in 1925. It caused a small sensation at the time in social theory circles (A “big deal” in the heavily mustached pipe smoking collegiate reading lounges of Europe). In “the Gift”, Mauss describes the various ways in which differing cultures across time and geographic space distributed goods as “gifts”.  In making his argument he uses examples of the famous “potlatch’s” of native Pacific Northwestern tribes, the “Kula” of the Trobriand islanders and the “Hau” of the Maori in New Zealand, among others. He did this to build a case that “the gift” through time has functioned in specific ways to make the social order stable, and thus the culture becomes observable and knowable to outside analysis. The act of gift giving, according to Mauss, is always about reciprocity. This cooperation through ceremony and giving is connected to how power and labor are performed and recognized. Each gift circles back to another action, and this type of egalitarian giving greases the wheels of social life. It facilitates peace, structure, as well as teaches every person how kinship and distribution of symbolic and economic goods  works. The ways that gifts are given and resources are distributed is the primary frame for how a person goes throughout a lifespan without feeling like nothing makes sense. Which, we can agree, is sessential for social stability.  Now, for the discerning reader it should be noted that Mauss tried to link these disparate cultural systems of  somewhat egalitarian giving to larger projects in social liberal democracy and the formation of the new powerful capitalist nation states, and, according to people smarter than me, altogether failed.  But his questions about how gifts work and what they can show about peoples relationships with each other remain very important.

For those who are still following this line of thought, you get bonus points for mentioning at your next cocktail party that a generation later, eminent anthropologist Roy Rappaport took some of these theories and turned them on their head investigating pigs and ceremonial distribution patterns in Polynesia. For both thinkers though, the big issue is how things of value move though a social structure.  In many ways it can be summarized, in my mind, as; “One way to learn something about the way cultural worlds are made possible is to follow a goat.”

Photo 4. Lino and Najore. Nariamiriam village.
It is here that I began to be not only interested in Lino and his goats, but who he gave the kids to and why.  I met Lino in his home village of ‘Nariamiriam’, which translates to “mixture”.  It is named this because two different clans, the Bokora and the Pian decided to settle here together in 2007.  There is a long and complicated history at play behind this decision, but the settlement meant progress and peace to people, so they named it accordingly.  Lino explained to me about many things in the area, traditional forecasting, charcoal burning laws and goats.  I asked him about who he gave his first goat to, and he introduced me to Najore.  Najore smiled and said she was very happy with her female goat, and that it already was pregnant.  Lino said that he chose Najore because she is very poor and had no animals.  They are not related, but he said he calls her a friend.  I asked if there was a preference for family members ot get goats and he said, “ No, we want people to get goats who are responsible and also who have nothing right now.” I asked a few more people locally who they gave goats to and received the same answer.  So it seemed as if the primary concerns were not clan affiliation, or kinship, but work ethic and poverty.

The organization of labor in these villages is key to understanding these decisions.  People rely on family and friends to plant, till, weed and herd animals.  No household can supply enough labor alone in this area.  Cooperation at some level is essential for survival. Thus the goats move through the villages reflecting a system of shared labor that focuses on work abilities and perceived need.  This is not to say there aren’t cracks in this rosy view.  Reports of favoritism and goats being given only to certain clan members were also common.  This, however, did not seem to be creating such an issues as to cause any large concern or conflict. In fact, the goat group had grown in Nariamiriam and they cooperated on a large garden together.  There is now a new requirement for receiving a new goat:  help in the communal garden.

Women work together tilling a communal garden plot in Tepeth parish, near the DRR center.
So, that is my protracted rumination as to how goats can decrease disease in children in Karimoja. It may be too long to hold attention at a cocktail party, but it gets at how adaptive people can be when given that extra opportunity.  PfR has used cooperation and collaboration with local communities to make a sustainable program work. Goats may seem like small and banal solutions to huge problems, but they are helping build resilient communities, one complicated gift at a time.      

In coming posts, I will try to transcribe an interview with a PfR fieldworker and delve into the complications of Early Warning Early Action and conservation, which were my main goals during the summer.  I leave in 15 days, so things will happen quickly.  No time for relaxing!

Women in Nariamiriam prepare a new thatch roof.