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Of camels, cows, sheep — and information

Of camels, cows, sheep — and information

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Published by C Y Gopinath

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Published by: C Y Gopinath on Nov 02, 2009
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Of camels, cows, sheep— and information
By C. Y. Gopinath
Te Afars, one of Ethiopia’s largest 
pastoral tribes,reckoned to be over 2000 years old, regard two aspectso their lives as supremely important – cattle, and
(inormation). Teir identity as pastoralists is tied withthe ormer, but their survival as a community has his-torically depended on the latter. Te Aar measures wealth and success by the health and number o theircamels, cows, and sheep. However, they have survivedor centuries in their harsh and demanding environ-ment because o their skills in managing
. Every  Aar, male or emale, adult or child, must learn how togather, evaluate and disseminate inormation, and it isthis special skill that puts this ancient tribe in the ore-ront o modern communities in the age o HIV, AIDSand behavior change communication.Te existence o 
is a startling nding, withunique implications or any communication strategy that seeks to improve health among the Aars. Aars,it would appear, have an instinctive understanding o inormation and its ow within their community, andhave sophisticated, even i traditionally inherited, skillsin inormation management or health.Underlying these activities is a proound apprecia-tion o the ways in which the community’s skills with
 Among the 2,000 year old pastoralist Aars o Ethiopia, the transmission o inormation, known as dagu, has long been a traditional skill associated with the tribe’s survival. Not only is it part o the adolescent rite o passage to be judged ft to share dagu with other community members, but severe penalties apply to passing incorrect dagu. Similarly, Aars havedeveloped an instinctive understanding o the principles o amily planning through their animal husbandry practices.Unortunately or an NGO that began an HIV, amily planning and primary health intervention with the Aars not verylong ago, they assumed that the Aars were illiterate.
 2 O cows, sheep, camel and inormation
inormation management are pivotal to the health, well-being and survival o the Aars. Tis paper detailsthe Aars’ traditional systems or cattle managementand inormation management, gathered rom key in-ormant interviews conducted in October among thecommunity.
Inormation management
 When two Aars meet, they must rst exchange
. Itis not important whether they are riends or strangers, whether they are neighbors or come rom the distantreaches o the Aar region. In all cases, in keeping withthe principles o word-o-mouth transmission, inor-mation exchanged will be hearsay. In other words, thenarrator will mention what he heard rom other Aarsencountered along the way.o help lter out
that is critical to Aar healthand survival, every Aar learns the ve dagu subjectsthat carry a top priority rating – in other words, dagupertaining to any o these must be treated as highly urgent, and be passed on without prejudice or discrimi-nation to as many Aars as possible, Te ve subjectsare:
1. Conict
: Any dagu relating to hostile rival tribesthat could help avert or have the winning advantage inan attack.
2. Health
: Primarily concerning cattle health, new diseases, inections, deaths and acilities or care. Sec-ondarily,
concerning women’s health, diseases,cures, new acilities.
3. Pastures
: Dagu about where grass is good, wheredepleted, where encroachments are happening, wheregrazing is being prohibited.
4. Weather
: Dagu about where it is dry, where it hasrained, where better or worse weather is expected.
5. Market
: What are the prices? How many birrs iste (a local staple grain) going or? Is there a market orgoats? What is the price o batteries? And so on.In the case o 
that relates to potential conict with other tribes, the disseminator is expected to carry it straight to the village’s women, who will then emerge
en masse 
beating drums and raise the call to arms.
How Aars learn to pass on dagu
Passing dagu is a learned skill, and it is taught to Aarchildren rom the time they are old enough to herdcattle. Children who are learning herding skills mustalways remain within hailing distance o the village,and will be given charge o small numbers o cattle. While in the pasture, they will be told to make care-ul note o two things – what they see, and what they hear. Tese two together will constitute the content o transmitted
. When the child returns rom a day at the pasture, he or she will relate the day’s
to theparents – who they saw, how they were dressed, what words were exchanged, what the sky was like, how thecattle behaved, and so on. Te parents will teach thechild how to evaluate the
, ltering out inaccura-cies and irrelevancies, siting the essential rom trivialusing the ve guidelines, and thus extracting meaningrom raw data.It is not till age 15 or so that a young Aar’s ap-prenticeship will end, and his or her
deemed astrustworthy and suitable or sharing with the commu-nity. Coming o 
sharing age is nearly as much arite o passage or a young Aar as ritual circumcision.From that point, he or she is ‘trusted’ – an importantmilestone.
 Authenticity and verifcation
Te need or verication arises when survival-critical
has originated rom an Aar stranger. In such acase, the receiving Aar will probe in depth or
trivial  peripheral information
– What route did you come by? What did you see en route? What was your wie wearing when you let? What did you eat this morning? What was your amily doing when you let? And so on. Any doubt about the
provenance is settled by authen-ticating this peripheral inormation. I any part o it isound inaccurate, then the main
 will be treated asdoubtul and rejected in its entirety. Tis involved andruthless verication seems to be the main method orvalidation prevailing within the community.Te penalty or disseminating incorrect or alse daguis severe: it could mean public lashings, the slaughter o a avorite cow, and being publicly denounced as ‘un-trustworthy’. Te individual is cursed to live as an ex-ile within his or her community, a Cassandra orever whom no one will believe.
Shortcomings o dagu
 An inherent shortcoming o dagu is that the sourceis lost in transmission. In other words, an Aar mightmention the person who gave him a particular dagu,but not include the originator o the dagu itsel. Tismakes a verication trace next to impossible. A second shortcoming, but only rom a program-matic point o view, might be that dagu is restrictedto data, and is not equipped to reect questions andconcerns that might arise within the community. Putdierently, dagu is oriented towards dissemination o 
O cows, sheep, camel and inormation 3
acts rather than dialogue about issues.
Cattle management and amily planning
Similar to their sophisticated ways o understandingand using inormation or
, Aars have a deep ap-preciation o the processes o ‘amily planning’ whenit comes to their cattle. Te Aar herdsman is preoccu-pied with the reproductive health o his cattle, whichhe considers his responsibility. He is systematic andthorough in the ways in which he regulates reproduc-tion among his cattle, paying particular attention tospacing.Te wealthiest Aars are the ones who own cam-els. Tese sturdy and hard-working beasts o burdenenjoy the love, respect and admiration o the Aars.Tey are docile and uncomplaining, they can survivelong droughts, and their long necks can reach or veg-etation that cows and sheep would never reach. Teirmilk is extremely nutritious, a act that has led to aharsh equation – “
When a camel dies, it is the same as  four Afars dying 
.” By this logic, saving an ailing camel would take precedence over attending to a sick human.Te qualities that make Aars prize their camelsabove all other cattle, also make them extremely sen-sitive to questions or comments about them. A non- Aar who is too curious about camels or passes ippantcomments about the animal’s looks risks a potentially violent conrontation.Cows, sheep and goats are the other cattle that Aars own. Tough they do not have the prized quali-ties o camels, they receive no less care and attention,or they too are sources o milk, the staple ood o the Aars. It is o paramount importance to the Aar thathis cattle ourish and multiply: the more cattle oneowns, the better one is prepared against hard times.However, the Aar realizes that i all his were tocattle birth together, it would be a recipe or disaster.For example, i the camels birthed in the rainy season,between October and December, their milk would gounconsumed because that is the period when cows arecalving and lactating, and there is plentiul ood or the Aars. New born camel calves would overeed on theirmothers’ milk and die. From this observation comesthe rst principle o Aar cattle management:
camels must not birth in the rainy season
.Ensuring this is not difcult, or domesticated cam-els copulate standing back to back, and cannot couple without human assistance. Aars arrange couplings be-tween their camels such that new births happen in theperiod rom January to September. When it comes to cows, although more is alwaysbetter, too many at the same time would upset a nebalance, or the Aar needs to ensure that a certainnumber o cows are always in milk through the year.

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