Of camels, cows, sheep — and information

By C. Y. Gopinath
Among the 2,000 year old pastoralist Afars of Ethiopia, the transmission of information, known as dagu, has long been a traditional skill associated with the tribe’s survival. Not only is it part of the adolescent rite of passage to be judged fit to share dagu with other community members, but severe penalties apply to passing incorrect dagu. Similarly, Afars have developed an instinctive understanding of the principles of family planning through their animal husbandry practices. Unfortunately for an NGO that began an HIV, family planning and primary health intervention with the Afars not very long ago, they assumed that the Afars were illiterate. The Afars, one of Ethiopia’s largest pastoral tribes, reckoned to be over 2000 years old, regard two aspects of their lives as supremely important – cattle, and dagu (information). Their identity as pastoralists is tied with the former, but their survival as a community has historically depended on the latter. The Afar measures wealth and success by the health and number of their camels, cows, and sheep. However, they have survived for centuries in their harsh and demanding environment because of their skills in managing dagu. Every Afar, male or female, adult or child, must learn how to gather, evaluate and disseminate information, and it is this special skill that puts this ancient tribe in the forefront of modern communities in the age of HIV, AIDS and behavior change communication. The existence of dagu is a startling finding, with unique implications for any communication strategy that seeks to improve health among the Afars. Afars, it would appear, have an instinctive understanding of information and its flow within their community, and have sophisticated, even if traditionally inherited, skills in information management for health. Underlying these activities is a profound appreciation of the ways in which the community’s skills with

2 Of cows, sheep, camel and information information management are pivotal to the health, well-being and survival of the Afars. This paper details the Afars’ traditional systems for cattle management and information management, gathered from key informant interviews conducted in October among the community. When two Afars meet, they must first exchange dagu. It is not important whether they are friends or strangers, whether they are neighbors or come from the distant reaches of the Afar region. In all cases, in keeping with the principles of word-of-mouth transmission, information exchanged will be hearsay. In other words, the narrator will mention what he heard from other Afars encountered along the way. To help filter out dagu that is critical to Afar health and survival, every Afar learns the five dagu subjects that carry a top priority rating – in other words, dagu pertaining to any of these must be treated as highly urgent, and be passed on without prejudice or discrimination to as many Afars as possible, The five subjects are: 1. Conflict: Any dagu relating to hostile rival tribes that could help avert or have the winning advantage in an attack. 2. Health: Primarily concerning cattle health, new diseases, infections, deaths and facilities for care. Secondarily, dagu concerning women’s health, diseases, cures, new facilities. 3. Pastures: Dagu about where grass is good, where depleted, where encroachments are happening, where grazing is being prohibited. 4. Weather: Dagu about where it is dry, where it has rained, where better or worse weather is expected. 5. Market: What are the prices? How many birrs is tef (a local staple grain) going for? Is there a market for goats? What is the price of batteries? And so on. In the case of dagu that relates to potential conflict 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. hear. These two together will constitute the content of transmitted dagu. When the child returns from a day at the pasture, he or she will relate the day’s dagu to the parents – who they saw, how they were dressed, what words were exchanged, what the sky was like, how the cattle behaved, and so on. The parents will teach the child how to evaluate the dagu, filtering out inaccuracies and irrelevancies, sifting the essential from trivial using the five guidelines, and thus extracting meaning from raw data. It is not till age 15 or so that a young Afar’s apprenticeship will end, and his or her dagu deemed as trustworthy and suitable for sharing with the community. Coming of dagu-sharing age is nearly as much a rite of passage for a young Afar as ritual circumcision. From that point, he or she is ‘trusted’ – an important milestone.

Information management

Authenticity and verification

The need for verification arises when survival-critical dagu has originated from an Afar stranger. In such a case, the receiving Afar will probe in depth for trivial peripheral information – What route did you come by? What did you see en route? What was your wife wearing when you left? What did you eat this morning? What was your family doing when you left? And so on. Any doubt about the dagu’s provenance is settled by authenticating this peripheral information. If any part of it is found inaccurate, then the main dagu will be treated as doubtful and rejected in its entirety. This involved and ruthless verification seems to be the main method for validation prevailing within the community. The penalty for disseminating incorrect or false dagu is severe: it could mean public lashings, the slaughter of a favorite cow, and being publicly denounced as ‘untrustworthy’. The individual is cursed to live as an exile within his or her community, a Cassandra forever whom no one will believe.

Shortcomings of dagu

How Afars learn to pass on dagu

Passing dagu is a learned skill, and it is taught to Afar children from the time they are old enough to herd cattle. Children who are learning herding skills must always remain within hailing distance of the village, and will be given charge of small numbers of cattle. While in the pasture, they will be told to make careful note of two things – what they see, and what they

An inherent shortcoming of dagu is that the source is lost in transmission. In other words, an Afar might mention the person who gave him a particular dagu, but not include the originator of the dagu itself. This makes a verification trace next to impossible. A second shortcoming, but only from a programmatic point of view, might be that dagu is restricted to data, and is not equipped to reflect questions and concerns that might arise within the community. Put differently, dagu is oriented towards dissemination of

Of cows, sheep, camel and information 3 facts rather than dialogue about issues. violent confrontation. Cows, sheep and goats are the other cattle that Afars own. Though they do not have the prized qualities of camels, they receive no less care and attention, for they too are sources of milk, the staple food of the Afars. It is of paramount importance to the Afar that his cattle flourish and multiply: the more cattle one owns, the better one is prepared against hard times. However, the Afar realizes that if all his were to cattle birth together, it would be a recipe for disaster. For example, if the camels birthed in the rainy season, between October and December, their milk would go unconsumed because that is the period when cows are calving and lactating, and there is plentiful food for the Afars. New born camel calves would overfeed on their mothers’ milk and die. From this observation comes the first principle of Afar cattle management: camels must not birth in the rainy season. Ensuring this is not difficult, for domesticated camels copulate standing back to back, and cannot couple without human assistance. Afars arrange couplings between their camels such that new births happen in the period from January to September. When it comes to cows, although more is always better, too many at the same time would upset a fine balance, for the Afar needs to ensure that a certain number of cows are always in milk through the year.

Cattle management and family planning

Similar to their sophisticated ways of understanding and using information or dagu, Afars have a deep appreciation of the processes of ‘family planning’ when it comes to their cattle. The Afar herdsman is preoccupied with the reproductive health of his cattle, which he considers his responsibility. He is systematic and thorough in the ways in which he regulates reproduction among his cattle, paying particular attention to spacing. The wealthiest Afars are the ones who own camels. These sturdy and hard-working beasts of burden enjoy the love, respect and admiration of the Afars. They are docile and uncomplaining, they can survive long droughts, and their long necks can reach for vegetation that cows and sheep would never reach. Their milk is extremely nutritious, a fact that has led to a harsh 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. The qualities that make Afars prize their camels above all other cattle, also make them extremely sensitive to questions or comments about them. A nonAfar who is too curious about camels or passes flippant comments about the animal’s looks risks a potentially

4 Of cows, sheep, camel and information This implies some control over the spacing of births among cows. However, unlike camels, oxen are strong, aggressive and not easily subjugated. From this comes the second principle of Afar cattle management: limit the number of oxen within a herd of cows. This ensures that the speed of reproduction is regulated by the capacity of an inordinately small number of oxen to impregnate cows. The Afar pays no particular attention to the reproduction of sheep and goats, neither controlling the mix of males and females nor the timing or rate of reproduction. To a degree, sheep and goats form the Afar’s buffer against hard times. While selling a cow or camel in the town market requires the community’s permission, sheep and goats may be sold at will. There is no such thing as too many goats or sheep for an Afar. These animals birth twice a year, and are allowed to. The only exception to this is during times of drought, when scarcity of green pastures dictate the third principle of Afar cattle management: in a time of drought, sheep and goats must only be allowed to birth once in 12 months. The Afar implements these three principles diligently. His understanding of ‘family planning’ as it applies to his cattle is restricted to the spacing and timing of new births, and not the number. He regards disease, starvation, and infant deaths among his cattle as natural balancing mechanisms that will regulate population size. His role is to ensure that as many new cattle are born as possible without endangering the community’s food supply or the cattle’s health. Why does the Afar not extend the logic of cattlerearing to his own human family? What prevents him from seeing the benefits of spacing of new births, and improved reproductive health among women? The simple answer to this seems to be that the Afar only perceives a secondary role for Afar women in community survival, limited to producing new Afars who could breed more cattle. among Afars – who historically cherish grasslands – the NGO conducted a small assessment of what the Afar did consider to be problems. The health of women and cattle came out as important. The NGO used its funding to set up a string of mobile clinics all across the pastures, charging a nominal fee for maternity and primary health care services. HIV prevention and family planning was introduced as health interventions. To everyone’s surprise, no Afars showed up at the clinic. The author was hired as a consultant to analyze the barriers to accessing readily available health care. It emerged in interviews with Afars that they had not been consulted before the mobile clinics were set up. The Afars felt that the solution was being thrust upon them rather than being developed in consultation with them. More importantly, more than 10 years earlier, Afars had already detected the emergence of a new disease, one that weakened, emaciated and killed horribly. It had entered their communities through young Afars who traveled to nearby town for trade or buying tef and batteries. Some of them spent nights in “houses with blue lights” — signifying brothels — and brought HIV back into the community. In typical Afar style, a small team had been designated to learn everything they could about the new disease and assess how much of a threat it posed to Afar survival. The information they brought back diffused throughout Afarland through the potent medium of dagu. New community rules strictly abjured extra-marital relationships, pre-marital sex, and especially sex in the houses with blue lights. Breaking any of these rules, a person risked being expelled from the village. Similarly, family planning was not a mystery to them. Its principles had been revealed to them through the practice of animal husbandry. The hapless NGO had assumed that Afars were a primitive tribe and assumed illiteracy about several key health issues. In return, the stoic and taciturn Afars refused to cooperate with the NGO. The original warmth and acceptance with which they had described the NGO as “an Afar”, turned to sarcasm. “When a monkey sits among humans, it can be mistaken for a human,” said an Afar, describing the NGO. “It is only when it stands up that you realize that it is only a monkey.” C Y Gopinath is an international communication, advocacy and capacity-building consultant based in Bangkok. email: cygopi@gmail.com.

When humans intervene

Ignorance or poor understanding of the Afar legacies of dagu and cattle-based ‘family planning’ was the undoing of a recent project, conducted in the Awash area by an international NGO (not to be named here). Funded to conserve grasslands in the Awash, they began an interaction with Afars, the main users of grasslands. After listening without expression to discourses on the importance of grass and how to conserve, one Afar asked, “What do you non-Afars know about the importance of grass that we have not learned in 2,000 years?” Finding little traction for grassland conservation

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