Dead Hen Walking

After 16 years, Pauline’s favorite hen succumbed to Newcastle disease.

If you are a woman living in a village in the Far North of Cameroon, chances are you’ve been raising chickens since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. And chances are, every year in the cold dry months you’ve watched helplessly as your chickens stop eating, droop their wings, and begin listlessly walking in circles – then keel over and die. Despite the fact that these chickens account for most of your family’s income—and 16% of the country’s poultry—there’s been nothing you could do but watch your food & income perish.

Pauline & Madeline discuss their chicken losses.

This scourge of chickens is called Newcastle disease and although it’s been an affliction here in the Far North for years, little has been done to combat it. The day we visited Pauline Tcaday and Madeline Maylaou, two chicken farmers in Kar Hay, we saw the carnage first hand.

Two sick chicks, not long for this world.

Pauline’s flock of 100 birds had been totally healthy until she brought one new chicken home from the market. That chicken was infected and now her entire flock was dying. 53 of Madeline’s 56 chickens had perished in a single day. And almost overnight, the village population of 79,000 chickens had shrunk to 28,000 — a loss of about $170,000!

Norbert Mayla, chicken farmer of Kar Hay, tries to make sense of the epidemic.

Luckily, a plan is in action that will help 9,000 rural farm families like Pauline’s save their chickens– and the vital income & nutrition they represent. Heifer International, in collaboration with GALVMed(a non-profit global provider of livestock vaccines), and MINEPIA (Cameroon’s Ministry of Livestock, Fisheries and Animal Industries) has started a pilot program in 40 rural villages to vaccinate 490,000 chickens against Newcastle disease – and it’s brilliant on about 5 different levels.

First, it’s a sophisticated, well-coordinated, thoughtful campaign based on research and epidemiology. The vaccine is highly effective in protecting against the disease and if every chicken were treated, Newcastle’s could effectively be wiped out in a few years. That’s not just chicken pot-pie thinking; it’s a potential reality.

The desired outcome..

But initiating a program this ambitious has been anything but simple. Heifer and team had to figure out the cold chain to keep the vaccine viable (in a country where electricity is spotty); adjust the dosage size so a vial could be administered in a single day; and find dependable, experienced people to see the program through.

Wyang Agah, Kar Hay’s AHCW.

Eight Animal Health Care Workers with diplomas in animal husbandry were hired and provided with 4 motorcycles to reach the 40 far-flung villages, and 4 solar refrigerators to keep the vaccine at its essential cool temperature in their vet stores.

The AHCW supervise the Village Vaccinators, two per village, who are local residents, literate, and have been trained to administer the vaccine to the chickens (by eyedrop). The Vaccinators have been given new bikes and insulated cooler boxes that will keep the vaccine fresh while they travel from the vet store to their villages.

Everybody’s excited about the new program (and the new Vaccinator bikes)!

They’re off and running…

The vaccine costs 50 francs (10 cents), administered 3 times a year. So for 30 cents annually, farmers can protect a chicken that will fetch $3-$5 in the market. What’s more, the 50-franc fee covers the price of the vaccine, the salary of the AHCW, and the Vaccinators – meaning the program is immediately self-sustaining, and everyone involved has a strong motivation to make it a success. And in late May this year, vaccinations began.

For farmers in the Far North, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Not only does chicken income pay for school tuition, health care and clothes, animal protein is already in perilously short supply, while the population is projected to grow by almost 30% in the next 5 years. With 38% of the children in the Far North currently malnourished, a strong, steady supply of chicken that the people could both eat and sell would be nothing short of a miracle.

Madeline’s feeling hopeful!

When I asked Pauline and Madeline if their families ate their chickens’ eggs or sold them, they burst out laughing. “We don’t eat eggs, we don’t sell eggs,” they said ruefully. “We don’t even eat our chickens. We’re poor and we have to sell them.”

But hopefully, those days are numbered.

Categories: Cameroon, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on “Dead Hen Walking

  1. There are so many ways you’re brilliant in your story-telling, Betty, but one of them is anticipating our every question. At precisely the moment I was asking in my head, you answered: “By eyedrop.” 🙂

    • I love that you were actually thinking — hey, how do they vaccinate so many chicks and hens?? But I found the entire process so incredibly fascinating … especially just the logistics of how to get 1000s of vaccines to far flung villages where the roads are bad and you have to keep it cold and use it all up in a day. Just the thoughtfulness of the planning was amazing to me…. xoxooxox B

  2. You continue to educate and to inspire. I continue to get excited everytime I see a new post from you pop up.

    • I’m so happy you feel that way, Renee — and I’m not trying to suck up (although it’s not above me) but I feel EXACTLY the same way when I see Life in the Boomer Lane in my inbox .. it’s like a big piece of dark chocolate!!!

  3. Anne Orndahl

    My daughter and a friend, both 13 years old, hosted a summer camp for neighborhood girls called Camp Aloha. They have decided to send a percentage of their earnings to Heifer, and would like to give baby chicks. It is great to know that if the chickens grow up in Cameroon, they will be healthy and immunized against Newcastle disease!

    • That is SUCH a great idea and bravo to Camp Aloha!! (It reminds me of that great movie/book Babysitter’s Club… one of Lulu’s faves) …. You must tell her that GALVMed and Heifer are also working to fight Newcastle disease in Nepal — so they’re saving a ton of chicks there as well! So happy to hear from you, Miss Aloha Anne!

  4. Havign just returned from Guatemala, which is horribly poor, life in Cameroon feels so much harder. Love your title by the way. You are too clever.

  5. Thanks, honey — you know I was awfully fond of it when I wrote it, too!! tee hee…BUT you are quite right. I haven’t seen many places where life is much harder than Cameroon in the Far North. It has everything to do with what is happening to the Sahel all across Africa — which of course has everything to do with what WE”VE done to the global environment. xoxox b

  6. One amazing post after another, Betty. Any problems I may have are null and void when I read these stories. I LOVE that photo of Madeline – BEAUTIFUL!

  7. pat shropshire

    I read every word of every post and say thanks for your eye, your heart, and your hard work to bring us closer to our world neighbors and to publicize Heifer’s programs. Many many thanks, Betty. You are halfway through your 12 months/countries and you must be exhausted, but please continue to do this important work–our neighbors, Heifer and we benefit so much from it.

    • Thank you so much, Pat – that means more to me than you can imagine! I’m not really exhausted (well, tonight I am in Cluj-Napoca, Romania listening to the rain on my roof and actually, I AM kind of exhausted) but when I get to meet people like Pauline and Madeline and hear their stories, I just cannot wait to do my show-and-tell … I’m so happy you are there for me to write to!!

  8. Martha Radatz

    The thought of the population increasing 30% in 5 years is scary. Madeline’s smile is contagious, and had me smiling back at the computer screen. :o)

  9. It IS so scary, it’s not to be believed. I don’t think the land and environment is capable of supporting the current population so it’s almost catastrophic to think of there being 30% more hungry people to feed, not to mention trying to subdivide the already tiny plots of land. Seeing the Sahel in person and hearing how the climate has changed so much (all for the worse, for them) left such an indelible impression on my heart .. and how could you forget a face like Madeline’s??

  10. We had the same problem with Newcastle disease when we tried to distribute chickens in Darfur for the internally displaced person’s to raise in their camps, both as a means of livelihoods and nourishment. So sad for everyone’s dashed hopes. I hope your vaccination program will work.

    • Thanks, WL.. I really hope so, too! I also know that they are fighting Newcastle disease in Nepal (and probably a whole host of other developing countries where vaccines are difficult to get) but I am crossing my fingers that this program will be successful and replicable in communities throughout the Far North. The people so desperately need the income and the nutrition!!

  11. How sad it must be to see your chickens and livelihood become sick and die. I had never heard of Newcastle disease. Thanks for this information–not to mention inspiration about the great work Heiffer is doing.

    • I know, Kathryn! And to just lose your whole flock overnight — not to mention all that income! Chickens are pretty quick and easy to raise, and present such an opportunity for income … and protein in this hungry land … I really REALLY hope the vaccine program is a big success!

  12. Anonymous

    Betty—fine review as usual. You might be interested in an editorial about women in Sunday’s NYT. It’s called “Amelia Earhart, Found and Lost”.

  13. Imagine raising animals that you never get to consume yourself.

    Life ain’t fair.

  14. Sybil, that made me really sad, too. And Pauline’s and Madeline’s quiet acceptance of it somehow just made it more poignant.

  15. Every time I read one of your posts I am further convinced that Heifer has the smartest people on their team. I hope this vaccination program is wildly successful.

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