Our journalist AYAMI MKWANDA tracks the footprint of the raging foot and mouth disease in Neno.
When cattle started foaming and limping, livestock farmers in Neno and Blantyre West saw their world crumble.
This was the start of the foot and mouth outbreak confirmed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development.
The ministry reports that 1 608 cows and bulls in Neno have been hit by the highly contagious viral infection.
Neno residents were admittedly taken unawares by the disease which recently has predominantly been confined to Nsanje and Chikwawa in the Lower Shire Valley.
The outbreak left the Neno and Blantyre West farmers terrified and broke. Like wildfire, the news of the virus spread from a boy herding cattle in the semi-arid hills to the rich ranchers in Blantyre City.
It worried them both in equal measure, for 268 cattle were infected and two died.
Zedasoni Bester, 78, was the first to report his suspicions about the disease to authorities.
Bester, from Feremu Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Mlauli, was distraught and hysterical when his 72 cattle were seen struggling with foaming mouths and bleeding hooves.
The animals have since been vaccinated, but the livestock farmer remembers vividly how he almost lost it all on May 22.
“That day, I woke up to a terrifying sight,” he recounts. “My cattle were limping. I thought they had been injured. When this continued, I summoned an agriculture extension officer in my area.”
He commends the Department of Animal Health for its swift response.
“The officer came immediately; assessed the situation and contacted Neno district agricultural development officer [Dado] Patrick Msiyambiri for urgent intervention,” says Bester.
The Dado deployed livestock officer Daniel Makaku to assess the situation.
“I arrived at Feremu around 10am and examined the cattle. The situation was getting out of hand,” he explains.
The following day, a delegation from Blantyre Agricultural Development Division (ADD) and the Department of Animal Health in Lilongwe visited in the remote setting where cattle are exposed to the disease as they roam freely in dry crop fields and shrubs.
“The expert team took blood samples and pictures of 80 cattle which they dispatched to Botswana for laboratory tests,” says Msiyambiri.
They moved quickly to vaccinate the cattle, a symbol of wealth and prestige in many parts of the country.
They vaccinated about 18 000 in the first phase from June 9 to 26.
The campaign was a relief to many farmers whose animals were either infected or at risk.
“This was a disaster about to happen. It would have been worse losing hundreds of cattle,” says George Mehela, who owns Finnish Ranch in Chifunga.
The livestock farmers were justified as the disease is dangerous.
“Infected animals develop blisters on their hoofs and tongues. The blisters create wounds and can cause lameness and fever to the animal. Foot and mouth can also lower milk production and retards growth,” says Msiyambiri.
On June 1, government banned the movement, slaughter and selling of livestock and animal products in Lisungwi and Kunthembwe extension planning areas (EPAs).
Patrick Chikungwa, the director of animal health and livestock development in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development, said the ban was a conventional measure to stop the transmission of the virus.
“The ban will run for at least three months from the day the disease was detected,” he explains.
The ban, likely to end in September if the outbreak recedes, looks like eternity to affected farmers.
They cannot sell meat, milk, hides and manure.
The outbreak has halted earnings from sales of cattle, pigs, goats and sheep.
However, community members are religiously adhering to the dos and don’ts to avert a worse disaster, argues Efelo Evance.
“If we don’t follow the don’ts, we will be doomed. This is a bitter pill we must swallow to overcome this setback,” she said in an interview at her home in Chikwekwe Village in T/A Symon.
While Evance’s compliance sounds unquestionable, village head Fusani, who has 90 cattle in T/A Symon, yelled in disbelief when the ban was announced.
In his mind, he saw hunger and poverty deepening as the community in the rocky, barren hills sells animals to buy food.
The father-of-five is already feeling the pinch.
“We can’t afford fish, soya pieces or eggs. We don’t have money,” he said.
Vendors are cashing in as chicken prices are skyrocketing.
At Lisungwi Trading Centre, a sizeable cockerel that once sold at K4 000 now goes at K6 000.
Poor families are turning to kapawo fish imported from Mozambique as raw materials for chicken feed.
The food situation appears tricky because Neno experiences perennial droughts.
This year, it was hit hard by devastating dry spells and fall armyworms, which have left almost 1.9 million Malawians in need of relief maize.
“We sell animals and milk to buy maize, relish and other food stuffs,” says Macdonald Kanyimbo, 57, from Symon.
He has 30 head of cattle, but cannot kill or sell any until the ban is lifted.
Bester and other farmers are anxiously awaiting the second round of vaccination later this month, looking forward to the day the pastoral community will be free from foot and mouth outbreak. n