Notes from the Field

by Zoë Campbell, a doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. This column is Campbell’s personal account giving a first-hand glimpse of her research in Tanzania to improve the lives of animals and people.

A farmer in the Arusha region next to her chicken coop.
A farmer in the Arusha region next to her chicken coop.

A Tanzanian village is not complete without chickens. Hens scratching in the dirt for insects, dusty chicks pushing their tiny bodies through tall grass to follow their mother, roosters delightedly crowing at all hours. They are the most common form of livestock, kept by 48 percent of rural households. As a graduate student working under the Program for Enhancing Health and Productivity of Livestock, I want to understand why some households vaccinate their chickens and others do not.

A group of farmers assemble in the shade of a tree in Chikuyu, a village in the Singida region in central Tanzania. Rains came last night, and thoughts turn to planting rice in the paddies on the edge of the village. The legs of the plastic chairs sink into the moist, sandy soil. Despite other responsibilities, everyone is here, curious about what the guests will say about Newcastle disease, which afflicts their chickens. It is certainly a problem, passing through the village and killing chickens, especially in September when the weather is cold and windy. Most of the farmers here today remember the 150 chickens they began raising as a group back in 2011; Newcastle disease killed all but forty. Today, the group has 10 birds. A spacious two-room chicken coop stands empty behind us as a reminder of better days. As I walked towards the group accompanied by my research assistant and the ward livestock officer, I heard one of the women whisper to her neighbor, “They are going to ask difficult questions.” There could not be a more fitting segue into the questions I had prepared for the morning. One joy of being both a researcher and a foreigner is that I can ask questions that in their simplicity is fitting to a four-year-old. For example, why do you keep chickens?

The answers come fast. For income, says a man sitting on the end of the log. For food, adds the woman next to him. If there is a problem at home, someone explains, you can sell a chicken. If someone gets sick, you can pay for the hospital bill and other expenses. By selling a chicken or eggs, you can help children at school pay fees or buy notebooks. “I paid all my village contributions last year by selling two chickens,” an older man proudly says.

There is now a pause, and people sip their sodas. Kenan Mwakalinga, a research assistant who has accompanied me since we began conducting focus groups in his home region of Mbeya, is patient and waits out the silence. Chickens are a household resource. A tall, young man in his early twenties who hasn’t spoken yet clears his throat. “When I watch my chickens, I feel happy. They lower my blood pressure. They refresh my mind.” Our final contribution comes from a mama dressed in bright kitenge fabric who has already identified herself as the comedian of the group. Sometimes when you are doing the tasks of the day, you get lazy and drop things, she says. The chicken will come and eat it. “In problems, the chicken is there. In cleaning, the chicken is there!”

True, the ultimate question is difficult. Why are some of these farmers vaccinating and others are not? Beginning in late April 2017, I administered a questionnaire to 500 households in six villages. The aim is to identify challenges to vaccination and factors associated with households successfully vaccinating. Still, I am convinced there is wisdom in the simple questions and conversations with the focus groups. Understanding more about the relationship farmers have with their chickens may help to explain how they think about vaccines, and lead to solutions that help more farmers prevent unnecessary losses due to Newcastle disease.

Zoe Campbell talks with vet officer and villager
Zoë Campbell (back, left), research assistant Kenan Mwakalinga (back, right), and Dr. Martin Halid, ward
veterinary officer (front, right) talking with a villager.