When Mary Gargule was forced to leave school in grade seven, she would never have guessed that her little education would one day help her become one of the most respected – and needed – members of her community.
Nathan Ombuni, bird story agency
Born and raised in the village of Korr, in Marsabit County, north-eastern Kenya, Mary Gargule's life took a different turn when she was married off at the age of 14. She was in class seven.
Then, at the age of 17, after the birth of her first child, Gargule spotted an opportunity.
In Korr, livestock is not just a source of income, it is a way of life and a source of pride. Although members of her community owned herds numbering in the thousands, Gargule had noticed there was no veterinarian available to treat ailments common amongst the livestock.
Recognising there was a knowledge gap in her community regarding animal drugs, Gargule, who had been forced to leave school when she was married, felt compelled to bridge it.
“I realised my community had no knowledge about drugs and I was a bit educated, and I wanted to fill the gap that was there even though at the time I had little knowledge about drugs,” Gargule disclosed.
Thanks to her class seven education, she could read instructions labelled on medicine bottles.
As a married woman, Gargule could now travel to the regional hub of Marsabit town. There, she would visit the major agrovet stores in town, which traditionally supply farmers with seed, fertiliser, animal feed and veterinary supplies and get drugs with directions on how to administer them from. Then, by explaining the instructions to members of her community, she could sell them to her fellow pastoralists.
But it was not at all easy. At first, in many instances, her services were not welcomed.
Being a woman in a patriarchal community where men own the majority of the livestock, she explained, many men refused to allow her to treat their animals, particularly their cattle. However, with her early success in administering the correct medicines and correct dosages, she was able to persevere.
She also began witnessing first-hand how her people lacked awareness about proper animal medication, often resorting to the use of ineffective antibiotics and struggling with dosages and disease identification.
“Our people never knew the importance of animal medication, they used to use poor antibiotics that didn’t even have any impact in treating an animal,” Gargule said. Gargule was able to assist, ensuring that the correct medicines were obtained and used to treat common ailments.
Gargule’s efforts were also noticed by outsiders. A year after she started her business, a non-governmental organisation spotted her and decided to empower her and other women in her community.
“The program recruited more than 20 people and registered us to undertake veterinary classes. The training took almost a year, incorporated with a lot of fieldwork and workshops, and it is where I acquired my skills to treat animals,” she said.
Upon completion of her training, Mary became a certified community animal health worker. She shadowed visiting veterinarians who came to the village to treat animals. Over time she began to be recognised amongst members of her community as an "animal doctor".
“They never knew what dosage to give their livestock, never knew how to identify diseases, but through animal health workers like me, they are now aware of the importance of treating animals,” Gargule explained, while busy treating and deworming animals, part of an exercise to safeguard animals from opportunistic diseases after a prolonged drought.
Today Gargule, 51, is regularly consulted when an animal in the community gets sick, and pastoralists sometimes travel many kilometres just to seek her expertise. She does, however, regret that there are not more women like herself. Many of the other women who received the training were not able to follow through and become "animal doctors" like her.
Najire Bolo, 67, was among the women who received training from the NGO. She was 35 years old during her training and though she completed the course, was one of the women who did not continue to practice.
“I got demoralised when men started looking down on me and shunning my services. The drugs I bought expired and I had to discard them as a result. My husband was also against the idea of me walking around the village treating animals. He wanted me to stay home and take care of the children. I had to respect him and agree with his wishes to save my marriage,” Bolo disclosed.
Bolo is a mother of 6 and grandmother of 11 and her wish is that one of her grandchildren will one day follow in her footsteps and become a successful veterinarian doctor to help a struggling community.
Gargule said that, unlike human health, animal health has been neglected for a while and there is a need to empower and educate more community animal health workers.
“I was alone when I started, some women gave up on the way, as the men could not give us a chance even though we were knowledgeable and could even castrate a cow. Some told us we were cursed. But now they have embraced me, they don’t hesitate to call me when they need my services,” Gargule explained.
Gargule is doing her best to equip herself with more knowledge, as livestock treatment keeps on advancing and getting better and she has to stay abreast with all the changes.
“Sometimes you go to buy the medicine and the name has changed or there is a better antibiotic so one has to be up to date,” she said.
Despite Gargule’s success in selling medicines in Korr, a prolonged drought has devastated pastoralists, causing a drop in demand for her services.
To make a living, she has had to adapt and stay current with advancements in livestock treatment.
“My business of selling medicines was doing well until the prolonged drought happened where most of the pastoralists lost their animals. Some are still devastated and can't procure my services anymore. The only way to make a living is by selling drugs now the demand has gone low,” she said
However, through her dedication to treating animals, Gargule has been able to provide for her four children and put them through school. She has also been able to build a home from her income.
Joseph Lesuper, a veterinarian working with the Kenya Agricultural Research and Livestock Organisation (Karlo), has been working in Korr for a while now, working alongside Gargule to educate pastoralists on deworming and vaccinating animals in preparation for the drought season. He said that without the help of community animal health workers like Gargule, most pastoralists would be counting losses every day.
"There are a lot of snakebites in the desert, and animals like goats need immediate intervention compared to camels that may last a few days. There are no vets around, so people with animal knowledge like Mary have been very impactful. Mary is our heroine, what she is doing deserves an award, keeping in mind, the work she is doing is a preserve of men among the pastoralists,” Lesuper said.
Abdul Godana, a Korr farmer with 50 herds of cattle and 20 camels, is grateful for Gargule’s services.
“For the last 13 years, Mary has been responsible for the health of my animals. She is the only animal doctor we know in this area,” Godana said.
Through the efforts of their animal health worker, the Korr community has also become more educated about the significance of animal healthcare.
“I feel nice that I can give back to my community and with time and experience the community now trusts me. The whole community knows I am their animal doctor,” Gargule said.
bird story agency