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Butchers Count Their Losses As Fever Spreads
By Njonjo Kihuria
Nairobi, January 26, 2007 - It is Wednesday afternoon on January 24, and at a low-cost eatery on a lane off Koinange Street in Nairobi's city centre, the chicken stew and chicken fry delicacies are of out stock by 1.30pm.
On a date like this when customers are broke, most would only afford the much cheaper beef stew and only the odd customer with a few extra shillings would order for chicken.
But today beef dishes are in plenty and chances are most of these will go to waste at the end of the day.
And this has been the case since the deadly Rift Valley fever (RVF) was discovered in Maragwa District and a victim from Kirinyaga District died at the Kenyatta National Hospital.
The alien and mysterious disease that many in the city and its environs thought was the bane of the peasants in North Eastern Province, has become a stark reality with some dying and hospitals going on high alert - creating special wards while cattle even as the department of veterinary services rests on its laurels.
The Government, meanwhile, buries its head in the sand. Panic has gripped Nairobi with housewives writing off beef and goat meat from their menus and husbands at loss as to what to have for the next meal.
With most selling less than half of the amount of beef they would sell before the disease was reported in Maragwa last week, butchers in Nairobi are counting their losses and the entire meat industry appears headed for turbulence.
Too dangerous to risk
Despite the assurance that proper cooking kills the virus, most people no longer buy raw meat let alone ask for 'fry' or 'boiled' in the butcheries.
The word out there is "I do not want to die. I would rather eat no meat or turn to chicken and fish". While chicken and fish vendors are laughing all the way to the bank, butchers and other traders of meat products are faced with a real bleak future.
"Normally I buy 50kg of beef, which I sell in two days but as you can see, I still have some left and this is the third day," James Kinuthia, a small-scale butcher at Gitaru in Kikuyu says.
Kinuthia only sells raw meat, so the fact that he is unable to deal with his stock indicates that people are even wary of home-cooked meat.
In nearby Kikuyu town where people literally survive on meat, most butchers acknowledged that meat trade had gone down, but they kept brave faces, pretending that the business was slow because of the time of the month. But for Karanja Kamau of the popular KK Butchery, things are pretty bad and could turn out worse in a few days, he predicts.
"Nobody is eating roastmeat any more and my sales have dropped by more than half. I sell about 150kg everyday, but now I am lucky if I sell 75kg," he says.
KK is afraid that if the Government does not take immediate action through immunisation and other requisite remedies, the meat industry will collapse within a short time and many would lose employment.
He gave the example of the Dagoretti Market abattoir, which he claimed had slaughtered less than a third of the cows it did every day on Thursday last week.
"Meat brokers in Dagoretti, buy cows from Maasai traders and sell meat to butchers mostly on credit on the understating that they would be paid when the meat is retailed.
"But as consumers boycott meat, the brokers will now not risk extending the facility, as they know they will not be paid for meat that has gone to waste in butcheries," explains KK.
In an area where insecurity is the order of the day, residents are scared of what would happen if youths from nearby Gikambura and surrounding villages, who depend on meat by-products from the abattoir were rendered jobless by its closure.
And with a reported case of the disease in neighbouring Kajiado District, major meat-eating joints in Nairobi from Dagoretti Corner to Kenyatta Market, Njugunas in Westlands to Kariokor in Eastlands and City Market in the CBD, were virtually deserted this week.
At Dagoretti Corner's Karandini Butchery, we found dejected Mr Kamiti Kaigua talking in low tones with a colleague as they sat outside the premises. It was lunch hour, but nobody was arriving to enjoy their meat delicacies, neither was any meat cooking on the charcoal jiko.
"At any other time, you would have found dozens of people eating meat at this hour but now they fear and only a few are buying even raw meat to prepare at home.
"And the worst is yet to come; if this disease is reported in Maasai land from where we get most of our slaughter animals, the slaughterhouses in Dagoretti and Kiserian would have to close and we can kiss this business goodbye."
On the same day, one case was reported in Kajiado and Kaigua must now be a thoroughly worried man now. Butchers in Nairobi and surrounding areas get most of their goat meat from Kiserian and beef from the Dagoretti slaughter house, which has been experiencing scarcity since the outbreak of the fever.
On a normal weekday, Kaigua would sell at least 60 kg of beef and three goats, but last Thursday afternoon when we visited him he had sold only seven kilos of meat - less than half an average goat.
"Most of our meat is sold as nyama tayari (ready meat), but now nobody wants to hear about that. By Sunday I will have lost practically all the meat you see here."
Sleeping on the job
Like most people we talked to, Kaigua believes the Government had not done a good job of controlling the disease. They could not understand how it broke the established buffer zones without the knowledge of the authorities.
"It would appear as if the Department of Veterinary service was sleeping on the job and if they were not able to contain the disease in north eastern Kenya, they should have at least warned people early enough."
An outlet, Holiday Inn at Dagoretti, with spacious cubicles behind the butchery has been a popular nyama choma joint for years and customers would brave the thick smoke coming from the adjacent kitchen to eat their sumptuous roast beef and goat ribs.
On the day we visited, there was not a single person eating meat at the butchery and in the kitchen we counted only five lonely pans boiling or frying meat.
On the large meat grill, a lonely kilo of meat unhurriedly roasted over a dying fire. Apart from Simon Njuguna who was 'supposed' to be selling meat, only one other worker was on duty that day.
On the other side of town the trendy if simple Njugunas Place on Waiyaki Way, is a ghost house.
The space between the edge of the nearby military base and the Aga Khan High School, which is usually packed with customers' cars, is almost empty and no smoke is coming from the huge chimney. If you ask them, the only time workers at the joint sit to watch television if at all, would be late at night in their houses, but today the men who shuffle between the tables and the large meat grills, are lazing around for lack of what to do.
Source: The East African Standard