March 15, 2023
LUBERO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — When Kavira Shalikowuwe still reared chickens, she locked them in her bedroom at night so no one would steal them. During the day, they would roam free, but only if she was at home. But in December 2021, her entire brood of chickens was struck by a disease she didn’t understand. Despite consulting a veterinarian, all 25 died, one after the other. Now, she no longer keeps chickens in her home.
The chickens Shalikowuwe reared are a traditional breed locally known as kayira. The breed is not only a delicacy and a source of livelihood for those who keep it, but the eggs are an important component for traditional medicine practitioners.
This breed is becoming increasingly rare in south Lubero, eastern DRC, due to disease and rising cases of theft — a blow to traditional medicine, which plays a significant role in DRC’s health care system.
Kiza Biamungu, who has been a traditional medicine practitioner for 20 years in the commune of Kirumba, in south Lubero territory, says that herbalists rely on these eggs to treat many ailments, including gastritis, heart attacks, kwashiorkor and coughs. They also use them to regulate blood pressure and purify kidneys. The raw egg is either mixed with other ingredients and administered to patients or taken alone, he says.
Practitioners are now at a loss as how to provide treatment, says Kakule Shalyamubana, an herbalist from Kirumba. “I no longer know how to treat certain diseases effectively.”
Before the shortage, most traditional practitioners would have the eggs in stock, but now, Biamungu says, the shortage is so severe that they are asking those who seek their services to bring their own eggs. Although he cannot pinpoint when the shortage started, he says it is worsening.
Although eggs from chicken breeds imported from other countries such as Uganda are available, they are not used to make traditional medicine, since locals and traditional medicine practitioners consider them of poor quality, Biamungu says.
This local perception is evident in how sellers price the eggs. Before the shortage, an egg from the local breed cost between 200 and 300 Congolese francs (about 10 to 15 cents). The same egg now goes for 800 francs (40 cents), while eggs from imported breeds cost less than half that, about 300 francs.
The use of raw egg for treatment is not unique to DRC. In ancient Persia, raw eggs were used as topical treatments to eliminate swelling and boils. And patients suffering from snakebite used to slowly drink it, according to a 2020 study in the journal Food Therapy and Health Care. In Indonesia, raw egg yolk and coconut oil are sometimes used to help hasten the delivery of a child. In central Turkey, a whole egg is left in lemon juice for 24 hours, until the shell dissolves, and is taken with olive oil to pass kidney stones. A 2007 thesis from the University of Mahajanga in Madagascar found that raw eggs were commonly used to treat children poisoned by petroleum.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Biamungu worries that if the shortage persists, many who rely on traditional medicine will suffer. Traditional medicine is often the first resort in many parts of DRC, given the lack of health care facilities and an economic situation that limits access to care, according to the health ministry’s 2019-2022 plan.
Samweli Visogho, from Kirumba, who recently underwent surgery, says that because of the kayira egg shortage, he is unable to treat a wound he developed after the procedure. Although he went to a modern health care facility at first, the treatment he received didn’t work.
“The caregiver [traditional healer] advised me to consume an egg from the local chicken every day,” he says. “But I can’t do it because of the [shortage] of these eggs, which makes them expensive.”
One cause for this shortage is theft, says Kamate Kasayi Flavien, a veterinarian in Kirumba. Farmers in this region generally struggle to keep animals because of persistent theft. This particular breed is commonly stolen, he says. While job opportunities are scarce in DRC, which has an unemployment rate of 23%, Kasayi blames the robberies on lack of drive among young people.
This increasing theft is the reason Pauline Kahambu Muhanya no longer rears chickens. “My hens were always stolen regularly.” After the last incident, Muhanya says, she had to stop keeping them.
“And yet, these animals helped me a lot. I mainly resorted to their eggs for my stomach problems, and I sold the leftovers for my needs.”
Benjamin Kasereka Mulavi, deputy mayor of Kirumba, confirms the increasing cases of theft. Although authorities have arrested a few people and have been educating locals to eradicate theft, he says locals too have a role to play.
“It is always our children who steal our hens and our goods. It is not people who come from far away,” he says. Since locals know who the thieves are, they “must get into the habit of denouncing the criminals,” he adds. “We have the obligation to secure our area.”
There are other causes for the shortage. A common local perception is that the local chicken breed is prone to disease such as avian flu, so farmers prefer to keep other breeds, which aren’t used in traditional medicine.
“They think they get sick a lot,” says Kasayi, the veterinarian.
Although Kasayi agrees that the kayira chicken breed is prone to disease, he says locals could easily solve the problem if they vaccinated their chickens, which they rarely do. “They are more resistant to diseases if they are cared for properly.”
He blames the low vaccination rate on ignorance, adding that he and his colleagues have been educating locals through radio campaigns. He advises them to consult veterinarians on how to better care for their chickens.
Mathe Kakule Baraka, a traditional medicine practitioner based in Kirumba, says that in the meantime, he is using honey as a replacement. But it doesn’t always work.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Democratic Republic of Congo.
Megan Spada, GPJ, translated this article from French.