At first, the prospect of raising chickens was something that excited me in ways I usually reserve for my private life. The irresistible thought of having edible pets intrigued me to the point of purchasing four, well-established chicks back in November. But now, as I am sitting, 86 days later, teary eyed, sipping an overpriced Heineken and listening to OneRepublic’s “It’s Too Late to Apologize” at 10:47am in the morning, I am filled with guilt.
“Why?” you ask. Well, allow me to start from the beginning.
To say that I chose to raise chickens in order to create some cost-benefit prototype that would be super-imposable in the form of a microloan to some villager in Gaschiga would be only the quasi-truth. Honestly, I came into Peace Corps wanting to raise either chickens or goats. Given the cards the universe dealt me, poultry it was. So, I set out, my own agenda coupled with my volunteerism, and purchased four lovely chicks. Expecting everything to go to plan, I looked forward to consuming all of the chickens, once grown. Not that I would be killing them myself. That’s something that past and future vegetarian-Shane would never be able to live with. Gifting the chickens to friends, having them slaughter and prepare the chickens, and then eating them together seemed to fit my moral code just fine. But, as is life, things did not go to plan.
I decided after the first two weeks of raising chickens that I was going to sell at least two of the four. Two reasons: first being that in order to acquire numbers to create a cost-benefit analysis, I would have to actually see what kind of outputs my inputs were going to create. Speaking of inputs: my second reason. These chickens were getting to be pricey. They do not sell chicken feed in Garoua. Instead, one has to purchase the necessary ingredients – ground corn, soy, and fish bones – and mix it oneself. I spent five thousand francs for ground up fish bones and nearly double that for soy. Providing a healthy, well-balanced diet to these four heifers, along with purchasing their coop and fencing, proved to be more expensive than I had anticipated.
That’s when Gladys died. Yes, I named them. As I hinted to earlier, I am an ex-vegetarian who has a soft spot for animals (not to mention a strange definition of the word “pet”). Her death was sudden. She died within 36 hours of showing symptoms: loss of appetite, wheezing, puffy red eyes, isolating herself from the others. Initially, I felt awful. It wasn’t until after some guy in village told me that it was completely normal to lose chicks early on that I began to feel better. Apparently, according to him, one in every ten chicks will die. Not so sure I was comfortable with watching my lovely chicks mingle with the likes of Darwin’s survival of the fittest premise, but I was content knowing that I wasn’t some bad guy who killed his fluffy white chick: it was nature.
Over the next month and a half, my three chicks grew into chickens and plump to the point of where walking was a chore and balance was not always a priority. I had groomed them to be mighty eaters with an appetite for protein. That’s when I left for mid-service, in early January, leaving behind enough food and water and domestiques to keep my ladies well and alive. So I thought.
Erma was dead when I got back, baking under the northern sun, feathers all aflutter. I’ll be the first to admit, the circumstances of her death were sketchy, but I cannot hold it against the kid who I left in charge of her well-being. He did everything I asked, not to mention he kept my basil alive, and it was clear that I had missed her demise by only a few hours. Unfortunate.
So, I had lost half of my product: two dead, two alive. It wasn’t looking so good from a business perspective (nor was it looking so great from the perspective of my final two chickens I imagine). However, we had a solid two weeks together. I picked the day, January 24th, as the day that I was going to carry my prized hen, Blanche, to have my counterpart’s wife slaughter and prepare her. In the meantime, I would try to sell the other.
Long story short, I wasn’t able to sell Dorothy before disease got to her first. Geez. So besides consuming Blanche in the most delicious of manners with my counterpart’s family, I accomplished nothing. Wait, what’s that? Oh, it’s just my cost-benefit analysis telling me that a $40.00 chicken tastes magnificent.
Getting to the meat of all of this (too soon?), here are some of the lessons that I learned. First, if you want to raise chickens, vaccinate them yourself. I made an ass out of myself by assuming that when the guy told me the chicks came vaccinated, they actually were. Sometimes, it takes more than one go around to properly vaccinate the little bastards. Second, stock up on poultry meds in your regional capital so that you are never left in a pickle at post like I was. I sent money for chicken medicine into Garoua with moto drivers on more than one occasion. That’s 500 francs that I’ll never see again. Lastly, don’t get attached to the animals you are raising. They are going to die, and if your experience is like mine in anyway, you’ll be the one chunking them from the end of a shovel into a field of dry grass. I’m not going to lie, catapulting a chicken over your compound wall holds a certain entertainment factor. Unfortunately, it is coupled with dodgy ethics and resulting poor self-esteem. I digress.
Perhaps the best piece of advice with all of this poultry talk is to just give it a try for yourself. When again are you going to have the time, energy, or desire to raise chickens? Yes, do some research beforehand (learned that lesson) and yes, try to find someone in your village who knows a thing or two about raising poultry. Having someone like that in my situation would have changed the entire experience. My first go around clucked me up real good, but I’ve learned what I needed to learn, and I will be back raising chickens come rainy season.
And so should you.