Around midday I was walking along the dusty red side-road in Kabale town-centre, Uganda, back to my office, my eyes turned down and shaded from the hot sun, when I heard my name being called. I looked over my shoulder to see my friend, Tony, skidding to a halt on the back cushioned-seat of a bicycle boda-boda (taxi). He jumped off the bicycle and ran towards me with a wide grin on his face. He thrust a cardboard box into my hands – “Here!” he exclaimed. His laughter began on cue as he watched my surprised expression. The box’s contents shifted weight in my hands. There was definitely something alive inside and I had a pretty good idea of what I had just been “gifted” – edible research, so to speak.
I peered through the box’s opening and an inquisitive pink nose peered, rather sniffed, back out at me.
It was a Kenyan White. The subject of a month’s worth of research on food security in southwestern Uganda. The low-resource, homestead ‘solution’ to answering the problem of poverty and protein deficiency in the Kigezi region, and beyond.
And also this: a quintessential cute, cuddly rabbit with white, fluffy fur and that adorable pink nose that melted me in that moment. My legs quivered, and suddenly all the ‘food security’ rationale that I had projected onto the rabbit was replaced with sweet memories from my childhood of clutching rabbits in my thin arms at Petting Zoos, and reading that tear-jerker book Peter Rabbit. Not to mention an eighteen and then some year long relationship with the Easter Bunny. Silly rabbit. Rabbits are for loving not eating. So for a fraction of a second I considered keeping ‘Kenyan White’ as a pet.
Then practicality took hold. When in Rome. Rather – when in Uganda: where animals (domestic and wild) are for eating, milking, guarding, chasing mice, producing manure, tilling the land, or making money off tourists. Definitely. Not. For. Petting.
I was faced with the inevitable. I would just have to ‘woman up’ and put my mouth where my research was – and literally eat my words.
I had written over 3000 words on the value of raising rabbits within the context of southwestern Uganda, where 45% children are reported to be malnourished, two-thirds of the population live on $1-2/day, and the most affordable foods, other than beans, are lacking in protein. Chicken, fish, beef, pork, goat and beef. These are culinary pipedreams for the poor. Raising rabbits is the cheaper alternative, and one that offers a lot of other potential advantages.
One of the bottom lines that’s holding me to my work here in Uganda is that the Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO) is working, quite literally, at the grassroots. They are tapping into what people are already doing, on their own and using their own resources, apart from becoming ‘beneficiaries’ and the subjects of international dollars and projects.
Working with my colleague and fellow sustainable agriculture visionary, Alphonse Twinamatsiko, we’ve identified over thirty-some farmers in the Kabale District that are already using local resources to build small cages and raise rabbits.
A recent spread in Harvest Money (my weekly supplier of ‘food for thought’) in the New Vision, one of Uganda’s national newspaper, highlighted the efforts of a rabbit producer, Dr. Beatrice Luzobe, who’s made strides in promoting the industry nationally through her own breeding/producing, and training venture in Kisaasi, Kampala. The article reports:
“…Rabbits are small bodied animals, requiring less space and inputs, and are prolific and efficient converters of feeds to meat. Their meat is nutritious and healthy because it’s white, rich in protein, and has low quantities of fat and cholesterol…
All the above make rabbit-keeping an important enterprise in areas where there is a shortage of agricultural land, and for the vulnerable and resource poor, for example – the youth, who are unemployed and lack the critical production resources (land and capital).”
New Vision, Tuesday, March 12, 2013
In fact, most of the rabbit producers in the Kabale District are youth who haven’t yet acquired farmland, and yet need to generate income to pay for secondary and university tuition fees. One of the farmers, Julius, started with two does (female rabbits) in November 2012. To date, his rabbit clan has grown to over 50-some rabbits, and he’s now able to consume 1-2 per week – so he no longer has a need to “buy chickens” in the market when an available meat source is only a few steps from his front door.
Julius has also become a local supplier of rabbits to his neighbours, who have visited his home and seen with their own eyes just how easy it can be to reap fast benefits from raising rabbits. Whereas other small livestock, like chickens and pigs, can require a lot of resources (money for specific feeds) and space, rabbits are ideal because they can be fed using leaves, grass and kitchen scraps. Another benefit is that their manure is nitrogen-rich and can be used immediately on the garden as organic fertilizer.
Another thing – the expression “make love like rabbits” holds true: rabbits can be bred frequently, as they reproduce every 31 days. One doe can have 4-5 litters in one year, and every litter is about 5-6 fryers (baby rabbits).
On the market, a 5 lb. rabbit can sell for 20,000 Ugandan Shillings ($8 CAN). Once a farmer’s population grows, the business becomes not only profitable for the stomach, but also for the pocket – helping them to afford essential household goods and pay for tuition and school expenses.
The “Rabbit in the Box” Paradox
Funny enough – my own ethical dilemma of ‘preparing’ the adorable rabbit in the box for dinner is also a challenge for rabbit production in the Kigezi region today. Not because people necessarily see rabbits “as pets” as many North Americans do, but rabbits haven’t been culturally favored in this particular region of Uganda as desirable meat sources.
Many people don’t know how to slaughter and prepare rabbit meat, and so as many of the farmers in Kabale are reporting, people feel hesitant about buying a ‘live rabbit in a box’ for meal-time. Julius commented that the best ‘foot forward’ would be to have a local or regional rabbit processing centre, where he could sell his rabbits whole-sale.
Strengthening the value-chain of rabbit production is exactly what we’re trying to do at KIHEFO today. We’re eager to develop a Breeding and Training Centre in Kabale, using donated land through partnership with the non-profit and private sector, and eventually build a Processing Centre, where rabbits can be packaged into a “ready to cook” product like sausages, meatballs, and steaks.
It’s an idea modeling after the success of Beatrice Luzobe’s project in central Uganda, and as well, from an innovative youth project based out of Kenya, called the Kerayi Rabbit Processing Ltd. Check out the Kerayi’s blog to see how they’ve succeeded in building a culture for both rabbit production and consumption.
Trina Cooks the Rabbit
Part of me wants to adopt a Stuart McLean-like ‘voice’ for telling this part of the story (echoing his Thanksgiving special called ‘Dave Cooks the Turkey’), though perhaps, that would take too long for this already rambling rant on rabbits.
My rabbit-eating friends from the northern province of Aura (that borders with Southern Sudan and the DRC Congo) were ready to help me when I arrived home, rabbit in hand. In the end, it was about as efficient and humane as an animal death could be. I wasn’t the one to draw the knife, but I watched closely and whispered a little prayer of gratitude to the rabbit, standing alongside Favor, my two-year old friend.
We removed the rabbit’s fur using a bucket of hot water and our own hands. Next stage involved a slow roast over hot coals for thirty minutes. After allowing it to cool, we removed its organs, and divided the meat – enough to feed our ‘family’ of ten and then some. This was considered, according to my friends, “the men’s work.”
Susana, one of my African mamas, called my gendered skills to the second stage of the process of slowly sautéing the chopped meat with onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and garlic. We salted the meat, and eventually stirred in home-made peanut butter. Mmmm…my mouth was watering at this point of the game, when my friend, Patricia informed me, with a straight face, that “women don’t eat rabbit meat in Uganda.”
NOW…I had heard whisperings of this before. Traditionally, some women in Uganda believed that the consumption of rabbit could lead to a woman being unable to produce breast-milk, or even that the woman would grow long rabbit-like ears.
I was too hungry to have patience for these cultural beliefs. Cultural relativity tossed out the African Kitchen door. The stomach rules over the mind, on some occasions, and this was definitely one of them.
Fortunately, it was a good joke on Patricia’s part, and when 9:00 pm rolled around, African dinner time, we devoured “my research project” down to the bone.