The Controversy of Using Local Names for Animal Diseases

Livestock remains a significant part for most of the rural population in Namibian villages, and almost for each and every common disease, there is a local name, as well as an attempt for treatment.

I recently got into a big dilemma trying to figure out what kind of disease was killing cattle at one farm in the Omaheke Region. According to the farmer, the cattle were dying from “a bloody disease.”So, I figured it was most likely Anthrax, which is characterized by blood oozing out from all natural openings/orifices. But after questioning the farmer carefully, I realized it was rather Botulism, which locally they call it “Omutjise wombindu,” lamely translated as “bloody disease.”

Yet, these two diseases are totally, completely different in manifestations and approach to their management. Even though I now consider myself to be an experienced village veterinarian, I’m still trying to comprehend why Botulism disease (Lame Sickness or “Lamsiekte” in Afrikaans) is called “Omutjise wombindu” in OtjiHerero.

Fine, there is a bit of a blood accumulation in the muscles, but it is rather a post-mortem change after the animal had died than a significant symptom, and it looks quite similar to carcasses where the animals succumbed to some other causes of death, such as various poisoning and infections.

Botulism is a non-contagious disease (doesn’t spread from animal to animal) which affects wild animals, livestock and even birds. It is more common in cattle than goats and sheep, and is generally characterized by lameness and progressive paralysis (that’s why Lamsiekte in Afrikaans is more an appropriate name, and hence it is more suitable in OtjiHerero to refer to it as “Omutjise wokuremana or Omutjise wokuwotama”). Even “Oshinambuda” in Oshiwambo and “Lunanali” in the Silozi language are appropriate since they make references to hind-leg paralysis, which is the symptom which farmers tend to notice at the beginning of the Botulism disease’s manifestation.

Because of the ‘misnaming’ of the Botulism disease, I have also encountered villagers who in an attempt to vaccinate for Botulism, mistakenly vaccinated cattle with the Pulpy Kidney disease vaccine. Can you believe that?

Pulpy Kidney or “Bloednier” in Afrikaans refers to “bloody kidney”. Hence, the confusion of ‘bloody’ leads to the people vaccinating cattle for a disease which also refers to ‘blood’ in their local naming. What a disaster! And to top the misperception, Pulpy Kidney or Bloednier is a disease which occurs in goats and sheep rather than in cattle, and the post- mortem symptoms are mostly characterized by bloody, soft and cooked-like kidneys.

Let’s come back to the Anthrax disease in animals, which in the Zambezi region is called “Luhepe”, referring to a “big pancreas.”

Apparently, the locals don’t have a name for pancreas, and it is rather referred to as the spleen, which in English can be quite confusing because these are completely two different organs with completely different functions in the body.

Thus, I got confused trying to figure out which disease has something to do with a big pancreas. But I only understood that they are indeed referring to Anthrax when they described the clinical symptoms of the disease, and the dead animals.

The Otjiherero and Afrikaans names for Anthrax is “Eteva”, and “Miltsiekte” respectively, which are basically more fitting names because they denote to a big spleen, and one of the most significant post- mortem findings of this disease is a distended spleen.

Then in Oshiwambo, Anthrax is called “Ombulwa”, which is again confusing because it talks about a ‘pimple’ just because in people the skin form of the disease causes big nodular pimples.

Thus, for animals, they also just use the human term of the disease to refer to the animal syndromes, which don’t manifest a single pimple or any nodules. Just imagine that!

Then we get some confusion when it comes to the naming of Blackleg disease. This disease probably has the most common names than any other I know, names such as Blackquarter, Black ill, Black evil and muscle rot disease. The name ‘Blackleg’ derives from the fact that the site of infection is often a leg muscle, and the affected muscle is dark in colour. Here in Namibia, most farmers call it “Sponssiekte” in Afrikaans, which rather refers to the sponginess of the affected muscles rather than the blackness of the muscles.

Other traditional names like Kawenyu (RuKavango) and Oshiwenyu (Oshiwambo) also refer to the blackness of the muscles, whilst Okapirauka (OtjiHerero) again don’t make references to the blackness or sponginess of the muscles, but rather to the rancid smell and bitterness of the meat.

In the olden days, this was the only disease which the Herero people used to get rid of the carcass without eating the meat because of the bitter taste. Imagine, they were eating Anthrax carcasses without a problem-jak!

Anyway, Rabies is one disease which the common and local names suitably named. Names such as Orundumba in Otjiherero and Endabi ile eenghwengu in Oshiwambo all refer to ‘madness’, and were appropriately named. Even the Afrikaans version “Hondsdolheid” and Silozi version “Mutanganyo” both mean “dog madness.” Thus, there is little confusion which arises from using the local names for Rabies.

Rabies is a dangerous and deadly disease and can be transmitted from animal to animal, and is also one the most-feared zoonotic diseases, which can be transmitted from animals to humans. Thus, it is indeed a blessing that local names don’t cause confusion.

The controversy might come for diseases or symptoms which cause madness in animals, but are differentiated from Rabies, such as from plant poisoning and lead poisoning.

Recognizable diseases such as Lumpy Skin Disease with obvious skin nodules also fortunately don’t pose much controversy when it comes to the local names such as ‘Knopvelsiekte’ in Afrikaans, ‘Hautknotenkrankheit’ in German and ‘Omutjise wOzomburu’ in Otjiherero.

But there could be confusion in Oshiwambo names like ‘Epulwa’ or ‘Omapulwa’, which basically refer to many pimples, while Anthrax which is ‘Ombulwa’ refers to a single pimple. Ai tog!

Well, there you have a couple of misnamings of diseases, which can cause such confusion and consequently the mismanagement of animal health. Thus, I have to stress that if in doubt about the cause of deaths in animals or disease symptoms, always consult your veterinarian or animal health technicians than just depending on the local names.

PS… Let me know about the local names of animal diseases in your area, ne? We could figure out if there is any controversy involved.