Vet students hard at work in Kenya with local cow farmers

By VWB July 21, 2014 2:13 am

We have had an amazing first month here in Kenya!

We find it interesting to listen to Dr. Shauna talk to the farmers. She always says, “Your cow and calf need water…always.” Seems like a simple and easy concept however we must repeat it very often. Sometimes re-wording helps, “milk is made of water so, if you want more milk your cow needs to drink more water.” Often farmers don’t give their calves a constant supply of water because they think it makes them pee blood. Shauna then explains to them that this happens because, when the calf is deprived of water and then offered it, it will drink as much as possible and this actually causes them to pee blood. Many farmers are need to re-train their calves water drinking habits by offering them small amounts often throughout the day until they are ready to have a constant supply.

Local veterinarians do not have it easy. Diagnostic tools are limited and so is transportation. They ride a bodaboda (dirt bike) with a backpack on their back and a bag on their lap and that’s it…that is what they take to farm calls. They must keep tick born diseases (such as Anaplasma and East Coast Fever) in mind, not something we worry about in Alberta.

Our work these last few weeks has involved some construction. We modified the cows’ stalls so they can have a more comfortable place to rest. During our second visit to the farms we took out our hammers and shovel, and with the help of our drivers and the farmers, we set out to give the laddies a bit more space or soften their floor. In one case, within a few hours of leaving the farm, we received a call from the farmer letting us know that his cow, which had never laid in her stall before, was resting comfortably for the first time. On another farm, as soon as the tools were removed from the stall, the cow walked in and laid down.

Not all of our construction work has been an instant success. We’ve had to make follow up visits to some farms because the cows were not using the new stalls or the farmer had some concerns they wanted to discuss. This is all part of the process since one of our goals is to develop new guidelines for stall size, design and materials that are well within the reach of a small farm. In the weeks to come, we will be returning to all the farms to collect more data on the cows now that they have had time to get used to their new home.image006

Making the stall longer so the cow has more forward lunge space


Before picture of a stall with hard uneven stonesAfter picture of the stall with a thick layer of soft dirt and shavings:


Farmers often like to offer us tea:


Farmers and Dr. John replacing a roof:


Farm #38: Nancy with Eiphram (one of our drivers):


Vet students Anika and Nancy arrive in Kenya!

By VWB June 25, 2014 2:30 pm


Hello my name is Anika Mueller. I am beyond excited to have this opportunity in Kenya with Veterinarians Without Borders. So far it has already proved to be life changing for me both professionally and personally. I am proud to represent the University of Calgary Veterinary Medicine program. My main interest lies in production animal health and I especially love cows. I grew up in a small town with my father as a veterinarian as my role model. I feel very fortunate to get to take part in this sustainable project and am so thankful for everyone’s support. While Kenya is much different than Canada I feel very much at home in this humble place.

Hello, my name is Nancy Brochu and as a third year student at the Atlantic Veterinary College, I am grateful to have the opportunity to work in Kenya this summer with Veterinarians Without Borders. I grew up in Canada’s largest city but spent many summer on farms in rural Quebec. So being here reminds me of those summers, though the scenery is so different, the people have been so welcoming that I feel at home. In my short time here thus far I have learnt that as a cow vet one should expect to get splattered by poop, smeared with saliva and that brown pants are fantastic when your suitcase does not arrive with you.

Summarizing our first impression of Kenya is very difficult because so many wonderful aspects have already greeted us. To begin with, we’ve gained an appreciation for patience and for each other’s moral support because we arrived in Nairobi suitcaseless. As we visited farms our appreciation for what we have in our carry-ons increased; we saw clothes lines hung with items that are getting the most use out of them, items that tell a story of hard work and commitment for family.

Upon our arrival, our supervisor John VanLeeuwen suggested an activity before heading to our hotel. We decided on a nature walk where some highlights included getting to see an albino zebra (in the picture above), a leopard sunbathing very high in a tree, and a pigmy hippo saying hello up close and personal.

In our first week a typical day consisted of about 7 farm visits where our role was to do a physical exam of the 1 or 2 dairy cows on the farm and attach accelerometers to their hind limb. We are grateful of all the practice we are getting.  Our lunch generally consists of peanut butter & jelly sandwiches however, for Anika’s birthday we got a special treat: samosas inside a donut. It may sound weird but they are very delicious.

There are many facets of our new home that have amazed us. Firstly, we have no idea how our drivers find the farms. The roads are not named nor numbered. The rough dirt paths are just barely wide enough for a car to pass and they split off often. There is a lot of cell phone communication with the farmers to find them and often enough, the farmer has to come find us and guide us. Secondly, the commitment of the farmers amazes us.

We met a farmer the other day who is an electrician… 50% of his income comes from his 2 dairy cows and the other half comes from his pigs, coffee,  AND his electrician work. It puts things into perspective about how the people live here. Lastly, we were advised that church is a great cultural experience. And so, on Sunday, we found ourselves in an all tin walled and red dirt floor building, clapping to their songs and listening to their passionate sermon which they kindly translated from Swahili to English so that we could understand.

Our writing cannot do justice to our experience so far in Kenya. It is difficult to capture the feelings and experiences but so far we can say we love it and asante (thank you) to everyone for your support for this opportunity.


La leçon

By Kenya August 22, 2013 8:26 am

Le 24 juin 2013, j’atterrissais à Nairobi. Deux mois, 111 fermes, 1 mammite gangreneuse, plus de 300 échantillons et près de 1000 trayons plus tard, me voilà de retour dans la capitale du Kenya, où un avion m’emmènera loin de ce pays que j’ai appris à tant aimer. Shauna et Shepelo ont encore un mois de visites à faire à Mukurwe-ini, Jessie est partie hier et moi, je contemple le trafic des rues achalandées de Nairobi. Le pouls urbain est si différent du rythme des highlands, lui-même complètement différent de l’atmosphère des réserves naturelles. Le Kenya est un pays aux mille couleurs.

Je me suis engagée dans ce stage avec Vétérinaires sans frontières pour l’expérience culturelle, pour partager des connaissances, pour aider une communauté prête à recevoir de l’aide et, avouons-le, par désir d’aventure. Mais je quitte aujourd’hui avec un bagage cent fois plus lourd que je ne l’aurais espéré : mes valises sont remplies d’expériences, d’un savoir nouveau, de liens à entretenir, de souvenirs bons et moins bons (mais surtout bons).

Voici un bref aperçu de ce que je ramène :

- Une assurance en présence des bovins. Je suis définitivement plus à l’aise que je ne l’étais.
- Un bras gauche rendu plus adroit par les fouilles transrectales et par les autres manipulations que j’ai dû faire.
- Une collection d’ecchymoses pour accompagner celle de souvenirs.

- Une connaissance pratique de l’origine du mot « urticaire », soit du contact de l’ortie.

- Une idée de ce qui est « normal » lors d’un examen général de bovin (bien utile pour ensuite déterminer ce qui est « anormal »).
- De meilleures aptitudes de communication.

Je n’ai pas entrepris ce voyage pour changer le monde, ni pour accomplir une quête de découverte intérieure. Mais j’avoue que j’en reviens grandie, que j’ai beaucoup appris, et la réalité que je n’aurai jamais fini d’apprendre m’a frappée plus fort et plus tendrement que jamais. C’est une chance inouïe que d’avoir pu toucher plus d’une vie et de m’être laissée toucher à mon tour; ce n’est pas le moindre de mes apprentissages.

Cette expérience à l’étranger m’a été plus que bénéfique dans le processus de devenir une vétérinaire accomplie, même si je compte exercer ma profession au Canada. J’ai vu des gens mettre tous les efforts et le peu de moyens à leur disposition pour améliorer leurs fermes, tant sur le plan productif que sur celui du bien-être animal. Si de tels progrès sont possibles dans un pays en développement, je ne doute pas un instant qu’il est possible d’améliorer divers aspects des productions animales canadiennes aussi. Les défis sont certes différents, mais pas plus insurmontables… si la volonté est là. Et cette volonté doit venir de tous : vétérinaires, producteurs et autres citoyens.

Je dois dès maintenant me servir de tous les éléments de cette grande leçon pour appliquer cette dernière dans ma future profession… ainsi que dans la vie de tous les jours.


Geneviève C. Luca

Des génisses et des hommes

By Kenya August 18, 2013 4:28 pm

Les jours et les semaines ont passé. Les veaux et génisses que nous avons enregistrés pour l’étude grandissent en force et posent à chaque semaine un défi plus ardu pour les examiner (joueurs ou bagarreurs, nous ne savons jamais exactement dans quel rodéo nous embarquons lorsque nous pénétrons dans l’arène de leur enclos). Nous avons eu une petite fête d’au revoir avec collègues et amis samedi. Une odeur aigre-douce dans laquelle se mêlent nostalgie et espoir emplit l’air; ça sent le départ.
Nostalgie des expériences vécues, des moments passés – parfois rudes, mais plus souvent bons – et des gens rencontrés qui nous ont charmées. Espoir que notre participation ait pu aider Shauna et Shepelo dans leur projet de recherche, que notre implication ait contribué à améliorer ne serait-ce qu’un peu les conditions des fermiers et de leur bétail dans la région de Mukurwe-ini.

Ces espoirs ont déjà été exhaussés, du moins partiellement. En effet, durant ces deux mois, nous avons pu observer des changements, petits ou grands, dans divers aspects des fermes que nous visitons.

Alimentation : « Vous ne pouvez pas faire du lait avec du bois », disait Dr John aux fermiers, quand il parcourait les collines de Kenya avec nous. Les vaches ont certes besoin de fibres, mais leur diète n’est pas complète si elles ne mangent que de hautes pousses de Napier grass, qui ressemblent alors plutôt à du bois qu’à du fourrage. En prenant conscience de cela, de nombreux fermiers ont été prêts à investir un peu de temps, d’argent même parfois, pour modifier l’alimentation de leur bétail afin d’obtenir une meilleure production.
D’ailleurs, la production de lait exige également de l’eau. Beaucoup d’eau : elle devrait être en tout temps disponible pour les vaches – et pour les veaux aussi. Nous sommes heureuses de constater que désormais, rares sont les vaches ou leur progéniture qui sont laissées sans de quoi s’abreuver, contrairement à nos observations au début du projet.
Autre fait important : les changements alimentaires doivent s’effectuer progressivement, sinon l’animal peut tomber malade ou refuser de manger. En comprenant cela, une fermière résolut ainsi le mystère de ses derniers veaux morts « subitement », alors qu’elle les avait fait passer du jour au lendemain d’une alimentation de lait à 100% à une diète de fourrages à 100%.

Logement : Une vache bien couchée est une vache heureuse et en santé. La stalle doit être propre et confortable. Ce n’est pas que pour le bonheur de la vache : un lit confortable l’incite à se coucher, donc à utiliser son énergie pour la production laitière plutôt que pour se tenir debout, offrant par la même occasion un meilleur apport sanguin aux glandes mammaires. La propreté évite les problèmes causés par les pathogènes environnementaux. Donc, vache confortable et propre = meilleure production = meilleur revenu. Les fermiers saisissant la logique de la chose, nous avons vu des enclos être nettoyés, des stalles être construites et même des coussins être installés par les fermiers. Hommes et bêtes sont satisfaits, notre objectif est atteint.

Soins en général : Comme au Canada, la mammite est une préoccupation récurrente de la production laitière. En plus d’améliorer le logement, les fermiers peuvent appliquer certaines mesures d’hygiène – comme le nettoyage du pis, le lavage des mains entre chaque animal et le bain de trayons – qui permettent de prévenir cette condition. S’ils sont dubitatifs lorsque nous leur enseignons ou répétons ces mesures préventives, ils n’en sont pas moins fiers et reconnaissants, lorsque ces dernières sont intégrées à leur routine, de nous montrer une vache avec un pis en santé quand nous venons effectuer un CMT qui s’avère négatif.
Outre les innombrables mammites que nous avons traitées – et montré comment traiter, nous avons vu quelques autres conditions médicales, sources d’inquiétude ou non.  Nous répondons alors aux questions cas par cas, contentes de voir les fermiers satisfaits à la visite subséquente ou corrigeant le tir si nos conseils étaient insuffisants. Nous travaillons avec du vivant, et le vivant n’est jamais entièrement prévisible. Certains fermiers nous reprochent l’absence de potions magiques, mais la grande majorité comprennent cette difficulté et nous font confiance. Par exemple, un veau naissant refusait de s’alimenter dans le seau de lait laissé par le fermier. Nous avons donc pris le temps de nourrir le veau en trempant nos doigts dans le lait et avons recommandé au propriétaire d’en faire de même pour les premiers jours. À force de patience, le veau a apprit à s’abreuver tout seul et le fermier, qui s’était fié à nos conseils, en fut très content.

Tous ces fermiers qui ont bien voulu nous écouter n’ont pas fait que suivre aveuglément nos conseils. La clef du succès lorsque l’on souhaite apporter des changements à des pratiques appliquées depuis longtemps (surtout dans un contexte culturel différent) réside toujours dans la communication. Ainsi, nous fixons des objectifs en tenant compte de la réalité locale, chaque recommandation est accompagnée d’une explication – la compréhension ayant une portée plus grande que la simple écoute – et nous soulignons également aux propriétaires les bons aspects que présente déjà leur ferme. Et quel bonheur d’entendre des fermiers nous poser des questions, démontrant ainsi leur intérêt à comprendre et à s’améliorer!

Bien sûr, comme dans n’importe quel contexte de travail, nous nous sommes heurtées à des individus entêtés qui n’étaient pas prêts à écouter nos conseils et l’on sait qu’il n’y a pire sourd que celui qui ne veut entendre. Fort heureusement, pour chacun de ces cas isolés, des dizaines de fermiers ont fait preuve d’une ouverture d’esprit nous permettant de communiquer et d’arriver à des résultats encourageants.


Geneviève C. L.

Of Calves and Men

By Kenya 4:24 pm

Days and weeks have come and gone. The calves we have taken for our study are growing big and strong and are harder to examine each week (playful or ready to fight, we never know what kind of rodeo awaits in the pen). We just had a goodbye party with collegues and friends, on Saturday. A bittersweet scent in which we perceive nostalgia and hope fills the air; the smell of our departure.

Nostalgia for the experiences we lived, the moments we shared – sometimes hard, but more often good – and for the people we met and who have won our heart. Hope that our participation could help Shauna and Shepelo in their research study, that what we did contributed to improve the farmers’ and their cattle’s lives in the area of Mukurwe-ini.
These hopes have been partially answered. Indeed, during those two months, we observed changes, small and big, in some of the aspects of the farms we visit.

Feeding : “You can’t make milk out of wood” said Dr. John to the farmers, when he was traveling up and down the Kenyan hills with us. Cows do need a certain amount of fibre, but their diet is not complete if all they eat is very tall Napier grass, which is then more like wood than forage. Realizing that, many farmers were ready to invest some time – and sometimes money – to modify the feeds they offer to their cattle to obtain a better production.

Also, cows need water to give milk. Lots of water : it should be available at all times for the cows, and for the calves too. We are happy to notice that now, few are the cows or their offsprings that are left without anything to drink, contrary to what we observed in the beginning of the project.

Another important fact : feed changes must occur progressively, or else the animal could get sick or refuse to eat. Understanding that, a farmer solved the mystery of her last calves’ “sudden” death, when she made them go from a 100% milk diet on one day to a 100% forage diet on the next day.

Housing : A comfortably laying cow is a happy and healthy cow. The stalls must be clean and relatively cozy. This is not only for the benefit of the cows : comfortable beddings will make them lay more, so they can use their energy for producing milk instead of standing, and also allow a better blood circulation in the mammary glands. Cleanliness avoids environmental pathogen-related problems. Therefore, comfy and clean cow = better production = better income. Once the farmers acknowledged this, we saw pens getting cleaner, stalls being built and even pillows being laid for the cows. Man and animal are satisfied, we reached our goal.

General care : Like in Canada, mastitis is a recurrent concern in milk production. On top of improving the stalls, farmers can apply some good hygiene practices – for example cleaning the udder, washing hands between animals and using a teat dip – that will help prevent mastitis. If some are doubtful as we teach or repeat these preventive measures, they are nonetheless very proud and grateful, when these measures are integrated in their daily routine, to show us a cow with a healthy udder when we come to make a CMT that turns out negative.

Apart from the countless mastitis we treated – and taught how to treat, we saw a few other medical conditions, causing concern or not. We answered to each case as good as we could, happy to see the farmers satisfied on a subsequent visit or making adjustments. We are working with living creatures, and life is never entirely predictable. Some farmers will blame us for not having any magic potions, but most of them understand this difficulty and trust us. For example, a newborn calf refused to drink from the bucket of milk that the farmer left for him. We took the time necessary to feed the calf by dipping our fingers in the wilk and we recommended that the owner do the same for the first few days. Thanks to the farmer’s trust and patience, the calf learned to drink on its own and the farmer was very happy.

All farmers that did listen to us did not just follow blindly our advice. The key to succes when you want to bring changes (especially in a different culture) resides in communication. Therefore, we propose realistic objectives according to local challenges, each recommendation comes with an explanation – since comprehension has a better impact than just listening – and we also mention the good aspects of a farm to it’s owner. What a joy it is to hear a farmer asking us questions; it demonstrates their motivation to understand and to improve themselves.

Of course, just like in any professionnal context, we met some stubborn individuals who were not willing to hear our advice. Fortunately, for every one of these people, dozens of farmers showed open-mindedness, allowing us to communicate and to obtain encouraging results.


Geneviève C. L.

Mr. Exactly, the Parasite and Beautiful Diary Cows

By Kenya August 16, 2013 12:26 pm

I’ve had trouble putting something in the blog – not due to a lack of stories, but because there are too many.  I’ve written a few rough drafts only to feel dissatisfied at how they were coming together for one reason or another.

I realized today it was because all these little stories really work together to tell a bigger story, but it’s difficult to tie these things together in order to make someone who has never been to Kenya get a real glimpse of what it is like living here.

Although I have travelled to many places and have met many people – the bigger story of Kenya is that it has the unique ability (in my experience) to make your heart grow in size.

The trouble comes with detailing exactly how it happens.

The people are gracious and generous hosts.  The poverty is motivating and heartbreaking in the same breath.  The scenery is unlike anything I have ever experienced before.  The wildlife is spectacular.  It’s an amazing place, and I’m so happy to have had a wide variety of experiences while I’ve been here.

I’ll never stop smiling to myself when I think of Mr. Exactly.  We were parked by a mechanics shop when I saw an older man with a cane dancing and looking at us.  I started to laugh because he reminded me of Mr. Peanut.  He, of course, saw this as an open invitation to come and chat with us.  As he was walking over, his friends were making fun of him (we found out later it was because they knew he didn’t speak English and would be at a loss once he actually came to talk to us).  “Hello.  How are you?”  I smiled and replied “Fine, thanks.  And you?”  He paused, then smiled broadly and pointed at his cane.  “CANE.”  I smiled politely.  Then he waggled his finger and said “EXACTLY.”  To which I replied with a finger waggling of my own: “EXACTLY.”  As he was walking away proudly, thinking that he showed his friends a thing or two, Shauna leaned over and whispered: “Exactly WHAT?”  Ephraim, our driver thought this was the funniest thing he has ever heard, and now when we see the old man on the roads, we all shout “Mr. EXACTLY” out the window as he smiles, waves his cane, and continues on his way.

I’m thankful to have been invited to some of the schools that are twinned through Farmers Helping Farmers with schools in PEI.  We got to visit two classes of Standard 8 students, and as I spent a few years teaching English in Asia, I was more than happy to pull an English lesson together.  I have never been more impressed as I was upon teaching the students about the anatomy of the cow stomach and having them all succeed in remembering the different names of the stomachs an hour later when we quizzed them.  But the best moment for me came as we waved good-bye and they broke out singing the Canadian national anthem as we were on our way out the door.  They have had Canadian teachers and had learned the anthem a year before.  We turned back to watch them sing, and I’ll never forget their bright shining smiles that met our looks of surprise.

I’ll not quickly forget the quick turn of my stomach as I realized that there was a parasite making one of my toes its personal breeding ground.  Or the number of times I had to ask my friend Shepelo to pause in the process of removing it because I was in danger of vomiting.  Upon realizing what it was – she quickly looked at me and asked: ‘Do you trust me?’  I agreed without hesitation, and that’s when I realized how deep our bond has really become.  She’s been a great friend to us over the past weeks, and I’ll miss her dearly when I’m back in Canada.  I can
only hope one day we will meet again.

I’ll always remember the feeling of the wind through my hair, peeking out the top of the safari van at 6:30 am in the morning, on the chase of wild dogs and cheetahs and all sorts of other adventure.  Not much has ever made me feel so alive and so amazed at how incredible the world we live in is.

And I’m most thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in a research project with an incredible team of people, some great (and some…interesting) farmers, and hundreds of dairy cattle.  I’ve definitely fallen in love with cattle over the course of the trip and am so thankful for the confidence and experience I have gained in dealing with them.  Our lead researchers – Shauna Richards and Shepelo Gertrude have proven dedicated and committed to rising to the many challenges that have faced them, and have demonstrated a true love of both animals and people.

I can’t believe the trip is coming to an end this week.  I’ve been told that home is wherever your heart is.  I’ve found in my experience it’s best to always carry it with you – you’ll end up leaving little bits of it everywhere you go.

Apprendre à se connaître

By Kenya August 12, 2013 8:55 pm

Déjeuner, travail, dîner en vitesse, plus de travail, souper, paperasse, dodo.

Il faut l’avouer : malgré le décor enchanteur et les routes souvent impraticables, on pourrait croire que nos journées ressemblent à n’importe quelle journée de travail pour un vétérinaire en pratique des grands animaux. Qu’est-ce qui rend donc notre quotidien si extraordinaire, notre expérience de stage estival au Kenya si unique? Sans doute, ce sont les gens que nous rencontrons. Et surtout, le bonheur d’apprendre à les connaître davantage, de développer des liens et d’espérer pouvoir les entretenir longtemps.

Alors, comment profiter au maximum de l’expérience humaine? En partageant le quotidien de ceux qui nous entourent. C’est pourquoi, la fin de semaine passée, j’ai quitté notre demeure à Ichamara pour être hébergée chez Esther – ce que l’on appelle « cantonnement chez l’habitant ». Esther est une femme d’une soixantaine d’années qui s’est impliquée toute sa vie dans moult projets de développement de sa communauté. Elle a dirigé plusieurs groupes de fermières, a participé à la construction d’une école primaire, fait partie des directeurs de Wakulima Dairy Ltd… et – allez savoir où elle a trouvé le temps pour cela – a élevé cinq enfants qui connaissent du succès dans leurs carrières. Aujourd’hui encore, elle reste engagée dans sa communauté – en plus d’avoir sa ferme à entretenir. Elle vit seule présentement, son mari travaillant à Nairobi, ne revenant qu’à l’occasion, et ses enfants ayant leur propre famille à s’occuper. Aussi parut-elle enchantée de m’avoir en sa compagnie et fut-elle une hôtesse adorable. Peu de temps après mon arrivée, en début de soirée, nous nous installâmes dans le salon et elle me montra des dizaines et des dizaines de photos, collées dans des albums plus vieux que moi ou éparpillées dans un tiroir. Le lendemain, elle m’emmena marcher dans le village pour me montrer l’école qu’elle a aidé à fonder et pour me présenter à chacune de ses amies, dont une bonne partie ne parlaient pas anglais – ce qui ne nous empêcha pas de bien nous entendre : un sourire, des gestes et un ton chaleureux mènent loin. Armée d’un panga (sorte de courte machette), je coupai des tiges de Napier grass et récoltai des vignes de patates douces avec Esther. Ces plantes serviraient à nourrir ses vaches. Nous les mîmes dans un grand sac de jute que je balançai sur mes épaules avant de marcher les quelques kilomètres qui séparaient ses terres cultivées de sa ferme. En après-midi, j’aidai à préparer les épis de maïs pour l’entreposage; puis nous nous installâmes avec une montagne d’épis que nous égrainâmes patiemment – le maïs en canne ne court pas les rues, dans la campagne kényane.

J’étais bien contente de ma journée passée chez Esther – elle et ses amies venues en visite voulaient me garder pour au moins une soirée supplémentaire – mais mon projet de découverte pour la fin de semaine n’était pas terminé. En effet, en fin d’après-midi, je pris un taxi pour me rendre chez Priscilla, notre traductrice. Elle m’avait invitée chez elle, sachant que je cherchais à avoir un aperçu de la vie quotidienne au Kenya. Priscilla n’habite pas vraiment en campagne; c’est plutôt une sorte de quartier résidentiel, à 15 minutes de voiture de la ville de Karatina. Le rythme de la soirée et du lendemain avait toujours cette saveur relax typiquement africaine, mais la vie de banlieue d’une jeune famille (Priscilla vient d’avoir 32 ans et a trois garçons dont un bébé) est bien différente du quotidien d’une femme âgée en campagne. Plutôt que de passer la journée dehors, nous restâmes au salon, sauf pour une brève promenade et pour aller acheter des légumes au kiosque du coin. Les terrains sont moins grands, mais les maisons sont mieux équipées, entre autres d’un réfrigérateur et d’une salle de bain intérieure, ce qu’Esther aurait considéré avec admiration comme « très avancé ». Priscilla est une femme bien occupée : elle rentre tard durant la semaine (tout comme son mari) et son cellulaire lui donne peu de répit, même le dimanche. Heureusement, Mercy, la jeune gouvernante, est là pour l’aider avec les enfants et avec les tâches ménagères. Mais ce dimanche, Priscilla s’arrangea pour être disponible. Elle m’apprit comment cuisiner des chapati (délicieuse pâte semblant issue d’un heureux mariage entre une crêpe et un pain naan), nous discutâmes de choses diverses, regardâmes des photos (passe-temps apparemment très populaire) et jouâmes avec les garçons, leurs jouets étant principalement des sandales et n’importe quel objet banal qu’ils purent trouver. Il est à noter qu’à toute heure du jour, la télévision était ouverte, avec ou sans quelqu’un pour y prêter attention.


Échanger avec notre entourage procure un plaisir tout simple et il faut savoir profiter de chaque occasion. Ainsi, lorsque John (chauffeur de taxi et employé à Wakulima) me conduisit chez mes hôtesses de la fin de semaine, il y eut peu de silence dans la voiture. Nous parlâmes beaucoup, critiquant la météo ou comparant la réalité kényane à celle du Canada. Quand je lui demandai s’il avait une ferme, il entreprit de faire un détour pour me présenter sa famille et ses vaches.

Le contact que j’ai avec tous ces gens est tellement plus qu’un simple partage de connaissances sur le soin des vaches laitières. Comme l’exprime si bien Mrs. Anna dans la comédie musicale de Rodgers et Hammerstein, « ce qui m’illumine et qui me rend enjouée, ce sont toutes les merveilleuses et nouvelles choses que j’apprends à votre sujet jour après jour ».


Geneviève C. L.

Getting to know you

By Kenya 8:53 pm

Breakfast, work, lunch in a hurry, more work, dinner, paperwork, sleep.

Except for the delightful landscapes and the often impassable roads, one might think that our everyday looks just like everyday in the life of a veterinarian in the large animal practice. What makes our daily life extraordinary, our summer internship in Kenya so unique? Without a doubt, it is the people we meet. And especially the pleasure of getting to know them, of bonding and hoping to keep contact in the future.

So then, how can we make the most of this human contact? It is by sharing the everyday life of those around us.

That is why, last weekend, I left our home in Ichamara to stay at Esther’s house – what we call billet. Esther is a sixty-year-old woman who has been involved in many community development projects. She’s been a director in a few women’s groups, she participated in building a primary school, she is one of the directors in Wakulma Dairy Ltd… and (I don’t know where she found the time) she has raised five children now successful in their carreers. She is still involved in her community today, and still has to take care of her farm. She lives alone, since her husband works in Nairobi and seldom comes home, and her children now have their own families to take care of. Therefore, she seemed rather pleased to have company and she’s been a wonderful hostess. Soon after my arrival, we sat down in her living room and she showed me tons of pictures, either sticked inside photo albums probably older than I am or scattered in a drawer. The next day, we went for a walk in the village so she could show me the school she helped to build and present me to all her friends. Though most of them could barely speak a word of English, we got along quite well : a smile and friendly gestures and voice will take you far. Armed with a panga (some sort of short machete), I cut Napier grass and harvested sweet potato vines with Esther. Those plants would be used to feed her cows. We put them in a big bag that I swung over my shoulders before walking the few kilometers stretching between her crops and her farm. In the afternoon, I helped preparing corn cobs for storage; then, we sat on a bench and patiently took the kennels off dozens of corn cobs– canned corn being a rather rare sight in rural Kenya.

I was quite happy to have spent a day at Esther’s – she and her friends wanted to keep me for at least another night – but I had yet other plans for the weekend. In the afternoon, I took a taxi to go to Priscilla’s house. Our translator had invited me to stay at her place for a night, knowing that I wass keen to get a glimpse of “real” Kenyan life. Priscilla does not exactly live in the countryside; it’s more like a residential neighbourhood, a fifteen-minute drive away from the city of Karatina. The rythm of this evening and of the following day was still this African-flavoured relaxed beat, but life for a young family (Priscilla just turned 32 and has three boys, including a baby) in the suburbs is very different from the routine of an older woman in a rural area. Instead of spending the day outside, we mainly stayed in the livingroom, except for a short walk and to go to the “corner shop” (more of a small stand) to buy vegetables. Yards and houses are smaller, but better equiped, for example with a refrigerator and an inside bathroom (which Esther would consider with admiration as « well advanced » facilities). Priscilla is a very busy woman : she gets home late (just like her husband) during the week and her cellphone barely gives her any moment of peace, even on Sundays. Luckily, Mercy, the young housekeeper, is there to help her with the chores and the children. On last Sunday, though, Priscilla made sure to be available. She taught me how to cook chapati (a brilliant cross between a crepe and a naan bread), we talked of many things, we looked at pictures (I guess it’s a quite popular hobby) and played with the boys. Their toys were mostly slippers and any ordinary object that they could find. I noted that at any time of the day, the television was on, wether someone paid attention or not.

Talking with the people around us is a simple pleasure and we should take advantage of every opportunity to echange a few words. Therefore, when John (taxi driver and employee at Wakulima) drove me to my destinations this weekend, there were few moments of silence in the car. We talked a lot, complaining about the weather or comparing Kenyan reality with Canadian reality. When I asked him if he had a farm, he just took a detour to introduce me to his family and to show me his cows.

These experiences I share with all these people are so much more than just sharing knowledge on dairy cattle. As Mrs. Anna said it so well in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, « I’m bright and breezy because of all the beautiful and new things I’m learning about you day by day ».


Geneviève C. L.

Unasema Kiingereza? (Do you speak English?)

By Kenya August 3, 2013 5:39 pm

One of the biggest challenges of working abroad is the disturbing “language barrier”. How can we work together if we do not share a common language? This kind of situation may often lead to a dead end project. What a relief, could one be tempted to think, that English is the “official” language of Kenya! You can therefore communicate in English with almost anyone… which is true for the big cities.

The rural areas are somewhat of a greater challenge for travellers. Indeed, in the villages where we work, we daily meet people that speak only Kikuyu and Kiswahili, and then again… It is not seldom that we have to interact with someone that understands but his native language, his “tribal language” (the Kikuyu tribe is the major ethnic group in this area); although we see more and more young people that went to school, where they were taught the basics of English, if not a better English than many Quebec citizens (believe me, I know first hand). Nonetheless, no matter what their language qualifications are, farmers always greet us with a warm “Karibu” (“Welcome”) and a big smile.

Mastering a language with all its subtleties requires a few years of sustained practice. And for the research study we are working on, we absolutely need to get every detail from the speech of the farmers we poll, so our data can be as accurate as possible. Having Priscilla (our translator) working with us is therefore essential. However, we must not forget that even the best translator sometimes acts as a filter, leaving out what he considers lacking in pertinence, and we might miss a detail from the speech or a hesitation in the tone of the person we are adressing. That filter can sometimes keep us from adapting to the people we are speaking to. Fortunately, Shepelo manages most of the time to communicate with the farmers in Kiswahili – sometimes with a brief intervention in Kikuyu from Godfrey, our driver – and makes sure that they fully understand the question or the recommandations.

Kenyans are pleased to hear a stranger speak their language. Therefore, we are immediately treated with consideration when we stammer a few Kiswahili words. Adults laugh with us at our slow and often awkward pronunciation. As for the children, when I introduce myself with a complete Kiswahili sentence, they open wide eyes in surprise, blush as they shyly say their names or run to an andult to show him the feat of a stranger who knows how to link subject, verb, and object in a language other than English. And when a group of kids standing together would like to share a secret comment, they start whispering in Kikuyu, forgetting that even if they did speak loudly, I would not be able to understant them.

Some kids address us directly with a “How are you” in falsly sharp voices. They propably percieve a nasal accent in stangers’speeches, so they think that modifying their voices is the proper way to speak to us… or they simply take a mischievous pleasure in talking to wazungu this way (which is most likely).

The other day, a woman criticized me for not speaking Kiswahili. “You must!” she declared. I answered that both of us understood three languages : Kikuyu, Kiswahili and English for her, French, Romanian and English for me; perhaps we could agree on English to communicate. She laughed heartily and nodded, seeing that I was not necessarily a fool.

In order to interact more with this people that welcomes me, I started learning a few words in Kiswahili – more than “hello”, “thank you” and “welcome”. Farmers Helping Farmers lent us a phrase book for Kiswahili to help us with communicating… and I carry mine with me religiously every day. The first time that Kamau (our collegue in Wakulima Dairy Ltd.) saw me read some grammar rules, he exclaimed with an obvious enthousiasm, “You’re learning Kiswahili!” Well, yes; at that moment I knew how to count up to four. One week later, Kamau asked me if I had finished the book. I told him to be realistic; such an exploit was not humanly possible. Still, I have made progress. I can now understand a tiny bit of the conversation between Shepelo and the farmers (especially when they use some English words like “mastitis”), I can say if the milk tested with the CMT is good, I can wish “Good sleep!” to Francis when he leaves in the evening… and I can count up to 29, which is enough for when the children tell me how old they are.

And if where words fail, we can still count on hands, looks and facial expressions. The joy that shows on the faces of the people I speak to, when I try everything I can to communicate – waving my hands about while I jabber – is well worth the difficulties we sometimes experience in understanding each other, and we can never stop smiling.


Geneviève C. L.

Obesity, Benjamin Disraeli, and I Didn’t Poop My Pants. I Swear.

By Kenya July 29, 2013 6:32 pm

We were sitting in the parking lot, waiting for someone to finish at the bank.  We were parked by one of many salons in the area.  Our driver turned to us and told us excitedly that the owner of the salon was very large.  We wondered what he meant – was she tall or wide?  He replied that she was ‘Not so tall, but taller than you.  And FAT.’  We awkwardly giggled, trying to downplay his comment.  Then he got even more excited, and jumped out of the car.  ‘Here, I will show you…Hey, HELLLOOOO…’ he shouted at the door.  We looked at each other in shock as we realized what was happening, right before our eyes.

Thankfully, she was not there.

A few days later, we were telling the laughable story to our second driver.  He laughed and agreed heartily.  ‘Yes, she is very fat.  She is the fattest lady in Murkurwe-ini.  She is number one.’

That wasn’t quite what we were going for.  But I guess everyone is known for something.
I travelled in Amsterdam for a few days before I came to Kenya.  On one of the main roads through town there was a quote by Benjamin Disraeli painted on the outside of a building:

‘Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.’

I immediately committed it to memory because I loved it so much.  This Saturday, we went on a safari and I took over 550 photos.  But it always happens that whenever I get the photos back onto my computer, I can’t shake a vague feeling of disappointment.  It’s not because they don’t serve as great memories, they just fail to capture the full measure of the moment.

They remind me of the things I have seen, but can’t remember – but they never carry the full weight of the memory for me.  Behind the printed paper of each photo is a smell, a taste, a bigger skyline, a colour or a feeling that is missed in the photo.  I will always remember the expanse of the sky, the clouds moving in from a distance, the smell of Kenyan soil, the giddiness of seeing a herd of zebras fighting and playing and running in front of you, the feeling of wild freedom that wiggles its way back into your heart whenever you have forgotten that nature is spectacular, and that YOU are a part of it.

And it’s not just in the big moments, it’s all the best and worst of the little things in each day.  It’s the sweat, it’s the ache of the day you missed home, it’s the story behind a relationship, a handshake, a shared meal or joke, it’s the calves and children that weave their snotty-nosed way into the parts of your heart you prefer to keep hidden.  These things just never make their way onto the photo like I always hope they will.  These are the things that I will remember, even though they aren’t things you can see.

Tonight, I spent the better part of a half an hour scrubbing poop out of my underwear.  Shepelo overheard my uncontrollable giggles and advised me with laughter in her eyes that it would leave a terrible stain, one that I could never remove.  A necessary clarification at this point: this was not my own, personal poop (although I will admit that the initial shock of the dark stain caused me a brief moment of anxiety about the integrity of my continence).  Thankfully though, none of us as of yet has been visited by the ever-threatening menace of ‘The Diarrheas.’  This is no small feat, and is actually a constant and niggling thought in the backs of our minds as we take tea, fruit, and food from a variety of unknown kitchens.

I guess in that regard, it’s no laughing manner.  Diarrhea is a common and life-threatening condition in many developing countries.  Many people (especially children) are susceptible to diarrhea and dehydration that can quickly lead to death in severe cases.  In fact, it’s one of the leading causes of childhood mortality worldwide.  Because of this, we have strictly adhered to a ‘peel it, cook it, boil it or leave it’ rule that has served us well, so far.

Unfortunately, after the half an hour was over, the stain remained.  It became clear to me that Shepelo was right, and that I would never be able to remove it.  Earlier in the morning, I had knelt down, sitting on my boot after stepping in manure.  The manure soaked right through my pants, and stained my pants and underwear in an unfortunate place.  I didn’t realize it at the time, so was in for a great shock when I made a pit stop in the outhouse a half an hour later.  I realized what had happened and tried to emotionally prepare myself to spend the rest of the day looking like I had pooped my pants.  Thankfully, they were already splattered haphazardly with manure – making it somewhat obvious (I hoped) that I hadn’t created this particular spot on my own.  Too embarrassed to ship this pair of underwear off to the lady who does our laundry (knowing what she would immediately assume upon looking at them), I did my best to scrub them clean.

Because this is not the’ something I want to become known for (the number one pants-pooper in Murkurwe-ini).


I’m not exactly sure I can pinpoint what it is that I want to become known for.  But I do know that when I look through my pictures at the people we have worked with, each friend and farmer will bring back a bigger memory than the picture can hold.

If Benjamin Disraeli is right, we are on our way to becoming great travellers.