First Uganda Student Post of the Summer!

Well, us interns have been in Uganda for about a month now so we’re definitely long overdue for a blog entry! First off we’ll introduce ourselves. There is Sarah, who is going into her third year at the WCVM in Saskatchewan, and this is her second year working on the goat project. Brittany is also vet student from the WCVM who is going into her third year, and lastly there is Guylene (Lena) who is going into her fourth year at the FMV in Montreal.

Sarah was the first to arrive in Uganda, followed by Brittany and then Lena. We were also joined by Dr. Laura McDonald, a WCVM graduate who has been working with the goat project for five years now. She would be here with us for the first month helping us to get settled in and introduce us to any important contacts in Mbarara, where we’ll be stationed for the next three months.

Kyera community meeting
Kyera Community Meeting

In a nutshell, the Goat Pass-On Project strives to help the most impoverished women of rural Uganda – mainly widows and orphans – and we help them to start mini businesses by raising livestock. Through fundraising, us interns will raise money to purchase goats which we will “loan” to beneficiaries in hopes that they can keep them alive (sometimes much harder than you would think) and have them reproduce. To qualify to receive goats, villagers need to first invest in and build a goat pen following our recommendations, but we’ll go into this more closer to the pass-out. To pay back their loan, they must give one kid to another beneficiary in their community and also sell another kid and put the money they earned into a revolving fund. The revolving fund is essentially a community bank account that all the members in the community are required to pay into and can borrow money from, and pay back with interest. This fund is important for the success of the community because it gives people the opportunity to start another small business, invest in their children’s education, borrow if they need medical treatment, etc. The people in the community who are part of this group have meetings once a month to discuss how the revolving fund is doing, who’s ready to pass on or receive goats, organize and vote on loans, and so on. We also organize vaccine clinics, training days and a lot more that will come later in the summer.

Us interns work with 17 different rural communities in the Insingiro district surrounding Mbarara. The community groups where established by one of our partner organizations, Foundation for Aids Orphaned Children (aka FAOC), who we have worked closely with in the past. Unfortunately, FAOC has sort of dissolved over the last year due a drop in funding, and at the moment they have no current projects. We will still be working with some of the staff this summer, which will provide them with a wage for the next couple months, but otherwise us interns will be guiding the project largely on our own this time.

team with joseph and other beneficiaries
Team with Joseph and Other Beneficiaries

The first few days in Mbarara consisted largely of reconnecting with the FAOC staff, particularly Vivian, Joseph and Francis, and they helped us begin organizing our summer. Vivian welcomed us back with a delicious feast of traditional food, and Joseph surprised us with homemade lunch on our first day in the field. It was so nice to receive such a warm welcome to the project. Other than a few formalities and getting settled in we have been going to each community and speaking with their chairperson and/or paravets. We wanted to let everyone know that we would be back for the summer and would be attending their next community meeting to assess any problems they’ve had over the last year, see how their goats were doing, and talk about upcoming vaccine clinics we’re planning.

After only a week on the project we traveled to Queen Elizabeth National Park for the weekend to work with Dr. Siefert, a vet who runs the Uganda Carnivore Program doing research and monitoring large carnivores including lions, leopards and hyenas. Dr. Siefert is originally from Germany, but has been living in Uganda for almost 40 years working endlessly in the QE park trying to protect the wildlife in the area. His prime focus has been on the dwindling lion population that has been a target of poachers, and poisonings by local farmers frustrated by the lions attacking their cattle. Dr. Siefert asked us if we could help him start up a goat pass-on project in three of the communities in the park. The purpose of the project here would be for different reasons other that female empowerment; the main focus would be working with the community to improve wildlife conservation efforts. If we can help them protect their livestock from the wild animals, hopefully they will stop harming the local wildlife. We spent the weekend with him visiting the communities and meeting the members, and assessing the land so we can tailor the project to their needs, as the environment is quite different from the ones we have been working with around Mbarara. One of the biggest challenges we will have to overcome is risk of dangerous wild animals attacking the goats, since leopards and lions live in the area. Also, the grass that is a staple of the goat diet here is also one of the favourites of the elephants, so we must plan to have the goats and the grasses well protected. We are taking all the information we gathered in the visits and are preparing a training day for a few select members of the community to help them get ready to receive goats in the following months.

Aside from the community visits, we spent our time following Dr. Siefert around the park trying to absorb every word he said, as he is a wealth of knowledge and incredibly inspiring to listen to. Our first night we all had dinner together, talking about everything from problems in the park, Ugandan politics, religion, and of course wildlife, that is, until our dinner was interrupted by a wild elephant running through the outdoor restaurant. African problems, eh?

As of now, we have spoken with all of the communities in Mbarara we are going to work with and are slowly making our way through each monthly community meeting. We use Joseph, one of the paravets, as our translator at the meetings, and we really couldn’t get any work done without him! He’s a wonderful man who believes in female empowerment and is a really good motivational speaker, so he’s great to have on the team.

Laura conducting community meeting
Laura Conducting a Community Meeting

A lot of the problems occurring are the exact same ones as last year (and according to Laura, are the same as every year prior). Thefts tend to be high in some communities, dog bites are still too frequent – both of which can be mostly avoided if the beneficiaries keep their goats in pens instead of letting them free graze. Two other major problems are goats dying from “sudden death” (aka clostridium) and having abortions due to brucella infection. Both of these are avoidable diseases, as they are two things we vaccinate for. Convincing communities to keep goats in pens and vaccinate them is a lot harder than one would think, as we have to change their long standing perspective on raising goats, but for those beneficiaries that listen to what we teach, the benefits are incredible. Some beneficiaries that have gone on to be community leaders and taken on political roles, are able to send their children to school and now live a much more comfortable life in good homes. The best part of each meeting is hearing the success stories of the members and it thrills us to hear how far so many people have come. Saphina is one of these success stories and she invited us into her home for tea made with fresh milk from one of the new cows she’s been able to purchase over the last year. She thanked us again and again and told us how the goat project drastically improved her life; she has a beautiful fenced-in home, lots of livestock, and a great job.

Saphina- most successfull beneficiary
Saphina, our most successful beneficiarySaphina's great goat pen
Saphina’s great goat pen

We have a much smaller team compared to last year, and as such and have limited resources, so we are trying to concentrate our efforts on the communities who are the most motivated and want to listen to our recommendations. Some groups still view the project as a handout and are uninterested in taking our advice, despite us emphasizing that this is a business opportunity and the goats are a loan. We can only help these people if they want to help themselves. As the saying goes, “give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. But teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”Drawing blood for brucella testing
Drawing blood for brucella testing

Goats haven’t been the only animals we have been working with so far. Joseph has acquired two guard dogs since last year, so we offered to neuter the male to keep him from straying from home to mate. After a bit of a hunt through town we managed to scrape together enough instruments and medications to perform a crude neuter on the dog. The day we performed the surgery, Joseph had a neighbour who also wanted to have his dog neutered so as a team we completed two surgeries, out in the open air, on the Ugandan ground, with swarms of flies and a few children buzzing around.  Doing these surgeries gave us a great appreciation for all the surgical equipment and supplies we have available back home, and the lack of monitoring equipment definitely tested our skills.  As Laura says, “field surgery makes good surgeons!” And we’re pleased to say that both dogs are still alive and well.
Field surgery on Joseph's dog
Field surgery on Joseph’s dog

Well, we think this entry is getting long enough, and we promise to stay more on top of entries for the rest of the summer!