Learning the Ropes in Uganda

By Shauna Thomas with Jamie Neufeld, Kyla Kotchea, and Veronica Pickens

In March, four strangers all said yes to the same question. Two months later that answer landed them all on a different continent in 3 days old clothes with not a shower in site. Besides their poor appearance (and even poorer smell?), their smiles could be seen from a mile away. After a month of grueling final exams, eager fundraising, and last minute “Oh no I forgot!” shopping trips; they had arrived in Uganda.

I digress… as I’m sure you have figured out, these four strangers are this year’s Uganda VWB goat pass-on project interns. My name is Shauna Thomas, I am from outside of Ottawa going into my 2nd year at the Ontario Veterinary College. Two of the group are from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Jamie Neufeld, a Saskatoon local, also going into her 2nd year; and our resident doctor, Kyla Kotchea from Fort Nelson, BC who just finished her 4th year! Last but not least, Veronica Pickens is going into 3rd year at the Ontario Veterinary College and the sole American VWB intern this year from Philadelphia, PA.

We arrived in Uganda on May 12th after a week of training at Cuso International in Ottawa. The first weekend we arrived in Uganda, we landed in Entebbe and had four days there to adjust before travelling to Mbarara, where our placement would begin. That first weekend set the scene for how our time here would flow and how the four of us would get along. By this I mean that instead of taking the days to deal with jetlag, adjust to the local food and rest….we unanimously decided to spend three of the days on a safari in Murchinson Falls, 6 hours north of Entebbe. The weekend was a spontaneous start and we’ve been travelling awesome together ever since. Pic 1

Jamie got to fulfill a life-long dream of seeing wild giraffes while in Murchinson Falls National Park; seen here a bachelor herd on the savannah.Pic 2

Silas, our guide and good friend, stopped the car on the side of the highway because he knew four vet students would love to see the baby tortoise he spotted in the grass…he was right!  Above,  Veronica, Silas, and the tortoise.

Ugandan solution to the car not starting in the morning…”everybody start pushing!” (below)Pic 3

A bit of a larger group this year, we’ve had to figure the ropes out ourselves as timing didn’t work out for Dr. Card (project leader) or Laura McDonald(a WCVM grad and 5 year project participant) to come over with us. After getting settled and meeting with the right people, we are well on our way. I’ll admit the first week here in Mbarara got off to a slow start, due to a combination of lack of meetings to attend that week and the adjustment to African time (a very very real thing). As of now we have attended three women’s group meetings out of a total of 17. Although we still have to meet the majority of groups, our June/July is filling up FAST. Our first day of work here we met with Vivianne, who is our translator/facilitator/local friend, and started to plan the next three months. About an hour in we realized that one of the women’s groups actually met that afternoon! We were eager to get started and decided to attend the meeting. It has become very apparent in these past few weeks that traveling from point A to point B means stopping at points C,D,E,F along the way. As such, we all piled into our trusty Toyota Rav4 and headed down the left side of the road (an adjustment for sure) to the meeting. On the way we stopped to meet with Boaz, the founder/head of the Foundation for Aids Orphaned Children (FAOC), the organization we work alongside here in Uganda. After a few more stops we finally made it to our first meeting. Although the meeting started at 3, we arrived at 4:30…and were still not the last people there -..…African time! To say we received a warm welcome when we arrived at the meeting would be an understatement; there were endless hugs and a chorus of “we prayed for your safe travels”. The more people we meet the more that the saying ‘Ugandans are the most welcoming people’ comes true.  Below, we posed we posed for a group picture of the Kyabutoto women’s group after the meeting.

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For those reading that are unfamiliar with what exactly the goat pass on project is, it is a development project aimed at rural Ugandan women to help empower as well as develop an income generating source. The ultimate goal is to provide them with the tools and means to improve the quality of life for themselves and their family. Each village we work with has a group of these women who meet once a month to discuss successes and short-comings in the past month as well as pay their membership fees. These fees (range from $0.30-$2 CAD) are pooled into the group’s revolving fund that accumulates month by month and is available to for members to take out loans to pay school/medical fees etc. Additionally, every year a number of beneficiaries (who have met the criteria for raising goats) are given a male and female goat as a loan. To repay this loan the beneficiaries must sell their first-born male kid and give that money into the revolving fund as well as pass on their first born female-kid to another member of the group.

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Kasande Benardette (above) a Kyabutoto member with grandchildren and a few neighbouring kids eager to jump in front of the camera.

The goals for our group this year are: continue to promote the vaccination campaign (chlostridia and brucella), test/gather information on brucella prevalence, carry out an impact study and expand the PADS project. More information about some of those will come in future blogs. Admittedly, we have taken on a lot this year; however, with each part so key to the sustainability and success of the project, our hopes are high for how much we can accomplish. Our first goal has already provided our first minor roadblock as there has been a country-wide shortage of brucella vaccine since January! We have begun looking to import it from neighboring countries (at a steep price increase), so we will update you on the outcomes of that in the future.

In the midst of our first weeks we found a few free days and headed south to Bwindi Impenetrable Forest -arguably the coolest name for a national park ever! Four hours of trekking through the untouched jungle meant we got to spend an hour with a troop of Mountain Gorillas!! Impressive animals at a distance and even more impressive when one slides down the tree next to you and stands not even a foot away! If the gorillas weren’t enough, the hike itself was amazing with the views and all the vegetation. We say that now, but had you asked us after we climbed 2 km of straight vine-infested uphill….I think we would have had a few other words for it.  Below,  two mountain Gorrillas from the Bitukura troop we tracked.Pic 6crop
Pic 7At left — a few Canadian Vet students looking a tad lost in the Ugandan Jungle.

As I write this; watching women walk by carrying the heaviest items on their heads and listening to the slew of flatbed trucks/boda-bodas hitting the speed bumps that plague Ugandan roads, I sit with a smile excited about the country and people lives we get to be a part of for the next little while.

Until next time,

Shauna, Veronica, Jamie, Kyla

Pic 8cropLeft to right — Jamie, Veronica, Kyla, and Shauna in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest,
P.S. If you are interested in helping with the pass on project and donating towards the purchase or sponsoring a goat ($50 US), please follow this link! All money contributed by July 20, 2016 will go directly to purchase goats for our women’s groups here.