In September 2017, Dr. Amy Lowe and Dr. Gerry Smith arrived in Tanzania, bound for the southern highland town of Tukuyu. They were working with a partner of VWB, Africa Bridge, an organization that helps the most vulnerable children in rural villages in three wards: Lufingo, Kisondela and Kambasegela, in the Rungwe district, through supporting their families with agricultural co-ops. Africa Bridge has been operating for over a decade in this area and has made some real and sustainable difference in the wards in which they previously worked, but felt they could use some veterinary assistance in their livestock programs. Below is their story, written by Dr. Gerry Smith.
We managed to have lots of laughs and fun along the way, something that is essential if you are to survive the challenges that come with working in contexts which are so different from what we are used to in Canada! There is no way to avoid the difficulties of working in an unfamiliar place: work culture, values, traditions, language barriers and isolation/homesickness are a reality, but we have tried to minimize those by embracing as much of the culture, language, food and drink as we could. Visiting the market, buying food, having clothes made and feeling the joy and zest for life that exists here is a fantastic antidote to seeing the desperate conditions and the daily struggles that families experience in the area where we work. We tried to explore the area on most days off, with hikes to various hot springs, mountains, rivers, rock formations and visits to lakes, beaches, coffee plantations and other local attractions.
Some of the most rewarding moments have been listening to stories related to us by the participants in the programs; hearing the pride in a grandfather’s voice as he tells us that milk sales from his cow enabled his grandson to complete schooling and be accepted into University, the first family member ever to have done so! Or the three teenage grandchildren explaining that they do most of the work for the cow because their bibi has arthritis, but that it is OK because the cow is going to allow them to finish school and pursue their dreams. Or the single mother who has eggs to sell and plans to move her family out of the thatch/mud hut into a brick house that she can now afford to build.
Of course, the highlight of any day is interacting with the children, they find joy in everyday life and remind us to appreciate what we have. We all enter these types of projects with lofty goals of changing the world, but soon realize that the best we can do is change the situation for small groups of individuals, with the hope that if that happens enough times there will be lasting and systemic improvement.
The most important initial steps in becoming involved in this type of project are to simply watch, ask and listen. We spent most of the first two months meeting with our partner organization’s staff, agriculture workers, veterinarians in Tanzania, government representatives, village leadership and other organizations doing similar work. We attended meetings and village visits with the Ward Steering Committees in the process of identifying families most in need of assistance, meetings with the Most Vulnerable Children Committee who are tasked with administering the program locally and training sessions with co-op members. We spent time evaluating data that had been collected on the livestock co-op production. Oh, and we also visited the farms, examined the animals and talked with the farmers – something that we thought we would spent most of our time doing as veterinarians, but which is actually only a small part of the project. We were always welcomed very warmly and thanked profusely for our participation. We were also able to hear about and witness first hand the challenges in this kind of work.
We worked off site for most of December and January, doing more research and consultation, compiling and organizing information to be included in the training programs and manuals, as well as developing the health program. We attended conferences and visited other veterinarians and projects in both Tanzania and Kenya. We also took time to travel and to take advantage of the amazing diversity in geography, vegetation, wildlife and people that exists in this country.
Dr. Amy had to return to Canada but continued to work remotely on the project, Dr. Gerry was able to head back to the area to finish the on-site work, returning to Tukuyu in February. We worked extensively with our Africa Bridge team to finalize the training curriculum and manuals, reviewed our recommendations for health and production and refined the data collection, monitoring and evaluation tools. The training manuals will be translated and implemented in the new ward, Kambasegela, as the project reaches that point in 2018. Other recommendations and tools will be introduced where and when possible based on timing, budget issues and cultural adaptation. The implementation of change will be a challenge, both for the project participants and the organization and will take some time, but we are confident it will make a difference in livestock health and production. The next group of volunteers will be able to build on, refine, assess and revise as needed the plans we have initiated.
It was so wonderful to get to return to some of the villages, do some mentoring visits, participate in training sessions, reconnect with the warm and grateful people and be reminded of the reason we do this…to improve the lives of the children in need.