#VETSVolunteerVoices aims to bring you the stories of our passionate VETS program volunteers from the field! In their own words, volunteers reflect on their work, development challenges, and the personal growth that they have experienced during their placements. Learn more about our VETS, (i.e., Volunteers Engaged in Gender-Responsive Technical Solutions), program and the important work being carried out by Canadian volunteers and local partners in Cambodia, Ghana, Kenya, Laos, Senegal, and Vietnam.
VETS VOLUNTEER: Marley Blok (UBC, 2023)
PLACEMENT: VETS YVP, May-August 2023, Ghana
INTERVIEW DATE: July 22, 2023
Q: What motivated you to be a VETS Volunteer?
A: During my last year of veterinary studies at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I realized I wanted to expand the base of knowledge in animal welfare and One Health that UBC provided. At the time, I was already volunteering with Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO), which operates across Canada. CVO improves the health of homeless individuals through veterinary care for their pets and connects them with social services. This volunteer work, together with my academic studies, inspired me to deepen my knowledge of One Health and international development – the links between human health and animal health, in particular.
VWB’s VETS (Volunteers Engaged in Gender Responsive Technical Solutions) project caught my attention because it aims to sustainably improve the economic and social well-being of marginalized people, particularly women and girls. Since I plan to pursue further studies to become a Veterinarian, the VETS program appealed to me as it provides an understanding of the veterinary profession in a global context, while also allowing me to grow my technical skills. I also appreciated that it is a sustainable project that would continue long after my placement was completed.
Q: What has your work (placement) been in Ghana?
A: Currently I am in the Upper East region of Ghana living in a community called Yua. We are partnered with one of VWB's local partners called the Ghana Poultry Network (GAPNET). Together, we are using a One Health model to improve the animal production system and enhance the social and economic well-being of women farmers. We have just completed a vaccination campaign for sheep and goats. Working with local Community Animal Health Workers, para-veterinarians, and veterinary officers, we vaccinated over 5000 animals across 13 communities in Ghana's Upper East Region. Alongside my co-volunteers, I also participated in training sessions for women farmers with a particular focus on biosecurity and animal husbandry techniques for poultry and small ruminants.
Additionally, we are conducting a One Health research project that evaluates the impact of Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWs) on disease surveillance in the Northeast region of Ghana, specifically concerning production animals. This has involved administering questionnaires and semi-structured interviews to community members, CAWHS, para-veterinarians, and veterinarians. Really interesting, and an incredible opportunity to understand the health challenges faced by farmers, families, and communities!
Marley interviewing two Community Animal Health Workers in Sirigu for the One Health research project.
Q: Please share a personal experience that was extremely significant to you.
A: When we arrived in Yua, we were told that the rains were delayed, and many community members were concerned about their crop production because of the delay in planting. After a full month, it finally rained! Observing the communities rejoice over the rain was an extremely significant moment for me. I was asked by the family next door to help them hand sow the seeds. The process of hand sowing seeds proved to be a labor-intensive task, requiring both physical effort and patience. As I worked alongside the local women, I gained a deep appreciation of the hard work they put in day after day to sustain their families and communities. The connection to the land was evident in their actions and the stories they shared, passing down traditional farming knowledge from generation to generation.
Additionally, witnessing the complete dependency on the weather for a successful harvest was eye-opening. It highlighted the vulnerability of rural communities to external factors beyond their control and it deepened my understanding of the importance of sustainable agricultural practices and climate resilience. In also underscored the value of additional sources of family income through small ruminants (like goats and chickens) in rural Ghana.
For me personally, participating in the sowing process revealed a strong sense of community and unity among the villagers. Everyone came together to help each other out on their farms, fostering a spirit of cooperation and support. I was humbled by the way the community worked together, and it’s something I’ll always remember.
Q: What is a key strength of the VETS program in Ghana?
A: One strength of the VETS program is the training and introduction of Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWs) – these are volunteer professionals who support veterinarians and promote One Health to farmers, families, and communities. To date, VETS has trained 41 Community Animal Health Workers in Ghana – 34 of which are women – through their local partners. This is significant, because CAHWs help to reduce the workload of the Veterinary Technical Officers. That is, Vet Techs can devote more time to complicated cases in the field, while simpler tasks (such as vaccinations and wound care) are tended to by the CAWHs.
Notably, the VETS program also prioritizes community-based training – training farmers, women’s groups, and community members in biosecurity, animal husbandry, and climate-smart agriculture. In fact, I have heard many positive comments from the community about the information they learned in training, and how they have applied this knowledge to practices on their farms. This is the slow, organic way that real change happens!
VETS volunteers Marley Blok (2nd from left), Keisha Harris (center), and Sandra Nyman (2nd from right) delivering a training session alongside co-facilitators and local partners, Dr. Anthony Akunzule, GAPNET Executive Director (left) and Isaaka Aganda, GAPNET Field Officer (right).
Q: Did this experience change you in any way?
A: Yes, living in Ghana and experiencing diverse, local communities with their unique languages, cultures, and traditions has indeed changed me in significant ways. Witnessing the resilience and efforts made by these communities to preserve their heritage, through oral storytelling and other methods, even in the face of historical challenges like colonization, has deeply impacted my perspective on the value of community and tradition. The experience has taught me the importance of respecting and cherishing cultural differences, as they form an integral part of a community's collective identity and history.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking of joining the VETS program?
A: One piece of advice that I would give to someone who is thinking of joining the VETS program is to have realistic expectations of the outcomes of their placement. Many issues that VETS is addressing in Ghana are deeply ingrained in the local culture and can sometimes be met with resistance from community members. It is important to remember that volunteers should use this as an opportunity to find connections, build trust with peers and open themselves to learning through the process of change. Change isn't linear and it happens both ways. It can be hard and take time. But it’s worth it!
Q: Now that you’re near the end of your placement, how do family and friends back home view your time in Ghana?
VETS is a 7-year initiative (2020-2027) to improve the economic and social well-being of marginalized people, particularly women and girls, in 6 countries across Africa and Asia. In collaboration with local partners, the program is implemented through 190 Canadian volunteers on international assignment and is generously funded by Global Affairs Canada. Learn more here.