#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: Dr. Keisha Harris (OVC, 2023)
PLACEMENT: VETS YVP, May-August 2023, Ghana
INTERVIEW DATE: July 24, 2023
A: I was initially motivated to become a VETs volunteer because of its alignment with my current degree program and career aspirations. As a student enrolled in the dual degree DVM/MPH program at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC), my passion lies in working with the Canadian government to contribute to national and international food production and safety, with a strong emphasis on the One Health perspective. The VETs program encompasses not only animal health but also addresses critical factors influencing it, such as social equity, gender equity, and environmental health, among others. This holistic approach deeply resonated with me, as it reflects the comprehensive and interconnected nature of animal and public health issues.
Furthermore, the prospect of cross-cultural learning and contributing my veterinary expertise to Ghana while immersing myself in their healthcare practices and rich culture excites me. This experience will undoubtedly enrich my understanding of global health challenges and solutions, allowing me to bring invaluable insights back to Canada.
Q: What has your work (placement) been in Ghana?
A: The work I have undertaken in Ghana has been incredibly diverse and enriching. We started our summer with six weeks of assisting the National Veterinary Service Directorate in implementing the Petite Peste de Petite Ruminants (PPR) vaccine program, which aims to eradicate PPR in many West-African nations. The program involved administering one million vaccines, provided by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to various communities. Starting at 6 am, we would reach community meeting points where locals had their animals ready for vaccination. Working diligently alongside veterinary officers and Community Animal Health Workers until 12 pm, we successfully vaccinated over 5000 animals across 13 communities during this period.
Following the vaccination initiative, we shifted our focus to empowering women's groups through training seminars. Traveling to different communities in the Upper East Region, we met animal caretakers and those interested in becoming caretakers, most of which were women and discussed ways to improve biosecurity and husbandry practices. These efforts aimed to enhance farm productivity and profitability, fostering sustainable livelihoods for the women and their communities.
During the summer, alongside our other projects we conducted research on the current state of disease surveillance in the Upper East Region and the impacts of Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWs) since their introduction. Throughout our time here, we administered questionnaires and conducted focus group interviews with various stakeholders, including Chiefs, Opinion Leaders, Farmers, Veterinarians, Para-Veterinarians, and CAHWs. The objective of this research is to identify the successes, limitations, and gaps in disease surveillance with the aim of refining the CAHW program for the benefit of all involved.
Q: Did this experience change you in any way?
A: Yes, this experience provided me with a strong understanding and a realistic perspective on gender equity campaigns abroad. Growing up in a household with little male presence and strong, independent women, I had limited exposure to traditional gender roles. Consequently, I held a singular view that gender equity should progress quickly and align with the life of a North American woman. However, living, interacting, and forming friendships with members of the local community during my three months in Ghana has completely shifted my outlook.
I now recognize that gender equity is deeply intertwined with culture and way of life in many places, and genuine change requires a cultural shift that must be driven at the local level. What I may perceive as empowerment to a Canadian woman might not align with the priorities and perspectives of women in other parts of the world. This eye-opening experience has underscored the importance of respecting and understanding diverse cultural contexts in gender equity initiatives.
Q: What did you learn?
A: My time in Ghana has been a true learning experience, surpassing the knowledge I could offer. I discovered similarities between veterinary issues in Ghana and Canada, both facing crises due to a shortage of professionals to meet community needs. However, Ghana's challenges are compounded by the absence of private clinics, limited resources for professionals (i.e., fuel, transportation, basic equipment/medication), and inadequate capital for farmers to access necessary services. Despite these significant barriers, I have been inspired by the remarkable determination and resourcefulness of the veterinary professionals and farmers as they find innovative ways to care for animals using low-cost and low-resource alternatives.
The traditional agricultural practices that have been passed down for generations in the Upper East region have also intrigued me, with local knowledge incorporating the use of indigenous plants for treating minor ailments and natural products like ash for mite control and food preservation for the long dry season. The resiliency, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of the locals in overcoming hurdles have left a lasting impression on me. I am eager to bring this valuable knowledge into my future career, furthering my commitment to addressing challenges and making a positive impact in the field of veterinary medicine.
Q: Please share a personal experience that was extremely significant to you.
A: During my time in Ghana, I had the opportunity to spend considerable time with a community leader. He initially embodied strong traditional values and beliefs, yet his involvement with GAPNET (our local VETS partner organization) and active participation in VETS activities led to remarkable changes. Over time, this community leader gained insights and knowledge about gender roles and the importance of promoting equality within the household and the community. As a result, he began implementing small but meaningful changes in his own daily life. For instance, he encouraged his sons to participate in household chores such as cooking, laundry, and sweeping the house. Similarly, he extended opportunities to his daughters, emphasizing their education as a priority.
Witnessing these changes was truly inspiring, as it demonstrated how the participatory nature of the VETS program could bring about positive shifts in attitudes towards gender equity. The program provides a platform for open dialogues and discussions, allowing men, women, and community leaders to reflect on their beliefs and customs and embrace more equitable practices. For me, this experience highlighted the power of the VETS program to foster not only sustainable animal health practices but also social change and gender equity at the grassroots level.
Q: What is a key strength of the VETS program in Ghana?
A: One of the program's key strengths is its ability to empower women economically through the Community Animal Health Worker (CAHW) program. Through their involvement as CAHWs, women gain the opportunity to work and actively participate in household income generation. This newfound financial independence not only improves their own lives but also enhances the overall quality of life for their families. For instance, the extra income earned by women CAHWs can be utilized to provide better education and healthcare for their children and meet other essential household needs. In fact, as some women gain valuable skills in animal health care, they pursue further education and training in related fields. For example, a mother we encountered expressed her aspirations to utilize her CAHW position as a stepping-stone into an animal health care program, ultimately turning it into a sustainable career path.
Notably, I also want to emphasize that the CAHW program transforms women into stewards of their communities. As they take on the responsibility of providing health services to animals, they become trusted and reliable members of the community. Their expertise in keeping animals healthy directly impacts the livelihoods of community members who depend on animals for their sustenance and income. This contributes to a stronger sense of community cohesion and support.
Q: What advice do you have for someone who is thinking of joining the VETS program?
A: Joining the Young Volunteers Program is an enriching and rewarding experience that offers invaluable knowledge in both technical and cultural aspects. To make the most of this experience, it's essential to approach it with an open mind. Unlike merely fixing a problem with your skills, the program integrates you into a local community through local partners. You will be immersed in the local way of life, culture, food, and language, working alongside on-the-ground partners to address local health issues from a one health perspective. Expect to learn far more than you can impart, as the locals introduce you to their current methods and solutions for global health challenges.
A VETS volunteer placement is a journey that fosters personal growth, cultural understanding, and professional development. Embrace the adventure, and you will come away with invaluable knowledge and memories that will stay with you forever.
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.