Reflections from the Red Soils: My VETS volunteer journey in Ghana
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Reflections from the Red Soils: My VETS volunteer journey in Ghana

#VETSVolunteerVoices aims to bring you the stories of our passionate VETS program volunteers from the field. This blog was written by Maria Stanborough, a Communications Volunteer in Ghana (February 2024). 

It's 42 degrees Celsius. Two veterinarian volunteers are presenting animal care information to local farmers, mostly women. Stretched out around them is dry red sand, with the occasional wizened Baobab tree with its thick trunk and extensive branches, all naked at this time of year. They look like grizzled ancient ancestors of trees and are sacred in parts of Africa. A Ghanaian farmer complains about his birds flying away from their clean indoor area to nearby trees. Keisha, one of the veterinarians, questions him.

“Do you own your birds, or do they own you?” This directness is typical of Ghanaians and is well received by the other farmers.

In February of this year, I volunteer in northeastern Ghana for two weeks as a communications specialist with Veterinarians without Borders (VWB)'s VETS program - specifically, my role is to support VWB's local partner, the Ghana Poultry Network (GAPNET). I have always wanted to do international development work to better understand the world around me. During my placement, I write, photograph, and record the work of three Canadian veterinarians and VETS volunteers who share their animal care knowledge and experience with rural farmers. My teammates are, from oldest to youngest, Barrie Carnat, Gerry Smith, and Keisha Harris.

PHOTOS: (1) The unforgettable Baobab tree; (2) Barrie sharing knowledge; (3) Gerry leading a workshop; (4) Keisha facilitating training.

Barrie is from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and has been retired from veterinarian practice for several years. He speaks softly, wears professorial glasses, and peppers his talk with stories from an international context. This is his second posting to Ghana.

Gerry is a semi-retired veterinarian from rural Alberta. His work experience is perhaps the most hands-on of the three, and his workshops focus on the day-to-day of animal care – how many different types of mites can cause mange, how to birth a calf when it is in distress. Gerry previously volunteered in Tanzania with VWB.

Keisha is a new graduate from the Ontario Veterinarian College in Guelph. She spent three months in northeastern Ghana the previous summer with two other student volunteers and liked it so much she came back with this much older team. She has learned the Ghanaian way of talking.

The four of us stay in Bolgatanga, one of the larger cities in northeastern Ghana, population 140,000. Every day we leave our hotel and are driven 30 to 60 minutes to rural communities north of Bolgatanga. When we arrive at our destinations, there are between 40-80 people at each workshop, mostly women farmers, gathered under trees and in buildings, anywhere to avoid the direct sun. We are in Ghana during the dry season. The rains stopped last October and by our visit in February, the earth is dry, reddish sand. The wind whips up dust, causing a perpetual haze. At the end of each day, we drive 30 to 60 minutes back to town. I sit in the car and sweat while doing nothing.

The veterinarian volunteers facilitate up to six workshops at new locations each day, focusing on the most common diseases the farmers must deal with and how to prevent their spread. The volunteers speak through translators to crowds that listen attentively. My role is to document the talks and interview participants, mostly women as the program is focused on ensuring women farmers have the information they need to succeed.

PHOTOS: (1) Maria interviewing a local farmer; (2) Maria resting in the shade; (3) Maria (left) with Barrie, Keisha, and Gerry; (4) Local women and farmers attending a One Health training.

The most common diseases in this part of the country are Peste des Petits Ruminants (PPR) in goats and sheep, Rabies in dogs, Newcastle in birds (chicken and guinea fowl), Foot and Mouth in cows, and Anthrax in the unfortunate animal that eats from contaminated ground. For this volunteer posting, the veterinarians provide workshops on how to minimize the impact of these and other diseases.

The locals are subsistence crop farmers growing maize, millet, cassava, and yams. They supplement their income and their diets with other fruit and vegetables, and with animals. Animals are seen to provide financial security for the farmers when crops may fail, which is increasingly common due to changing weather patterns. Now the rainy season may start as late as July or August instead of April, and the yield is more uncertain. But the animals are no guarantee of money if three-quarters of them could die from disease. The professional VETS volunteers are here to share how animal husbandry practices may help keep the animals alive. Knowing the symptoms of disease, separating sick animals from healthy ones, keeping animal sleeping areas clean, and taking care of sores and infections are some of the things the workshops focus on.

Along with the workshops for farmers, Gerry provides advanced training in animal care and disease prevention to the Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWS). The CAHWS have already had some training in animal care and are available to help farmers with the health needs of their animals.

After each of the workshops, we are thanked by the farmers either with a song, a dance, or expressions of appreciation. That we have come from Canada, that we have learned some of their language, that we gave our time, and that we might draw attention to the hard subsistence lives in the sunbaked red soils is appreciated.

My trip to Ghana has forever changed me. I am a little shocked at my ignorance before I came here. But I know more about Ghana than I did two weeks ago. I also know myself more than I did two weeks ago. The hot temperatures feel very challenging to me coming from temperate Vancouver, Canada, but the warmth and generosity of the people, and the chance to do something meaningful, has meant I see the world and my role in it very differently. I have a greater sense of my own privilege as well as my role in doing what I can to create a more equitable world.

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.

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