In January Malawi and northern Mozambique were struck by the largest floods in a generation. This caused almost 200,000 people to become homeless. Now there is a cholera outbreak further worsening conditions. This was in largely rural regions were people are farmers and depend on their livestock for their income. They don't have bank accounts so often their “money in the bank” is in the form of cattle and goats. Little veterinary care reaches these areas normally and none has occurred since the floods. Recently LSPCA (Lilongwe Society for the Protection and Care of Animals) in conjunction with HSI (Humane Society International) and WTG (Welttierschutz Gesselschaft) went south to figure out what they could do to help those affected by the floods. Some districts were being helped but no relief had gone to Balaka, Zomba, or Machinga agriculture districts so this is where our attention was focused.
Kathleen and I went down to Zomba on a Monday afternoon via minibus. Public transportation is always an adventure in Africa. The bus does not leave until every seat has been sold and by that I mean there are 5 people for every 4 seats. The drive takes about 4 hours in a car but it was closer to 7 hours in the bus and that was without any breakdowns. We talked to someone else a few days later that went the same route and it took them 14 hours with 2 breakdowns. We met Jender in Zomba. Jender is the project coordinator at LSPCA for the Disaster Relief and he had already been down in the Balaka and Zomba districts for a week. We ended up working in Zomba for one day and in Machinga district for 3 days.
Kathleen and I have always been interested in and talked about doing some sort of relief work in Africa. This turned out to be out first chance where we were able to actually do this. The plan was that LSPCA and its partners would supply the drugs and the Malawi government through their agriculture field offices would supply some manpower and get the farmers and villages organized. The diseases mainly effecting the animals were the sorts of things that occur after too much rain. Foot Rot, Lumpy Skin Disease, and especially intestinal parasites were at high levels. The poultry in this area is also periodically effected by New Castles Disease which tends to kill most of them. The plan was to deworm as many animals as possible, treat the ones that needed it with antibiotics, manage any wounds, and vaccinate the poultry against New Castles Disease. Each district is broken down into different EPAs (Extension Planning Areas). We would visit a different EPA each day. Some people would go through the villages door to door on bicycles or motorcycles to vaccinate the chickens. This is done by placing a drop of I-2 vaccine in their eye.
While they did this Jender, Kathleen, and I would go to the local dip tank where there would be a cattle chute where we could treat the cattle. Large herds of goats would also be gathered there to be treated. Goats and sheep were given oral dewormer.
The cattle were injected with ivermectin and if they had other problems then I would figure out what needed to be given. When we would first arrive we would often meet the local chief (often a woman) and the head of the herders association.
Some of the herders were very organized and worked together as a team. The cows were moved through the chute efficiently and we were able to treat all the animals. Other EPAs were each herder to himself and it was harder to treat as many animals. We didn't like the way they would hit them with sticks at times and would occasionally make suggestions on how to move them in a less violent way.
Over the course of the 10 day intervention we managed to treat 2172 cattle, 37963 goats, 1453 sheep, 1871 pigs, and 34513 chickens. Our goal beyond treating as many animals as possible was to also help the local AVOs (Assistant Veterinary Officers) and AHSAs (Animal Health Surveillance Assistants) improve their techniques and skills. It was also to start more regular veterinary care by starting treatment now but then leaving additional drugs for future use.
To get to these areas would involve driving 2 hours down a “road”. It would start as a dirt road, become a dirt track, and by the end of the road we would be jeeping the car down a path the width of a bicycle.
The bottom of the car would scrape along some of the ruts and there were several streams and big puddles we had to cross.
When it rained the road became a muddy quagmire that we would easily get stuck in. The car we had was not ever designed for this type of terrain.
Along the way we would pass multiple tiny villages and scattered farmhouses. Corn fields were everywhere but we also saw rice paddies, beans, zucchini, and tobacco being grown. Some of the villages were near big lakes where people fished for a living.
Along these roads we would pass refuge camps for the displaced people. Most were living at the local schools so the children have not been able to learn since the rains began. Many of these families lost everything they owned and now have only one blanket and some food relief provided by the government and NGOs. Rotary International and an organization called Shelter Box were setting up large tents for people to move into so that they could have some privacy. Once the rainy season ends in the end of April/beginning of May then the people will go rebuild their houses.
In one tiny village we passed through there were three funerals that day. A cholera death where the person had gone from healthy to dead in just over 24 hours and 2 malaria deaths. We passed some houses of natural healers or “witch doctors” who are often the only type of medical care in some of these areas.
There was one school that we passed that was still in session. We saw that there were children outside sitting under a tree with a blackboard. I had seen this sort of thing in National Geographic before so we stopped to take a look in real life. This had the effect of pretty much disrupting the entire school.
The headmaster came out to see what the commotion was and ended up giving us a guided tour of several classrooms. The school was horribly overcrowded which is why 3 of the classrooms are outdoors. If it rains then there is no class. The indoor classes had up to 160 children in each class. The would sit on the floor and there was pretty much no way to get any more kids into the room.
Jender was able to translate for us so we were able to have some fascinating conversations with people. Jender always liked to ask people if they had seen Mzungu (white people) before. Often the answer was that they had seen one once or twice but had never spoken with one. They would ask if there were poor people in America and we were asked if a person in America makes more money does it mean that someone else makes less? Children would scream, point, and chase after us. The adults were more subdued but would still come out of their houses to stare and wave. Herders would want to shake our hands and thank us for coming so far to their country.
The living conditions were rough. It was good that we had been traveling through many developing countries by this point because it did not faze us. Our hotel had no toilet seat, no running water (you poured water from a bucket into the toilet), and to turn the light on/off you had to screw the light bulb in and out of the socket. The mosquito nets had holes the size of a head. Not a mosquito head. A human head. There was only one restaurant in town that would have had most westerners skipping food. We would often have to go buy the food in the market and bring it to the restaurant to be cooked. It was better if you didn't look in the kitchen to see where the food was being prepared. Kathleen and I must have pretty strong gastrointestinal systems at this point because we haven't gotten sick despite questionable water and cleanliness conditions. We still plan on deworming myself when I get back though.
The week flew by. I almost felt guilty that I was having so much fun since the situation that these people were in was not a lighthearted scene. It did feel like we made a positive impact to the people we were able to help. We were thanked by everyone (herders, local agriculture staff, village chiefs, etc) and we could see that by helping their animals that we were helping the people since there is such a close connection between the two. Kathleen and I hope that at some point we will get another chance to help like this again. It was quite the powerful experience.