II – The Eye of an Elephant and the Heart of a Lion; The work of Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Germany (VSF Germany) and Boaz Abraham, who help animals and the communities around them.

In conversation with Máirin-Rua Ni Aodha

Boaz Abraham, vet and activist, treats a more unusual friend. Photo; Boaz Abraham

Dream Team 

“We strive to have a long lasting impact on the lives of the people we work with, so we work with experts in many fields, such as veterinarians, teachers and social workers”. 

Boaz joined Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Germany (VSF Germany) while completing his veterinary degree. He was drawn to their unique approach of combining animal health, humanitarian aid work and  community development. He felt he had something to contribute, he explains, “VSF Germany is an NGO, which means it relies on private donations, funding from other organisations and the work of volunteers. VSF Germany helps people who are in one way or another reliant on livestock in Kenya, South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Uganda”. VSF Germany is a dynamic, flexible organisation which evolves to tackle the new problems they face. As Boaz puts it, “ VSF Germany was founded 30 years ago as a purely veterinary organisation. Over the years we realized that the needs of the communities we work with are complicated and we needed to be versatile. We strive to have a long lasting impact on the lives of the people we work with, so we work with experts in many fields, such as veterinarians, teachers and social workers”. 

Zahra Adam Mohamed with one of the 5 goats she received from VSF Germany. By selling the meat and milk from the goats she is able to put food on the table and send her children to school.  Photo: VSF Germany

One Health

“Ultimately a very small contribution from the outside, just a flock of chickens, allows families to take more control of their situation. These small acts mean families are less likely to need outside help in the future”.

VSF Germany has had an integrated, One Health approach from the very beginning.  Boaz illustrates the many benefits of this with an example; “Think of one of the partners, Sahim, a farmer in North Kenya. He has a family of 10 and lives in a very arid region. That means a hot climate with little rain. So understandably financial and food security are priorities for them. He asks us for support to buy and raise a small flock of chickens in addition to his herd of 30 goats. By supporting him in this we achieve many things. First of all it reduces his family’s dependency on the goats and puts more money in their pockets to care for the animals. Secondly the chickens provide another food source for the family in the form of eggs. This eases the burden on the goats and improves the family’s diet and food security. Thirdly these improvements take the immediate existential pressure off the family,allowing them to plan for their future and establish their independence. Ultimately a very small contribution from the outside, just a flock of chickens, allows families to take more control of their situation. These small acts mean families are less likely to need outside help in the future”. VSF Germany is a member of a network of VSF organisations called VSF International. Together VSF has projects in 31 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. National VSF organisations, such as VSF Germany and VSF Suisse collaborate and pool resources to maximise their impact.

As an international NGO, VSF Germany initially faced some hesitation from local governments and organisations. “People want to get to know you and see that you’re serious about helping. A lot of NGOs focus on people’s short-term needs. This is sometimes important and indispensable, but is rarely sustainable. Often , progress regresses when projects are closed, and the problem becomes as bad as it originally was. This causes huge frustration and reservation among the communities these projects are supposed to help, so we understand their reluctance to get involved in something new. We take our time setting up projects and try to constantly make improvements. By now we are well established and respected by local groups and recognised by international and intergovernmental organisations like the EU and US Aid. All of the projects are being developed in consultation with the beneficiaries themselves, which is great because they’re better at identifying their own needs”. 

One of the ways VSF Germany works with communities is by training Community Animal Health Workers (CAHWs). “They are chosen by the communities and are trained for a couple of weeks by a veterinarian from VSF Germany. Their training includes basic veterinary skills and knowledge; administration of antibiotics, vaccines, NSAIDs and pain killers. At the end of this training they receive a backpack full of the equipment and drugs they need. Every year there are refresher workshops for CAHWs to keep them up to date with veterinary treatments. The farmers themselves are very good at identifying disease and abnormal behaviour in their animals. They have a very strong connection to their herds and care deeply about their animals”.

This community based approach has far-reaching benefits which cross the species barrier.  An example of this is VSF Germany’s role in conflict resolution. They bring communities together by focusing on areas of mutual interest, such as preservation of grazing lands. In this way they mitigate hostilities between communities and foster cooperation. “Our CAHWs and other members of the community share skills and swap tips at meetings held a few times a year. They are from different communities and tribes but in the end, all want the same thing; healthy livestock. The same principle applies to the wider community. As outsiders it could be difficult for us to keep track of different groups and organize meetings. This is why we operate from the inside out, so members of each community organize and convince their people to attend meetings. We simply act as mediators. We also try to emphasize that cattle raiding or shooting animals is not a good way of seeking revenge. Through discussion, communities realize that with these actions everyone loses. Of course it is never easy, and each situation is different. In South Sudan there is civil war, which makes long term planning extremely difficult. The situation and fighting groups there change constantly, making planning and implementation very challenging. There have even been incidences of our compounds being raided at gunpoint. These are very stressful and sad events, but we try to work closely with authorities to avoid them. Thankfully most communities know that we care about the animals and want to work with us”.

A group of farmers and pastoralists participate in a workshop on drought management.      Photo VSF Germany

Climate Change 

“In 2016 Ethiopia experienced extremely heavy rainfall caused by El Nino. Maybe counterintuitively these heavy rains were not welcome. The soil was so dry and loose that the floods swept all the fertile soil away”.

Climate change also causes strain between communities. As conditions become more arid, less and less pasture is available to graze animals. “In these cases, farmers meet and create a grazing and watering plan. They will assign a time for each herd and everyone commits to managing the resource. However in some countries this is not enough. East Africa has experienced longer, harsher drought in the past 5-10 years. In 2016 Ethiopia experienced extremely heavy rainfall caused by El Nino. Maybe counterintuitively these heavy rains were not welcome. The soil was so dry and loose that the floods swept all the fertile soil away. Grass didn’t grow the next year so herds were decimated. Another problem we face in some cases is the livestock keepers reluctance to reduce their herds in such extreme situations. The issue is that their traditions decree that the more animals a man in pastoralist communities has, the higher his rank in society. However, when drought hits animals compete for grazing and water. Many suffer from malnutrition and die simply because there is not enough to go around. ”As vets, herd reduction might seem obvious. Eliminating the older, sicker cows from the herd safeguards the herd’s present and future. Furthermore, when livestock keepers do decide to sell, they flood the market with weak, sickly animals. Naturally the price plummets and they end up taking huge losses”. In answer to droughts, beneficiary communities have started resource guarding. “Many communities didn’t make any hay, animals were allowed to graze year-round. Our teams have managed to introduce hay making as an emergency measure. These projects are very rudimentary but have a huge impact and are self-sustaining”. 

A young Masai man comforting his dog, who just received vaccinations as part of the VSF Germany campaign.   Photo: VSF Germany

Urban Animals

“In Hargeisa, a city in Somaliland, Somalia, it’s very common to use donkeys to transport loads. These animals face a very high workload, they carry water into the city”.

VSF Germany takes a true grassroots approach by identifying problems from the ground up together with the communities they work with. In this way VSF Germany realized it wasn’t just farm animals that needed their help. A recent addition to their multitude of projects is a campaign to help animals in big cities. “In Hargeisa, a city in Somaliland, Somalia, it’s very common to use donkeys to transport loads. These animals face a very high workload, they carry water into the city. Some people even put wires into their mouths as an improvised bit, to control them. Obviously these conditions are far from ideal but there are currently no proper monitoring programs or regulations controlling the use of these animals”. This is not an isolated case. VSF Germany tries to get people thinking about animal welfare not only by informing them of the benefits of properly handling animals, but also by offering attractive incentives. They also make veterinary care available for the donkeys.

Dogs also need the help of VSF Germany, this time in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya.  The close proximity between the four and two legged, especially in the informal settlements in Nairobi as Kibera poses a deadly potential threat- Rabies! “Like the dogs of the Masai, the dogs in the informal settlements in Nairobi have an owner. Most of the people there keep dogs to guard their belongings. In the end much of the project focuses on practical measures, such as mass vaccination. We explain to people the risk these dogs pose when unvaccinated- rabies exposure is really dangerous for their families and communities. In this way we get communities to work with us. We also involve local authorities and try to raise awareness”.

Meaningful Work

“By working with VSF Germany I feel like I really contribute to the welfare of animals”.

Boaz believes his work with VSF Germany makes him a better vet and keeps life interesting. “When you first graduate, clinical work is so exciting. But after a few years routine kicks in. I wanted my veterinary world to consist of more than just artificial insemination and obstetric work. During my studies I was already searching for meaningful work. I wanted to help animals without having to get something in return. By working with VSF Germany I feel like I really contribute to the welfare of animals. The benefits to humans and the environment are a bonus. Of course, I’m not a true altruist, doing this work gives me a feeling of fulfilment, I get to know a lot of interesting people and learn skills I wouldn’t have otherwise. My work itself is not exactly romantic either, it’s not like I’m performing surgery on elephants and giraffes. It’s mostly office based, consisting of meetings and public relations work.  However, without it the organization wouldn’t exist. It’s my way of giving back and keeping my passion ignited. It also allows me to look closely at African societies and culture, which fascinate me. The voluntary nature of my work means I do it not to prove some result, but because I really believe it’s work that should and needs to be done”.

VSF Germany are aiming to introduce more opportunities for students to support our work. There are currently no specific openings but if you’re interested you should keep updated by following them on social media ; https://www.instagram.com/tieraerzteohnegrenzen or on their website ; www.vsfg.com

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