Our returning volunteer Amy, studying veterinary medicine at the University of Liverpool, has been volunteering with Mission Rabies since its launch in 2013. Last month she came all the way out to be part of yet another milestone for our programme: Mission Rabies Malawi - our first project on the African continent. Together with the local & international staff, as well as volunteers from 12 countries, Amy was part of this benchmark-setting project, vaccinating more than 35,000 dogs in just 20 days.
"I'm sitting in the library at Liverpool University Vet School in the middle of my 3rd year January exams. Up pops an email from Mission Rabies about an amazing opportunity to go to Malawi. Having been twice before (Kolkata 2013, Goa 2014), I have already developed a passion for this type of work, so I make myself a promise: “Pass these exams and you are going to Africa!”
Fast forward 3 months, exams passed, it's 6am on the first day of the Mission Rabies Blantyre campaign and already the little car park at the Blantyre SPCA Headquarters is alive with teams of vaccinators, dog handlers and data collectors grouping together with big smiles and signs of their team name. For the next 2 weeks I shall be an elephant!
After a motivational welcome speech from Kate Shervell and a quick briefing on the new Mission Rabies App by Andy Gibson, we pack the trucks and are off to our first stationery vaccination point. My favourite part of any morning is the exhilarating drive, watching Malawi come alive from the back of the truck with the wind whipping through my hair.
As we draw closer to our station, Abel, our self-titled publicist gets on the loud speaker "Catemera, catemera mwa chiwewe, mwa agalu, mwa ulere" - a phrase that I now know off by heart! There are already owners lined up with their dogs when we arrive, many come with more than 4 each, all getting tangled up on their chains. I can't help but feel a little sorry for these dogs, most aren't used to being on leads especially not walking the kilometers some people travel to get to us. But our handlers have been well trained and the stress of vaccination is short-lived. We set up our little station under the shade of a tree in a primary school compound. Our data collector is primed at the gate collecting the important details on the Mission Rabies App (sex, neuter status, skin conditions, health conditions, location of residence etc.). Each dog gets a paint mark on it's head - we use stock markers like you'd have for sheep and cattle - once it has been vaccinated and the owner is presented with a vaccination certificate. We have found that there is a very limited pool of names for dogs out here, the most popular being Bruce - mainly for girls - Lion, Tiger, I even heard a few Mufasas! Our poor data collector, Brown, wasn't too happy every time we found a dog of the same name, it became a bit of a running joke. As the day progressed more and more children clustered at the gates keen to see what we were doing.
With such a high incidence of dog bites amongst children, education is essential alongside a campaign such as this. The leaflets we distribute give easy to read information about correct dog interactions and what to do should you get bitten. Ros Johnston and the education team have also been going into schools armed with their portable cinema - what a creation! - to spread this message further.
We are brought buckets, boxes, wheelbarrows, and many armfuls of puppies, which never fails to put smiles on our faces...even if it does involved getting covered in a bit of puppy wee. Then of course there is the legendary "cat in bag", where these cats are bundled into feed sacks and brought in for their vaccinations. As the afternoon heat hits and the locals are having lunch, we get a chance to chat with our team. For the most part, they are a well-educated bunch, it was quite surreal when our first topic of conversation was the UK Election! The standard of English amongst the Malawi employees is fantastic! Without the language barrier, we could form a proper bond and work as a team most effectively. They tried to work on my Chichewa as well and by the end I had mastered the essential phrases and could recognise conversation patterns to give me an idea of what was going on. Brown, a primary school teacher by profession, had a knack of leaving every woman smiling after we spoke to them...so I have probably inadvertently learnt a few Malawian chat up lines as well!
Once the weekend madness is over, it is our chance to walk through the surrounding areas to mop up the dogs that have been missed, making sure we hit that gold standard of over 70% vaccination coverage. My mountaineering skills were certainly tested as we scrabbled around townships, up hills and down into streams, making sure every house, yard and shop were checked. It was a privilege to be able to see into the heart of these Malawian towns, where they cook, eat, sleep, socialise; their churches, schools, farms and most importantly the people. We had such a warm welcome everywhere we went, even my poorly pronounced Chichewa greetings were met with huge smiles and well wishes. In the furthest reaches of the city villages I inadvertently made one child cry (apparently she thought I had demons in my hair) and had 2 run away screaming (I can sometimes have this effect on children, but this was because they'd never seen a foreign visitor before!).
Projects such as this have their highs and lows and come with all sorts of challenges, especially in the form of animal welfare (although the human welfare leaves a great deal to be desired). We saw machete wounds on guard dogs, bite wounds that had been left to go septic, awful ear lesions, emaciation and signs of general abuse. In times like this, it is the support of your team which makes you push through, we were there for each other every step of the way!
As we wearily travel back on the bus, swapping stories about the day and very often wondering what is for dinner, the sky is on fire with a spectacular African sunset and I realise how truly blessed I am to be able to call Mission Rabies my family.
Mission Rabies, I believe, provides an unrivalled and essential experience for vet students. I have been privileged to meet, befriend and ply with questions, professionals from all over the veterinary industry giving me a real insight into my future career. As I sit here writing this in the middle of my May exams my mind wanders back to everything thing I have seen and done over the past 3 years - Sign me up for the next trip!"