Volunteer, vaccinate, educate: Life in Zomba

Post by
emily king
July 10th 2018

Anna Formstone, a vet from the UK, joined our campaign in Zomba, Malawi, vaccinating dogs and saving lives. This is her story...

My time with Mission Rabies was my first experience of sub-Saharan Africa, and the minute our plane landed Malawi immediately began challenging the preconceived notions I had of what “Africa” would be like!

The drive from the airport in Blantyre to our accommodation in Zomba was nothing like I imagined it would be. Mountains flanked the road, rising sharply and unexpectedly from almost perfectly flat ground. Some of them were so high that the peaks disappeared into the clouds. Our first introduction to Malawian life was brief flashes of busy roadside markets and stands selling tomatoes carefully stacked into pyramids, and the biggest avocados I’ve ever seen!

Our accommodation was another surprise. Pakachere Backpackers hostel was a welcoming open-fronted building set in beautifully lush gardens. The hostel was a temporary home and meeting place for all sorts of people: NGO volunteers, foreign ex-pats and local officials conducting meetings. It turned out to be the perfect place to relax (with a Malawian gin and tonic) after a long day of vaccinating!

The day after we arrived, our volunteer coordinators Fred and Jo outlined the structure of the project, our roles within it and what each day would involve. We worked five days a week: two days a week at static clinics and three days a week walking door-to-door.

The static clinics were held on the weekends, and based almost exclusively at local schools. Each team vaccinated hundreds of dogs a day at these clinics, often working for several hours without stopping in order to get through the seemingly endless line of people and dogs waiting patiently outside! Local people often walked long distances to get to the clinics, with their dogs trotting behind them on chains or bits of string. We vaccinated all ages from day old puppies to very old dogs, and each got a dab of red paint on their foreheads to show they’d been protected against rabies. I loved static clinic days, especially Sundays when empty classrooms would often be used as church halls, and the schools would fill with the sound of gospel singing.

The rest of the week was spent going door-to-door, in order to reach any dogs we might have missed during the static clinics. We were split into groups of four (one volunteer and three local employees) and each group was assigned an area of Zomba to cover. We walked between three and eight miles a day, sometimes along main roads, but usually along the narrow dirt paths that wound their way between densely clustered brick houses. As we walked we ducked under washing lines hanging clothes out to dry, dodged chickens and stepped over sheets of drying corn kernels.

The local people were welcoming and generally very amenable to the idea of having their dogs vaccinated; this was likely a sign that the Mission Rabies sensitisation teams had done their job well! I was interested to learn that almost all dogs in Malawi are owned. This was in stark contrast to previous places I have volunteered, such as India, where most of the dogs roamed freely. The weather was yet another surprise. Due to its mountainous terrain, and the elevated position of the city of Zomba, temperatures rarely reached higher than 25 degrees Celsius. This made walking all day much easier!

We vaccinated over 8,000 dogs during our time in Zomba. While we were there we learned that nearly 500 people still die each year in Malawi due to rabies. Most of these deaths are children, as they are often the primary caretakers of the dogs and are out playing with them, and therefore most at risk of being bitten.

It was a privilege to volunteer with an organisation that is doing such important work, both in terms of vaccinating, but also educating people about the disease and spreading awareness. I made friends for life on this trip, and was given a glimpse into life in Malawi in a way that just would not have been possible as a tourist. I look forward to similar experiences in the future as part of another Mission Rabies drive!