Volunteering in Malawi: Emma's Story

Post by
emily king
August 15th 2017

Emma Howson joined the Mission Rabies team in Malawi to help vaccinate dogs against rabies and educate the Blantyre community. This is her blog:

This April, I spent two amazing weeks in Blantyre, Malawi with Mission Rabies.  Before going out, I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from the project - it seemed well organised from the information I'd gotten through already, but I had been warned to expect things to be very different than what I was used to back home. I was excited at the prospect of contributing something meaningful to the elimination of rabies and using my skills to help people who might not otherwise have access to a vet, but also a bit nervous as I'd never done anything like this before.

Before actually going there, I was embarrassingly unaware about Malawi as a country. Most of what I knew was from news reports about poverty and such problems. It was wonderful to meet so many people who could show us the other side to Malawi - a beautiful country with amazing scenery, wildlife and warm, friendly people who were pleased to see us in our yellow shirts, wanting to welcome us into their homes, and teach us about their culture and language. Walking from house to house offering vaccinations was a great way to see what life was like there, away from the main tourist areas.

The work itself could be challenging, both physically and because of the differences compared with back home. The door-to-door days often saw us walk over 15km on variable terrain but it was really rewarding to be able to see on the map how much area we had covered and to know how many dogs we had been able to give rabies vaccinations to. It was also encouraging to see that many owners had sought to privately vaccinate their dogs against rabies, though access to veterinary care was also something people reported as hard to come by. It was wonderful to be able to put so many people with problems in touch with the BSPCA and to raise awareness of the work the charity does - not just during the busy neutering drive they were running alongside the Mission Rabies vaccination drive, but all year round.

The static point days were something else - you would arrive at the school to set up and be greeted by a throng of children with dogs already waiting, then a constant stream would come through the door with one, two, three dogs, some cats in a bag. They moved along like clockwork; from giving their information, to having a quick visual check of their pet, a vaccination, colour mark to help identify that they had been vaccinated, then collect a card (and the ultimate prize - a Mission Rabies wristband!)

Something that was an adjustment for me was coming to understand and respect that dogs in Malawi are often not treated as pets in the same way as in the UK. Many of them are kept to protect their owners and their properties. A lot of dogs belong to people who must take care of themselves and their families on a low or unpredictable income, and understandably when resources are very tight, the humans in a family must come first.

For that reason, one of the sweetest memories I will keep from the trip was an older gentleman who had walked to a static point vaccination day on Sunday after church, wearing one sandal and carrying the other as it had broken on the way. His dog was in great condition, in fact in the UK, I might have given him a gentle telling off for keeping it a little on the tubby side. He had vaccination records for the last two years for this dog and had come again for his third injection. The dog was neutered, had recently had a flea dip but the owner didn't have access to deworming and was anxious to protect his dog, so asked for an injection when he came to see us for the rabies vaccine. His love for his dog was so heart-warming; it was a joy to see it being so well cared for and that the man had taken the preventative healthcare advice from previous years' volunteers to heart.

There were a lot of less fortunate dogs who presented for vaccinations incredibly lame, with wounds or with painful ocular problems, and it was again great to see that so many owners, once it was explained how this would be making the dog feel, were keen to get help for them. So much of the suffering that takes place is through misunderstanding or lack of basic veterinary knowledge, not intentional cruelty, and Mission Rabies along with the BSPCA are doing such a good job to help educate owners and provide good quality veterinary care.

The best thing about the trip was undeniably that we were really achieving something that would make a real difference and save so many human and canine lives. Speaking to people as we walked around made me much more aware of what it must be like to live with the constant threat of losing family members, or indeed your own life, to such a horrible disease. The fact that rabies is preventable through vaccination is the key to ending this awful cycle.

The next best thing about the trip was that I met so many inspiring people - from the other volunteers, to those who work full-time for Mission Rabies or WVS/BSPCA in Blantyre, to the team members who run their own NGOs in other countries and are affiliated with Mission Rabies through that work. The atmosphere at the beautiful Fisherman's Rest each evening was great, with people telling stories about their day, and those who had a tougher day getting supported and encouraged, and everyone trying to learn bits of each other's languages as well as sharing what Chichewa we had managed to pick up on our travels around town!

I would recommend a Mission Rabies trip to Malawi to anyone! I fully intend to volunteer again in the future, galvanised by having seen first-hand how much of a difference you can make with even a small contribution such as two weeks' work. It is easy to think that one person can't change anything, or that your skills aren't that important, but Mission Rabies need all the help they can get to achieve their goal of worldwide rabies elimination by 2030. You can contribute by volunteering, fundraising, or just by supporting somebody who is. I'm even more grateful to all the people who helped me fundraise in advance of my trip now that I've seen what a difference it makes.