'The medicine is the easy part'

'The medicine is the easy part'

Volunteers with World Vets learn that caring for donkeys requires earning their Maasai owners' trust.
Sep 30, 2013

“This doesn’t look much like a marketplace,” Teri said. I was inclined to agree.

Our red pickup emblazoned with “Arusha Society for the Protection of Animals (ASPA)” had pulled to a stop in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. To our left, a dusty, empty crossroads led off into the African bush. To the right, a handful of donkeys lackadaisically browsed the ground for something to eat. Teri and I jumped out of the pickup bed, wiped dust from our brows, and looked around for the Maasai we were expecting to meet us.

“Did we come on the wrong day?” we asked our host. Livingstone Masija, the ASPA director who’d arranged the week’s mobile clinics, laughed. “It’s early,” he said.

I’d arrived in Tanzania earlier in the week along with seven other volunteers with World Vets, an international veterinary aid organization that sends more than 50 teams a year to places around the globe. While many World Vets trips focus on small animals, this project was all about donkeys.

When I’d applied, I’d made it clear I was a small animal practitioner with limited equine experience. I needn’t have worried. As I was to learn, the medicine is often the easy part.

International volunteerism in both human and veterinary medicine can be a contentious topic, questions of motive and long-term impact dogging those who set out with their hearts in the right place but no idea of the intricacies of arranging a multinational medical mission. Can the supplies be legally exported from the U.S. and imported into the target country? Is there a local organization with a specific goal we can help with? Will local veterinarians resent the team’s work? And most of all, do the locals even want us there?

To these ends, World Vets has always worked closely with local aid organizations that can provide direction on the work most needed. In this case, Masija had asked us to provide preventive care to the donkeys of the nomadic Maasai, who use the animals extensively as beasts of burden.

We’d arrived with boxes of vaccines, dewormers, medications and harnesses. But first we needed some patients.

As Masija promised, the road soon began to show signs of life. Maasai wrapped in bright colors strode behind donkeys loaded with barrels and sacks, setting them down along the side of the road to expose gallons of grains and beans. Before long an entire market had popped up around us. We looked at the donkeys wandering by and saw lots of skin lesions: abrasions caused by the friction of the twine holding barrels to their back. Masija, a gentle man with a generous smile, gestured for us to follow as he strode into the market. We slung our backpacks filled with supplies over our shoulders and followed him.

Our group of scrub-clad mzungu drew plenty of attention, some curious, some mistrustful. Our endeavors would have been next to impossible without Masjia to translate and explain what we were doing. Dewormers were accepted almost universally. Vaccines were a tougher sell.

One of our group was looking at a lesion on the back of a donkey tied to a fence when a woman came up, waving her hands forcefully and yelling. We backed away. Masija went up to the woman and spoke to her, and she shook her head. A younger woman next to her also shook her head, the hoops on her ears swaying as she turned her back and walked away.

Masija then walked over to us. “She says the last time a veterinary group came through, they gave her animals bad vaccines and the animals died. Her husband beat her. She doesn’t want that to happen again.”

As a fixture in the area, Masija had a much deeper understanding than we did of this community. He rushed after a 12-year-old who was beating his donkey with a stick, prodding him to move down the road. The donkey was darting back and forth, dropping grain from his sack every time he changed directions.

Masija pulled him over to our alcove and, picking up a piece of twine, expertly tied it into a harness. Slipping it over the donkey’s head, he demonstrated how much easier it was to direct the animal with this gentler approach. The boy’s eyes lit up and he took more twine, enough for the rest of his donkeys.

“You see?” said Masija. “If they believe what we are doing makes the animals better workers, they agree to let us help them.” By elevating the economic value of the animal, Masija says, he is more likely to get buy-in about the intrinsic worth of animal welfare. First a harness, then medical care. The building of trust, he told us, doesn’t take hours. It takes years.

Bit by bit we worked our way through the market, weaving grain sacks into pads to cushion the donkeys’ backs, drawing crowds of giggling children over to watch us for a minute, an hour. Masija blew up a basketball and tossed it into the road, laughing as the children chased it. Kyle, a member of our group who is also an avid runner, gave his shoes to a man who was wearing strips of leather tied to his feet. In an unusual show of emotion for a Maasai, the man gave Kyle a huge hug and asked me to take a picture.

As we piled our emptied syringes and bottles into the truck at the end of the day, I marveled at the challenges of the day. The medicine was simple. The trust building, however, was going to take some time. Watching the kids run after our truck, waving and smiling, I decided we were off to a good start.