The past two weeks have flown by for the vet team since arriving in Kiirua. Our first Saturday on the ground started out with a tea and greet with the Naari Dairy board committee. We discussed the Naari Dairy’s future goals and farming concerns with the chairman Geoffrey and his helpful team. The morning meeting quickly extended into the afternoon where we did some individual cow health at a farm in Naari (California mastitis (CMT) testing and pregnancy checks.
Dr. VanLeeuwen (aka Dr. John) and Emma doing a CMT test.
Monday rolled around and the vet team set out to the Buuri Dairy group to meet with the chair and board members. Lots of tea and arrowroot while we listened and discussed future plans for Buuri Dairy. We headed to one of the Buuri farms to do some pregnancy checks and treat a mastitis case. We were lucky to recruit a new addition to the team – Joy, a student from Meru University who is currently in her second year of Animal Health and Production. She got to do her first palpation with Dr. John on a 7-month pregnant cow.
Dr. John walking Joy through her first pregnancy palpation.
The rest of the week involved meeting with dairy clubs from the Naari and Buuri areas to do teaching seminars on reproduction and cow comfort. Dr. John’s repro lessons included refreshers on cow nutrition and then focused on four key factors – development of a healthy egg and uterus, good quality semen and the importance of detecting signs of heat (when it is best to breed). Farmers Helping Farmers staff member Stephen’s cow comfort lesson started off with discussions of the importance of cow comfort and how it can help with disease prevention – but lead to full-on construction zone with stall renovations. Both Joy and I really felt Bob the Builder mode come out.
One of the famers enjoying his newly renovated stall.
The week ended in smiles, and lots of laughter, after a series of meetings, herd health calls, and farm visits.
Em and Nolan pose with the owners of this farm, their daughter and neighbours and their children and grandchildren.
We have now spent 2 weeks in Kenya, and we are slowly getting used to the climate, the culture, and our new work schedule. The climate change group, consisting of Nolan, a student studying climate change at UPEI, and Em, a volunteer who studied biology and neuroscience, have gotten off to a good start.
We have started on Nolan’s project, which is looking at the fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions from carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide of the various types of cookstoves used by farmers in Kenya. So far, most of the tests we’ve done have mostly only served to make us aware of the issues in our methodology, but over the last week we have developed a method we think will work.
Nolan and Gikundi, one of the local FHF staff, rigging the sensors to capture the smoke from the chimney of the improved stove, a method we ended up ultimately not using.
In the process, we met with various members or their relatives of the Destiny Women’s Group, which is one of the closer groups to where we live. The reality of the living and cooking conditions have definitely been humbling, and often smoky!
We are now testing the emissions within the cooking building/room, as even the improved stoves implemented by Farmers Helping Farmers tend to let smoke in the room.
A member of the Destiny Women’s Group tending to the modified 3 stone stove, with the tripod and sensors visible under the chimney.
We have been shown every kindness, served tea and food, and treated with patience and respect. The women have been more than happy to help, especially if it means FHF can further help their community.
Em, Nolan and Colleen with the seven members of the Glorious Women’s Group that participated in the discussion group.
As part of Em’s project, we also went to the Glorious Women’s Group, which is in a considerably hotter and drier part of Meru County. We hosted a discussion group with seven of their members to learn their experiences with the changing climate, how it has impacted them, and what they have changed to cope or adapt to these changes.
In this area, the women had had every aspect of daily life affected by the change in rain patterns. Rain is rare despite the historical consistency in short and long rainy seasons every year, and when it comes it is more likely to cause harm than good, washing out crops, roads and more.
Crops are failing from the drought and blight and disease, livestock are suffering from starvation and dehydration, so these farmers’ income is at an all time low. Even cooking fuel is scarce due to the drought, and diets consist primarily of maize and beans, lacking vital nutrients.
However, this group is a new addition to the FHF-supported women’s groups, so we hope that with the implementation of water tanks and other future supports, this group will have a fighting chance at adapting to climate change.
As the final year veterinary students from the Atlantic Veterinary College selected to participate in the Farmers Helping Farmers (FHF) and UPEI trip to Kenya, we had known since winter 2021 that we would be making this trip. When we were chosen, it often felt like forever away and that it would never arrive. We cannot believe we have now left Kenya and it is time to reflect on our experience. Putting into words what we have learned from this trip seems like an impossible task, but we will try our best.
We have been writing these blogs as a team, but for this post we thought we would do something different. Even though we were all a part of the same organization, we all experienced this trip uniquely. We will each take a turn discussing what we learned from this trip on a veterinary basis and from the people of Kenya, our favourite thing about Kenya, and any other insights from our trip.
This experience is offered to fourth year UPEI veterinary students with a focus on small holder dairy management. Although the farms in Kenya may be on a smaller scale compared to those in Canada, herd health is at the centre of the care. While in Kenya, we discussed cow comfort and nutrition over and over with farmers. The value of these two sections in dairy management cannot be overstated, both in Kenya and back home in Canada. It was amazing to see how the Kenyan farmers would listen intently to our suggestions and ask intelligent questions to ensure they fully understood the concepts to make their cows the most profitable that they can be.
My favourite veterinary experience had to be the walk-in clinics. They were dusty, sweaty, and non-stop, but they were also extremely gratifying. These clinics were an opportunity to have hands-on experience with Kenyan farmers and their cattle while feeling like we were making an immediate impact by offering deworming and veterinary medical advice. So much of the work FHF and UPEI is doing in Kenya focuses on small changes over time that will lead to improved quality of life. However, these intimate moments at the clinics, where we could discuss specific challenges their cows face, was one of my favourite parts of the trip.
I pride myself of being a fairly decent writer, but I know I have not even begun to scratch the surface of this experience. Kenya opened my eyes to a different way of living. The people were all so warm and inviting. It didn’t matter that we were a different skin colour, they welcomed us into their homes as if we were their own daughters. They sang to us, fed us (to our limits), and led us in dance. Stephen Chandi, FHF staff member, even said I was an excellent dancer, which from a Kenyan, I take as the highest of compliments. This experience is not one that will soon be forgotten and is sure to impact how I choose to live my life in the future.
As I sit and reflect on my time in Kenya, I struggle to find the words to describe the impact this experience has had on me. To say this was a life-changing experience would be an understatement. If I had to pick a single word to describe this journey, I would choose “humbling”. Everywhere we went, we were met with gratitude and appreciation for sharing our time and knowledge. The simple ability to have access to resources and veterinary care, something most of us take for granted, was life-changing for them. There were even a few times we had to give bad news regarding the health of a cow, but the farmers were still grateful to have answers they otherwise would not have had.
My favorite thing to see in Kenya was the thirst for knowledge every farmer had to improve the lives of their cattle. Thoughtful questions were asked at every seminar we held, with some farmers walking a fair distance to get there. As we traveled to different groups of farmers from different areas, it became apparent which groups had been working with FHF and UPEI in previous years and which groups were just starting out. It was stunning to see the improvements made in cow comfort and management after they learned about small-holder dairy management from FHF and UPEI.
It was quite the change from working in Canada, where we have advanced diagnostics like bloodwork and ultrasounds available, to working in Kenya, where we had nothing but our stethoscopes and thermometers. I had to rely more on the findings of my physical exams and learned to ask thorough questions regarding the history of the cows to help come to a diagnosis. These are skills I will take with me and use in practice everyday no matter where I am. This experience has, without a doubt, made me a better veterinarian and I will forever treasure my time spent in Kenya.
My experience in Kenya was everything I thought it would be and more. I have always hoped I would have an opportunity to engage in international development and I couldn’t think of a better way to start this journey. I have returned to Canada with a new perspective on my own privilege and a deep appreciation for the-small holder dairy farmers in Kenya that are dedicated to bettering the lives of their families and animals. We were met with song, dance, many handshakes and pure gratitude on a daily basis. To have the opportunity to share my knowledge of dairy farming and veterinary medicine was an experience I won’t soon forget.
My favorite veterinary experience was when pregnancy checking a dairy cow in Nkando. This area has experienced the severe effects of climate change resulting in continual drought conditions seen as four failed rain seasons. This particular cow had not been successfully bred for 3 years. When I reached into the cow, I hoped with all I had that I could provide this kind family with great news. Luckily, I instantly felt the head of an approximately 7-month-old calf and gave the farmer the news! The male farmer fell to his knees, blessed me and thanked me over and over again, stating that he now has hope for a better year ahead. I did my best to tell the family this was a result of their dedication, resiliency and hard work and that I was glad to pass on this news.
There were many ‘wins’ such as this pregnant cow, throughout our time in Meru; however, they were accompanied by many difficult stories, failed crops, food and water insecurity, and lack of veterinary resources. While some stories were challenging to hear, we were also provided with stories of improvement, hope and resiliency due to the programs and resources provided by FHFand UPEI.
I will miss the excitement I felt waking up every day and jumping in the vehicle with an enthusiastic team ready to tackle the uncertainty of what we may see or experience each day. I will miss the gracious women’s groups, dairy farmers and incredible FHF staff. I am hopeful that this is just the beginning and I will return to the same dusty streets and smiling faces some day in the future.
On January 20, 2023, my sixteen-year-old daughter Victoria and I departed for Kenya. We would be joining her aunt (Dr. Martha Mellish) and grandparents (Ken and Teresa Mellish) to work with the many projects funded by Farmers Helping Farmers (FHF).
What an incredible opportunity for three generations to travel and work together. More importantly was the opportunity for Victoria to see the impacts of the work that her grandmother has dedicated her life to.
In the first week, Victoria and I visited shambas (farms) with a focus on poultry, assisted with a donkey health and welfare clinic, as well as a cattle walk-in clinic. We helped with a bookkeeping training session, and spent a day at the Mitoone Primary School. Each took us to a different area of Meru County.
Each experience gave us new opportunities to talk, share, and learn from our Kenyan partners. Every encounter opened me to deeper reflection on luck, fair/unfair, faith, strength, and privilege.
As luck would have it, the first shamba we visited had a water tank my husband, Angus, and I had sponsored. Each year during the FHF Holiday Campaign, we make donations to fund items like water tanks – knowing, but not fully understanding the impacts.
At the shamba, I was embraced by Susan, the woman to whom it belonged. She told me of the difference this donation had made in her life and livelihood, especially when the rains do not come; it was humbling. Over the course of the week, we experienced the same scenario at two other shambas where we happened upon water tanks sponsored by Victoria and her sister, Evelynn.
FHF has just begun working in an area known as Nkando, partnering with women’s farm groups there. NKando has not received rain in 4 to 5 years.
As we drove through the area to our destination, I saw crop failure after crop failure – burned by the heat and lack of rain. I have worked in agriculture for more than 20 years, and I have never experienced anything close to this.
The reality here is no crop – no food, as well as no income in which to get food. I wrestled with the fairness (or lack thereof) of the situation – what keeps people going, not only physically but mentally? Is that why faith seems so apparent in these communities? Why am I so lucky to have easy access to food and water and this community does not? How do I use the privileges I’ve been lucky enough to receive to the benefit of the those who have such fierce strength, but limited opportunity?
I am grateful for the opportunity to work directly with the projects in Kenya; these projects are possible in part because of the donations FHF receives. When we return home, the work will continue with the support of our Kenyan staff. My role then will be to help ensure that the work of FHF can continue.
While I will take time to reflect on exactly what that might look like, I have no doubt that I will continue to use my good fortune to support the projects financially, and volunteer my time at events like the annual FHF BBQ, which are key to the continued success of FHF projects.
As we left Nkando, I noticed a beautiful array of pink flowers growing on some vines. Even in a harsh and unforgiving climate, there is strength and beauty.
Let us work together to help FHF assist these communities through projects that will allow them to reach their full potential.