Unwilling volunteers of the woolly variety

Captain Joanna Lowe of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps is currently deployed to Afghanistan, working as a vet on the ground with the Provincial Reconstruction Team. Here she writes about a Veterinary Teaching Initiative which has been trialling the education of  farmers in a rural part of Lashkar Gah with unexpected success.

Lesson in progress

Lesson in progress

Veterinary Engagement clinics have been the backbone of my tour in Afghanistan thus far – clinics where farmers can bring their livestock for check-ups, advice and preventative treatment, and also the vehicle through which we have been trying to educate locals to improve their animal husbandry techniques. However, with newly trained paraveterinarians (local nationals who have received a six-month veterinary training package) due to complete their training within the next few months, it was imperative  that the ISAF-led clinics worked to support these fledgling businesses, rather than provide unhealthy competition for them.

The Veterinary Teaching Initiative is a project I have been working on for some time, and last week saw the first trial in an area of rural Lashkar Gah known as Qal’eh Bost. The idea was that farmers would receive training in basic animal husbandry techniques (which I have found out through running the clinics are surprisingly lacking in many areas) so as to enable them to improve the productivity and mortality of their livestock for themselves. A small veterinary section of the package would explain the benefits of preventative veterinary medicine (mainly vaccination and worming) and help them to identify situations where prompt veterinary attention would be advisable. This information would not only help the farmers to maintain healthy herds, but would also benefit the new paraveterinarians by promoting effective use of their services.

I had broached the concept of providing teaching for farmers before at Veterinary Engagement clinics, but had been given a multitude of reasons (from the local farmers themselves) as to why it wouldn’t work, ranging from the notion that the Taliban would try to stop it to ‘We are uneducated people so we can’t learn’. As a result it was with some apprehension that I approached the trial.

I had hoped that between 10 and 15 farmers would turn up to each of three teaching sessions run over the 48-hour period – an adequate number from which I could ascertain primarily whether the project was viable, and from whom I could obtain useful feedback to improve and refine the package. To say I was surprised when a total of 220 working age farmers (accompanied by herds of children, as is typical) turned up would be an understatement. Offered no incentive other than education, these men had taken time out of their working days because they wanted to learn more about looking after their livestock. Among the crowd were a teacher from a derelict school and an ageing man from the Afghan National Police, both of whom had come because they owned small flocks of sheep.

What I found more amazing was that people, many of whom had had no formal education in their lives, sat and gave me their undivided attention for ninety minutes despite my being female and younger than most of them. Due to the fact that many people could not read or write, all of the teaching was verbal, brought to life with a variety of pictures, simple diagrams, somewhat unwilling volunteers of the woolly variety and practical demonstrations. Subjects covered included housing and nutrition, care of newborn animals and treatment of simple wounds. Teaching Afghan farmers is an unusual experience, and very different from teaching soldiers. They are proud people and will not tell you if they don’t understand something, they take offence at you ‘testing’ their knowledge so confirmatory questions are not an option; this makes assessing the effectiveness of your teaching challenging, though not impossible.

And the future? Well the Veterinary Teaching Initiative concept has a lot of potential, and the results of this initial trial suggest it is something that Afghan farmers are extremely keen on. Hopefully a return trip to Qal’eh Bost will show that people have employed the techniques I taught them, thus demonstrating that anybody has the capacity to learn, regardless of whether they consider themselves to be ‘educated’ or not.

2 thoughts on “Unwilling volunteers of the woolly variety

  1. Marvellous to hear you are using your skills Jo. Good luck, hope you see some good results.

    Belinda Brown


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