International Travel Spotlight

“Time well spent” in Veterinarians Without Borders project

by Robert Fathke

Robert Fathke is a 2015 DVM candidate in the public/corporate track. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell University (2005) and a master’s degree in biology from James Madison University (2007). In 2011, he completed his master of public health degree at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services in Washington, D.C. with a focus in global health policy. His career goal is to apply veterinary principles through a One Health approach, focusing on interdisciplinary efforts toward global health and sustainable development

I wanted practical experience. In particular, I wanted to apply my public health and veterinary medicine background in an international setting.

That became a reality in the summer of 2013 when I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Liberia with Veterinarians Without Borders. My professors in the veterinary college’s Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine put me in touch with the group who had been working to develop the country’s agricultural sector.

The West African country has strong historical ties to the United States; Liberia was founded in 1821 by U.S. citizens as a colony for former African American slaves. The country recently endured 14 years of civil war, ending in 2003. Now one of the world’s poorest countries, food insecurity and undernourishment are lingering problems. The war disrupted the education system and devastated the agricultural sector.

Although Liberia has farmable land and natural resources, food animal production is hindered by poor infrastructure, limited managerial capacity, and a shortage of trained animal healthcare workers. Liberia has only one trained veterinarian and a handful of livestock officers. Capacity to diagnose animal diseases is low. The war forced many Liberians out of the rural regions and into Monrovia, the nation’s capital. So agriculture development is also limited by a shortage of skilled farmers. Overall, my research painted a bleak picture of the situation in Liberia.

Veterinarians Without Borders has partnered with Research Triangle International (RTI), which implements a USAID-funded project called Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Development. This project aims to build capacity in engineering and agriculture. My role would be to help teach workshops on zoonoses and transboundary animal diseases at Cuttington University’s College of Agriculture and Sustainable Development. Zoonoses are diseases transmitted between animals and people, while transboundary animal diseases are contagious exotic diseases that can spread rapidly across international borders.

I would work with Dr. Corrie Brown (University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine) and Dr. Ken Nusbaum (Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine). Just prior my journey to Liberia, I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Brown at the USDA Smith-Kilborne Program on foreign animal diseases at Cornell University and Plum Island. We got to know one another and discussed our teaching approach for Liberia. A few days later we would meet again, this time in Liberia.

On June 8, I flew out of Dulles International Airport for Liberia. This was my first time traveling to Africa. I had scrambled, as usual, to pack my bags. I hoped I had brought along the appropriate items, including my mosquito net, malaria prophylaxis, and cash. Liberia functions on a cash-only system—not even the airport accepts credit cards. U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere, so I stashed small denomination bills in various places, trying to avoid putting all my eggs in one basket.

After countless hours and a pit stop in The Gambia, I arrived at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia, where a friendly driver was waiting to transport me to a downtown hotel.

Early the next morning, I met the RTI Chief of Party who briefed me on Liberia and Cuttington University. One memorable bit of advice he gave me was to be cautious in discussing the civil war, as it was understandably a sensitive issue.

Immediately after the meeting I was on the road with the friendly RTI driver, making the three-hour, pot-hole-dodging dirt road trip to Cuttington University, near the town of Gbarnga. I quickly learned that although Liberians speak English, tribal dialects give their English a twist that can make it difficult for foreigners to understand. During the ride, I noticed the occasional chicken running along the street side, and I saw a few goats tied to trees in front yards. Some households were growing corn in small plots. I saw no evidence of organized, large-scale food animal or crop production.

We reached Cuttington University early in the afternoon. I was dropped off at the classroom, where Dr. Brown and the students were finishing their lunch. I entered the dimly lit classroom, greeted everyone, and then sat down to a large bowl of rice covered in palm butter “soup,” a spicy stew. Twenty minutes later, I was introducing myself to the class and helping with exercises on the pathology of transboundary animal diseases in chickens, goats, cattle, and pigs. I was immediately impressed with the students’ enthusiasm and hospitality. I would, from this point on, be referred to as “Robba,” which I found more endearing than the traditional “Robert.” For the next few hours, I was running on adrenaline, thinking on my feet, and out of my element. I was right where I wanted to be.

Over the course of the week, I helped Dr. Brown teach students about foreign animal diseases, including foot and mouth disease, Newcastle disease, and African swine fever. Through class exercises, we focused on the pathology of diseases. We led students through necropsies on goats and chickens. We highlighted principles of biosecurity, laboratory diagnostics, and epidemiology. Our 25 students varied widely in age and background. They included Ministry of Agriculture employees, Cuttington University agriculture students, and employees of non-governmental organizations addressing agriculture-related issues. Many had first names like Thomas, Clinton, Roosevelt, or Washington, which highlighted the historic link between Liberia and the U.S.

Our efforts were complicated by the students’ weak foundation in biological science. Yet they were attentive, extremely intelligent, and excellent problem solvers. By employing principles of adult learning, including collaboration, group problem solving, and student presentations, we were confident students were absorbing the material.

During the months leading up to my trip, I learned a good deal about Liberia through independent research and conversations with veterinarians who had conducted development work in Liberia. I knew this knowledge would strengthen our teaching efforts. But I discovered much more through actually being in the country. I learned more about the complex cultural, social, political, and economic factors relevant to agricultural development. Conversations with students helped me better understand the Ministry of Agriculture's goals and contributions of various non-governmental organizations working throughout Liberia. I also learned about the people themselves.

I spent time socializing with students. I routinely went out for dinner with students in downtown Gbarnga, watched soccer games with them, and toured neighboring towns. I had breakfast with students before class each morning. I had to re-discover my social skills. In Liberia, a typical greeting involves more than a perfunctory “How are you?” Greeting an acquaintance is more genuine and often involves more meaningful discussion of issues, including family matters. I even developed proficiency with the Liberian handshake, composed of a regular handshake lengthened momentarily by a quick “snap” of conjoined fingers at the handshake’s end.

With each day, the students shared more and more of their personal stories with me, and I shared my own story with them. I listened to first-hand accounts of the civil war, heard frustrations of government corruption, and grew to understand the complex factors hindering Liberian development. As we got to know the students and better understand Liberia, we were able to more thoroughly draw from students’ work and personal experiences to present the material in an effective, context-appropriate manner.

My experience in Liberia was not only about teaching; a large part of it was about building a strong relationship between Veterinarians Without Borders members and the Liberian people. In order for Liberia to rebuild its foundation in agriculture and other sectors, long-term work is needed. An essential component of capacity building is maintaining relationships while being careful not to nurture a culture of dependency.

Although I spent only two weeks with the students, we developed a strong bond. I learned a lot about Liberia and its people, and I learned a great deal about myself. This effort reaffirmed my belief that veterinary medicine is first and foremost about people. It also demonstrated the value of veterinary medicine and a One Health mentality in international development efforts.

I would highly recommend this type of work for other veterinary students interested in broader applications of veterinary medicine. Before signing on, however, students should realize that these experiences are not vacations or mere opportunities for adventure. International work often carries with it a level of frustration and requires patience, stamina, flexibility, and an open mind. I was sad to leave Liberia, but I left feeling that my time there was time well spent.

Many people helped make this a successful project. Dr. Brown was a fantastic mentor with contagious passion and enthusiasm. Dr. Eran Raizman (UN Food and Agriculture Organization) and Dr. Jarra Jagne (Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine) shared valuable insight with regard to promoting sustainable efforts in Liberia. Of course, the most important contribution came from the Liberian students themselves. Their hard work, optimism, and hospitality were truly inspiring. It was an honor working with them.