Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Out of Africa

I am just back home from Mali, West Africa and I thought I might tell you a little bit about the adventure. The scope of this project was to be centered on improving goat and sheep husbandry practices in order to increase production of meat and milk. Sounds pretty basic right? Well little did I know that after flying 16 hours I would find out that this was a marketing project, not a medical one! And the adventure begins…

 At the initial meeting with the head of the field office in Bamako I listened with great intensity, taking copious notes, all the while the voice in my head kept asking, “what the heck do I know about marketing???” Well, I’m no quitter and so on the appointed day I put on my game face, loaded my luggage into a pick up truck and set off for the four-hour drive across the Malian countryside to the village that was to be my home for the next two weeks.

 After meeting with members of the small village it quickly became clear that the sorts of marketing problems they were experiencing had everything to do with methods of production coupled with complete lack of record of keeping. Phew! I can do this! Each day I presented a basic concept that would help the villagers make the connection between the health of their animals and their ability to make a profit on them at market. Hmmm…. I guess I do know something about marketing after all!

 The Malian people I met were such a joy; they were so happy to share their lives, their homes and themselves with a total stranger. Their kindness and sense of humor made my stay in their village a complete delight. There was one very quiet man who had been coming to training each day, and each day asking to speak to me separately. This gentleman had carefully written out his own introduction and a list of questions he wanted to ask me…keep in mind that in Mali the literacy rate averages about 45%. The entire exchange was conducted in such a polite, respectful and gratitude filled manner with the only motivation being to learn more about my country, my culture, and me. As I answered his questions and waited for his responses I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. When was the last time I showed such interest in a total stranger? How often do I dismiss others from different countries or cultures rather than making an effort to learn about them simply because their ways are strange to me? I suspect that we would all benefit greatly if we took the time to slow down and really see PEOPLE instead of only focusing on the task at hand.

So how does this relate to veterinary technology, the veterinary profession and to you? In confronting the problems this village was experiencing in earning income from their animals, I applied knowledge, skills and abilities cultivated over years of experience as an RVT. These skills helped me to isolate the most pressing problems affecting the financial bottom line in this village. Much as with the clients we see in private practice, seeking the origin of a problem requires looking backwards…taking an adequate history, so-to-speak. In public health we like to call this sort of problem solving “working upstream”. And yes, it helps to remember that veterinary medicine is a business as well as a vocation.

In Mali I was asked to help the people market their animals more effectively so that they could increase their income. What was really needed was an assessment of the activities that took place all along the marketing chain. We can forget that the things we know and take for granted can be applied in new and creative ways to find solutions to life’s challenges. Never underestimate your ability to step outside your own personal comfort zone. You will experience moments of panic, as I did, and perhaps some doubt, but in the end you the lessons you will learn about yourself and the world around you will be immeasurable.

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