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For Equine Vets Everywhere

Paul Martynski shares his experience of working at The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust with the BEVA Trust

Volunteer stories
24 Jan 2020 BEVA Member
In December Joana Bourbon, Jessica May and Paul Martynski spent two weeks in the Gambia and Paul Martynski shares his experience of working at The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust.

I have never done any charity work (I am ashamed to say), and I have never ventured south of the African Sahara; so two weeks working on behalf of the BEVA Trust in the smallest mainland country in Africa, was always going to be an interesting, if not at least enlightening trip.

At the beginning of December 2019, myself and two other veterinary volunteers, Joanna a registered equine nurse, and Jess a fellow vet, set off from Heathrow to Banjul (the capital of The Gambia for all you fact lovers). We were destined for The Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT); a small charity set up by Stella Marsden OBE and Heather Armstrong her sister who now runs the charity. Their mission statement is to reduce rural poverty in The Gambia through improving the health, welfare and productivity of working animals. We were to find out that ‘working animals’ came to mean ‘anything that walks/trots/is carried through the gates’.

The Gambia is a country based entirely around the river that gives the country its name, with its borders mirroring the rivers meandering course from it’s source, to the Atlantic. With nearly 50% of the population living in poverty, a working animal can increase a Gambian farming families income by up to 500%, and thus buying an animal is a large investment. If an animal falls sick or dies this can then impact a family hugely, meaning that owners can be extremely reluctant to euthanase; something that became very evident and very difficult through our time in The Gambia. This coupled with a lack of good nutrition, equipment and husbandry knowledge made it challenging for farmers to keep their animals in good health and condition.

This is where the GHDT came in.

We arrived at the main hospital clinic in Makasutu, only 20 miles from the western coast of the country, that was brand-spankingly new, having been completed in spring 2017. Being shown round, we discovered the variety of in-patients that were at Makasutu, as well as the challenging cases that we were going to be getting stuck in to over the following two weeks. Donkeys with proximal limb fractures, horses with chronic weight loss, camels with chronic wounds, goats with peripheral neuropathy, as well as the crowd of rescued dogs, cats and chickens.

In conjunction to this initially daunting task, we were informed that the x-ray processor was out of action (for which we had been couriers for a spare part that was needed) as well as all three ultrasound machines, and the endoscope. Great.

The staffing of the centre consisted of a multitude of positions, that at many points seemed to cross-over and interchange, depending on the enthusiasm and interest of the particular individual. There were stable and yard staff who undertook cleaning out stables, turning animals out into paddocks, and general day-to-day running of the yard. Para-veterinary trainees and technicians undertook general healthcare tasks, checking animals’ parameters, bandage changes and wound care. Paul (eventually called ‘Uncle Paul’ to differentiate between him and myself), the on site Gambian qualified para-vet over-saw all the cases and tended to initiate treatment plans and carry out basic veterinary procedures. The semi-permanent volunteer vet Karelia, having been there for 12 months was soon to leave being replaced by another UK volunteer.

The following ten days consisted of working our way through these in-patients with the para-veterinary staff, undertaking treatments, making ongoing diagnostic and treatment plans, and essentially trying to fix these broken animals as best we could, with the limited resources and supplies we had. The GHDT relies almost entirely on donations when it comes to medications, bandaging material and surgical equipment. The ‘store room’ was packed with a mish-mash of out of date donated drugs and medications; huge numbers, but with the most useful actually being in very short supply, ie. having plenty of phenylephrine, atropine and other such drugs, but very little non-steroidals, local anaesthetic and other useful medications.

With the lack of working diagnostic equipment, and as the only male volunteer, I made it my mission to prove my masculine technical and mechanical knowledge (cue eye-rolling) by fixing as much as I could. Much to everyone’s (including my) surprise by the end of week one, we had three working ultrasound machines, one working endoscope and most importantly to us, a working x-ray machine! Not so lucky for some of our inpatients however; the fact we could now radiograph some of the injuries, we could see just how bad some of them were, ultimately leading to a necessary decision for euthanasing on purely humane grounds. Some notable patients were Kajaba, a donkey that had been in an RTA suffering a fractured left radius. He had been splinted and with our fresh-face enthusiasm he was put in a (very) makeshift sling. However, once we radiographed his radius as soon as the x-ray was working again, we saw just how displaced the fracture was, and his prognosis became very suddenly hopeless. Another pair (Orange and Abi) turned out to have one pair of distal phalanxes between them; Orange having had some unknown historic injury where he lost his hoof capsule and a new (relatively malformed) one had managed to fully grow back, but without a pedal bone, and Abi having suffered a machete injury (don’t ask). Despite this lack of a complete skeleton, both were walking around (albeit awkwardly), bright and eating well. The Gambian working animals seem almost to be a different breed of equid from those we get in the UK; seemingly enduring (and a lot of the time making it through) injuries that would have an animal in England in un-relenting pain. Obviously we all know it is very challenging and subjective to gauge an animals comfort and happiness, all GHDT in-patients ate very well, and were always in bright, calm states; and considering the extent of some of the injuries and illnesses, it was quite remarkable.

We also joined several travelling clinics during our stay. This would involve contacting a GHDT “ambassador” (usually a village elder or well known person from the community) who could spread the word to neighbouring villages and communities that a GHDT team would be turning up in a particular location to treat any animals brought to us. This would inevitably involve turning up to a huge crowd of people with donkeys, horses, goats, sheep and chickens in tow ready for us to assess and treat. A day spent in 40 degree heat in these remote villages not only caused some physical strain, but also a bit of strain on the old grey matter, desperately trying to remember the normal resting heart rate of a cockerel, or the dose rate of fenbendazole for a goat.

Another major part of the GHDT, was also to educate owners and farmers about animal care and welfare. During our stay, the annual GHDT Horse and Donkey Show took place. This was a free event for owners to bring their working animals, have them fitted for donated head collars and/or bridles and saddle pads/numnahs. The Gambian habit is to tether horse and donkeys by the pastern with thin rope, inevitably leading to nasty rope injuries. The traditional Gambian bridles weren’t much to be desired either; corrugated steel bent into a ring, that mostly ended up cutting into the commissures of the mouth. The animals at the show could then see the farrier for a hoof trim, and then eventually end up at our end, for any veterinary assessment and treatment. After all this, owners had the opportunity to enter their horse or donkey into the showring to be expertly judged (…yes I was one of the judges) with small cash prizes for those deemed in the best condition, with the highest degree of welfare and care. It is hoped that this annual event highlights the importance of animal healthcare and welfare for the benefit of not only the horses and donkeys, but also the farmers and their productivity.

Towards the end of the trip we ventured 160 miles deeper into Gambia, to the original GHDT clinic, in Sambel Kunda. A much more remote, basic affair, with very infrequent electricity and running water, no diagnostic equipment and sparse veterinary supplies. This showed us a different end of veterinary care in Gambia, using what you could to treat animals in need.

Overall this was an amazing, fascinating, thought-provoking, enjoyable and overall enlightening time in The Gambia. To any vets, whether having volunteered before or not, I would highly recommend this place, to not only experience a completely different world compared to equine work in the UK, but to challenge yourself, and really feel like you are making a bit of a difference…..one donkey at a time.