BEVA volunteers Millie Lumsden, Rebekah Sullivan and Markus Wilke delivered a 4-day workshop and supported the para-veterinary team at the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trus (GHDT). Markus, Millie and Rebekah share their experience of volunteering at the GHDT.
It was in February 2023 when Millie, Rebekah and Markus travelled south to spend two weeks with the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (GHDT). The UK registered charity is managed by Heather Armstrong and runs two stationary veterinary stations in the small former British colony just north of the equator. The organisation has the vision to reduce rural poverty by increasing productivity of working animals in the country. Donkeys and horses play an essential role in transportation of goods for the Gambians, and by providing education and veterinary care, the charity provides important support to local communities, improving not only the welfare of the animals but of their owners, too. Lately treating dogs has become part of the GHDT mission in order to improve animal-human relationship and providing a wider base of veterinary care in the country, due to the two small animal charities based in Gambia having recently closed their doors.
Initially we joined the staff at the Makasutu main station – not far from Gambia’s international airport. Here a purpose built facility including stables, treatment and storage rooms, staff quarters, accommodation for visiting vets and a classroom provide a good setting to look after donkeys and horses that have been more severely wounded or disabled, as well as facilities to provide teaching courses.
Ailments ranged from severe traumata like from e.g. road traffic accidents to less severe but chronic and debilitating (rub) sores from badly fitting tack and chronic neglect. A significant proportion of equids presented in very poor body condition. The primary cause was often suspected to be trypanosomiasis but piroplasmosis also had to be borne in mind, alongside basic malnutrition, endoparasite burdens, lack of adequate rest and the myriad other possible differentials for weight loss. Particularly challenging was the differential diagnosis of mild to severe forms of neurologic disease, without the possibility to have samples taken for further (laboratory) examination. At Makasutu, the staff have access to a refractometer, centrifuge and microscope, with Diff Quik and Giemsa stains, allowing for basic haematological examination.
In addition to treating animals at the clinic, field trips to surrounding villages were organised. The call-outs usually started with a small number of animals, then the news of a veterinary visit spread like a bush fire and very quickly more and more owners showed up with their donkeys in tow to get teeth checked and rasped if needed, small wounds looked after, badly misshapen feet trimmed or suspected trypanosomiasis treated. We attended two of these ‘treks’ and around 34 donkeys were treated at each one. It was very encouraging to see that a number of owners showed up with no concerns about their animals but just wanting a “check over” and were handed over a head collar to replace the wire or rope hobbles to lead their donkeys. Whereas most minor ailments were treated on the spot, for some animals it was decided to transport them to the hospital for a more detailed work-up and intensive and continued care. A challenge appeared to keep the charity’s vehicles in a working order: while minor repairs could be managed by the staff, more major technical work required local mechanics to be called and paid from the charity’s funds.
During the first week of our visit, a 4-day workshop for Gambian agricultural college graduates was held at the Makasutu station. Due to the need of daily travel of the workshop participants – at times from up to 2 hours away by minibus - a late start allowed for treating hospitalized patients before the lectures would start late in the morning, interrupted by lunch and prayer (the majority of Gambians are Muslims) and a practical part in the afternoon. Training of paravets during college is predominantly focused on veterinary public health and production animals (poultry, sheep and goat), so equine topics were fairly new to most participants, who showed a genuine interest to learn more about these species.
During the second week we were asked to do a morning of inhouse training for the Makasutu centre staff. This was a very productive morning, in which we began with a brainstorm session, involving ourselves and all the staff, identifying what the staff currently feel works well, what doesnt and what changes they would like to see. We then split into three groups, led by each BEVA volunteer and rotated around the groups, covering basic clinic and staff hygiene, biosecurity and wound management, record keeping and communication between staff members, assessing patients and adjusting treatment plans, deciding when to discharge and donkey behaviour and handling.
Afterwards, we went 250 km east and upriver Gambia to the smaller station in the village of Sambel Kunda. This more remote outpost was the seeding point for the GHDT and remains to be an important local base to support donkey owners. We reviewed the medical situation of cumulated cases (here donkeys and horses only) and performed a number of donkey castrations, and - for one afternoon – had the opportunity to visit the River Gambia National Park with its chimps, hippos, crocs and birds on a boat trip – a lifetime experience.
In summary: a long list of visiting veterinarians – many of them supported by the BEVA Trust - have helped to train the local para-veterinary staff to a level that they are proficient to cope with day-to day problems. More serious injuries though still represent a challenge and while the short duration of veterinary visits benefits the exposure to many different “expert” opinions there is the challenge of consistency in veterinary care and the availability of adequate medical resources. We identified the following as areas for consideration:
Monitoring of donations to the charity -at present the centre is overloaded with some supplies, yet lacking in others
Decision making over performing castrations or other elective surgeries when tetanus anti-toxin is not available
Need to continue training of centre staff in routine and remedial farriery
Need to continue training of centre staff in routine dental care
Review of anthelmintic use policy
Monitoring of the advice given by visiting veterinary volunteers, to ensure that helpful advice is given and the staff are empowered to explore/ask questions when conflicting opinions are presented
The centre staff were keen to review their monitoring of inpatients, ensuring good handover between day and night shift staff, recording the need to check the hooves of any longer term inpatients and all agreed that no equid should be discharged without a dental check.
Providing veterinary care for dogs has added an additional task to the staff, responsible for both veterinary care of stationary patients and hospital maintenance. And it appears that usually the best trained staff members eventually go their own ways either within the small country – which pays out to the community – or overseas, which adds to the brain drain in developing countries. Over the past 3 years the GHDT was lucky to have veterinary nurse Emily Mils as a long term volunteer on board – with her prospective return to the UK a large gap for the local organisation will emerge – hopefully this can be filled by a successor in due course.
For all three of us this short stint in the Gambia has been a mind-widening experience, and while we return to our veterinary jobs in the developed modern world we will not forget how challenging the situation remains for veterinary care in developing countries.