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Darfur: grass roots health care for livestock

30-05-2006 Feature

With so many needs to be addressed in conflict-ridden Darfur, training community-based animal health workers to run veterinary clinics might not seem to be a high priority. But it is proving invaluable for thousands of livestock owners who have seen their animals sicken and die for lack of treatment.

  ©ICRC/J. Barry    
  Participants learn about IHL and the work of the ICRC    
  ©ICRC/J. Barry    
  Ibrahim Al-Tahir (left) and other trainees during a lecture    
  ©ICRC/J. Barry    
  Participants learn about IHL and the work of the ICRC    

The Community Animal Health Workers training, or CAHW, is an integral part of the ICRC's economic security programme in Sudan, and was first implemented in the south of the country during the conflict there alongside similar programmes run by other agencies.

The ICRC began CAHW training in western and southern Darfur in the spring of 2005. Pastoralists and other participants travelled huge distances to attend sessions in Garcila, Buram and Nyala.

In northern Darfur, following an in-depth needs assessment last November, a 10-day basic training course for herders, pastoralists and nomads was held in Dar Zaghawa. Today agro-pastoralists in Dar Al-Salaam south of Al-Fashir are also being trained, and another course is planned for nomads who have plied the north-south migration routes around Kabkabiye, west of Al-Fashir since time immemorial.

The CAHW programme has a two-fold aim: to teach people basic veterinary skills so they can run clinics and treat sick animals in areas where there are no veterinary services, and to enable them to do this in a way that will be financially self-sustainable. The programme is intended to complement, but is not directly linked to, animal vaccination campaigns being organized by the ICRC in many parts of Darfur.

A monitoring mission, conducted in March to evaluate the impact of the training in Dar Zaghawa, revealed that the animal health workers had been well received back into their communities and up to 90% of them were still fully employed. Their small clinics were offering a much needed service, and there were even requests from village leaders for more health workers to be trained. As a result, a seco nd basic training course in Dar Zaghawa is now in the pipeline.

The criteria for joining a CAHW training is strict. Only one person per village may participate to avoid rivalry. The candidate is selected by the ICRC from a choice of three people put forward by the communities themselves. The one selected must be a married man, own livestock, be literate, and have an interest in animal husbandry. He should also be a civilian, prepared to return and work in his community after training, and have no family ties with the village sheikh.

On a recent morning, 13 men from a scattering of remote villages in northern Darfur gathered in the compound of a girls school in Dar Al-Salaam, and sat down under a spreading thorn tree. This was the venue for the latest training course being organised in cooperation with the North Darfur State Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources in Al-Fashir.

Over the following ten days, the men would learn how to diagnose and treat a range of animal diseases, and how to do simple surgery. They would also be taught about parasites, pathology and basic pharmacology. Part of their training would cover the notions of cost recovery and income generation. One session would be given over to dissemination about international humanitarian law and the work of the ICRC.

Among the participants was Ibrahim Al-Tahir, a 37 year-old father of six children and the owner of 20 sheep, a number of chickens and a donkey. Asked if his family was happy that he was training to be a para-vet, he replied with alacrity " It's not only my family who are happy, but the whole village as well. "

Another trainee joined in the conversation. " In my village, there is no way to get access to vet services any more, " he said, adding, " Nowadays, we just treat our cattle and sheep and goats with whatever medicines we have available, and hope for the best. "

Darfur is an inhospitable place for animals at the best of times. The vast, forbidding desert terrain is searingly hot, lacks water, is swept by sand storms that turn the sky brick red, and, during the rainy season, prone to flash floods that sweep away man and beast without warning.

Since conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003, new problems have added to the livestock's already precarious existence. Today, migration routes are blocked because of fighting, and access to veterinary services and markets where medicines are available lie beyond reach in towns cut off behind front lines. Likewise, government-trained vets based in Al-Fashir, the administrative capital of North Darfur, can no longer travel in safety to many rural areas.

But the participation of the vets is crucial to the CAHW programme, for it is they who lead the training sessions. The ICRC therefore obtains the necessary security guarantees that will enable them to travel to the venues, and transports them back and forth in its vehicles.

It is a process that has met with everyone's approval.

An essential part of the training is the'starter kit'which each participant receives at the end of the course. A large, silver-coloured metal trunk, it contains the essential drugs, instruments, materials and other supplies that each man will need in order to set up a small animal dispensary once he returns home. And having learnt the notions of cost recovery as part of his training, he will be expected to replenish his stocks by charging a small fee for the medicines he prescribes, and for his services.

Under the thorn tree, Ibrahim Al-Tahir got ready for the first session. As he stood up, he remarked,

" Training only one person from each village is not enough to cover all the needs, but it is far better than nothi ng, "

" I agree, " volunteered Abdul Al-Mutalib Yahya, another participant.

" The rainy season is coming and the livestock will get sick. Without vets coming to the village, we must know how to treat the animals ourselves. "