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Zimbabwe’s first black woman veterinarian retires

By Dr Ushewokunze-ObatoluI

T WAS a combination of experiences which led me to choose to be a veterinary surgeon. First it was my fascination with biology at school and hence an early interest and parental encouragement for the study of medicine.

Ushewokunze-Obatolu is a Veterinarian of 40 years standing. She became Zimbabwe’s first black woman Veterinarian in 1979. 

In those years, not much was known socially about veterinary medicine.  I had however been fortunate to have had first-hand experience of living with pets at home as well as seeing and handling milking cows.  Playing a part as a veterinarian in a parents day play skit in high school was what really further kindled my interest in trying this for a career.

I am glad I strayed into this area and perhaps I adjusted well into it by joining the public services, a year after independence.  Public Veterinary Services are not so much about delivering health services to individual animals or herds/ flocks.  That is left to those who set themselves up in the private sector for clinical services.  The Veterinary Authority of the state is more concerned with minimising the impact of animal health and welfare on the economic and social contribution of animals and on species conservation for sustainability.  The real day today task is therefore to keep a finger on the pulse of the health and welfare of the national animal resource.  The challenge in this is that animals are either free-ranging in the wild or are kept by their owners in a diversity of locations and management situations.

Disease causes are part of the natural environment and can be fuelled by human practices. Animal diseases and pests being a major factor in animal health, the main aspect is providing a continuous service for the on-going detection, prevention and control, of key diseases and pests, checking risks for their impact in order to influence national policies and programs, and to provide advice to those impacted by their occurrence.  Animal diseases and pests affect productivity and therefore quantities, supplies, distribution, shelf life and prices of animal-source food and non-food products.  They also affect the quality of products, their appeal on markets, enterprise viability and product competitiveness.  Some animal diseases and pests are of human health concern including the safety of food.  A combination of these affects market access.

The stages I went through in my 38-year long career involved first working as a laboratory-based veterinary diagnostician, taking part in confirmatory tests on samples from a wide array of animal species ranging from fish, domesticated food and pet animals to wildlife employing techniques in post-mortem examination, microscopic techniques,  chemical and microbiological analyses.  At later stages, I set up population based evaluative and diagnostic tools which are important in the analysis and interpretation of big data and their association with spatial factors.  These techniques are an important basis for conducting research and intelligence gathering in biological systems.  I therefore made use of them in planning and executing animal disease research over the years, in support of decision-making for disease control.  During my tenure, the research program shifted to addressing social issues and then became influenced by rapid development in molecular technology and informatics.  Administrative veterinary medicine has benefited and still has to realise the potentials of digital technologies which continue to broaden horizons for applications in the field.

The most important aspect being early detection of key and new diseases and pests, the outputs of on-going impact analysis and cause-effect relationships studies are in ensuring that response actions in controlling and further preventing ill health and disease-related losses are effective, thereby minimising public health and food safety hazards and ensuring livelihood resilience, and more successful product marketing and trade.

My final six years have been the most exciting. I have been serving as Zimbabwe’s representative to the animal health standard setting body, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).  Implementation of the OIE standards at national level helps to ensure production efficiency, at the same time ensuring our animal commodities remain competitive at international markets.  It however involves checking that while the standards set are scientifically correct and valid, that they are also not used as unreasonable barriers to trade.  This is important as the distribution of animal diseases and pests is not always uniform globally.  Some parts of the globe may therefore be quite ignorant of key problems which may be important for us at home.  It therefore calls for the development of technical capacity to apply scientific reasoning and techniques transparently, to convince trade partners.  This capacity is currently rather weak and needs strong attention to grow and sustain, both at home and in the developing world, generally. This requires keeping pace with demands of globalisation and modernisation in which partnership with animal keepers, conservationists, traders, transporters and welfare lobbyists must be taken always.

I have also derived much joy in moulding guiding young veterinary professionals especially those who settled in various facets of the profession.  A significant number have however been exiting the service prematurely in recent years.

I take immense pleasure in having made an enriching professional choice as the job content seemed to balloon as I became engrossed in it.  There are other career opportunities which are open in the food industry, in the production industry (aquaculture, poultry, feedlots, dairies etc.) wildlife services, academia, in the sports and eventing industry with horses and sometimes dogs as well as in circuses. My choice was influenced by our stages in national development

I am yet however to prove my mettle as a commercial producer of animals.  The art of animal production is quite a different kettle of fish.  I will now be needing to test my abilities with making hard decisions at personal level, in the context of input and output relationships, markets, prices, natural factors and labour management. This will now be my new challenge.

As I leave, I encourage the incoming generation of public sector veterinarians to observe professional ethics, under service conditions which have been changing especially in the context of technology developments.  It is an essential requirement to always remain transparent and guided by science in dealing with clients without fear or favor. Administrative veterinary services require one to be an avid reader and one who keeps abreast of scientific developments.

Most importantly the Veterinary Authority needs to be strengthened for its important role in national biosecurity maintenance, veterinary public health service provision, support to biodiversity conservation and the provision of sanitary safety assurances in trade involving animal-source commodities.  It is a role of great importance in the sustenance of livestock production within the food and nutrition responsibility of the Agriculture sector.  It is highly important that the Public Services Commission accords a special ear to this specialised unit in Government as a lot of milaeage gets lost in misunderstandings about technical posts and definitions of specialisms and their differences in the disciplines, which could be unnecessarily costly over time.

My early years, were at the height of our beef exports to the EU.  It is my dream that we get the country to export again but not necessarily only to the EU.  Much of that has to do with the strength of our veterinary services which have buckled under the economic downturn affecting the veterinary service, cattle keepers and support industries.  Exports of food fish, dairy products, beehive products, poultry, as well as leather and other by-products have been equally affected.

At this point our national veterinary service needs consistent investment to enhance technical authority, capacity and in its governance dealings through partnerships with stakeholders. Piecemeal resource allocations will not help the effort.  A Performance of Veterinary Services gap analysis has indicated a need for at least US$52 million per year for the next 5 years coupled with attention to capacity developments and infrastructural support to bring the services up to speed.  Specific attention is also required to retain specialised expertise which take rather long to develop.

Dr Ushewokunze-Obatolu is a Veterinarian of 40 years standing. She became Zimbabwe’s first black woman Veterinarian in 1979.