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Volunteering in Zanzibar expanded my understanding of diversity

INSTAGRAM @femmedusiecle   
Elan Armstrong is a dual degree DVM/MPH student from St. George’s University. She is spending her clinical year at Cornell University. Elan plans on starting her career in private practice before pursuing a residency in Laboratory Animal Medicine.

Often, when we hear the word “diversity,” we immediately think of race, gender, and sexual orientation in an all-encompassing effort to be inclusive in a work space or school setting. While the acceptance and appreciation of differences in those sectors are critical, they only mark the tip of the iceberg.

Drifting away to another land can really unearth experiences and feelings that one wouldn’t otherwise encounter. When on foreign soil, our senses are more attuned to new sounds, new tastes, and new sights. We are almost forced to think outside of ourselves and step into the shoes and lives of others around us. One might experience cognitive dissonance in the form of exhibiting conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to what is perceived, as what is familiar to us is pushed aside by what is new in the form of foreign languages, customs, and religious and cultural beliefs. These are the very things that can influence the way veterinary medicine is perceived and practiced and serve as the gateway to accepting and appreciating everything and everyone around us.

I have always been a bit of a globe-trotter, having lived in Jamaica, Grenada, and France, visiting the Cayman Islands, Portugal, Turkey, and Canada. Whenever possible, I like to take advantage of opportunities that allow me to jump on a plane and collect passport stamps. One such opportunity presented itself in the summer of 2018 when WorldwideVets granted me the opportunity to volunteer with the Zanzibar Animals Affection Society (ZAASO) Community Clinic all the way off the coast of Tanzania, on the vibrant island of Zanzibar. My experience there taught me how to navigate through cultural influences that impacted the way veterinary medicine is practiced internationally.

Zanzibar is predominantly a Muslim nation, which offered me the chance to observe the careful effort it took for the island’s veterinarian to convince owners of the importance to castrate their pets or euthanize when the animal’s welfare was at stake, sometimes to no avail. In Zanzibar, men are considered to be more dominant than women; therefore, I had to find creative ways to communicate effectively and assertively, with the assistance of my overseeing veterinarian. Though you will hear occasional English spoken from time to time, Swahili is the primary language on the island. Locals found it pleasing and were most responsive when I tried my best to communicate in their language, even with the most basic words and phrases.

Thankfully, I am no stranger to language barriers so remembering the importance of smiling and making an effort to speak their mother tongue, even if you are terrible at it, really goes a long way. There were a few times when I would politely order from a restaurant menu in broken Swahili and be met with a warm smile and more food than I had ordered. There was even a time when I missed my ferry transport from Zanzibar back to Tanzania and was patiently assisted by a manager of the ferry company who was able to source another ticket for me without asking for anything in return.

It was critical for me to learn how to respectfully educate and raise awareness amongst locals regarding animal welfare, the importance of ensuring basic animal care, as well as trying to discourage them from capturing wildlife; all soft skills that are of high value no matter the country.

Occasionally, I would happen upon individuals who saw no harm in using their hunting dogs to catch mona monkeys, for instance, and keep them in captivity for monetary purposes. Most times, the animal would suffer from dog bite injuries and would be brought into the community clinic for care. Rather than chastise the individual responsible for the animals, I learned it was best to focus on the positive aspect, which is that they at least sought aid. Anything I was able to do that showed appreciation for their cultural differences and way of life was repaid in gratitude and a willingness to listen and be receptive.

As budding veterinarians, we do our due diligence by acknowledging the monumental impact of global travel and its ability to mold our minds and perspectives. Exposing ourselves to differences in language, spiritual beliefs, and culture serve as the gateway to accepting and appreciating everything around us. Ultimately, we will appreciate the fact that there are many styles to practicing medicine, but the universal desired outcome of educating our clients about animal welfare, as well as ensuring health and wellbeing for our patients, solely rests on the common denominator that we have to uphold our respect and appreciation for diversity.

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