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November 28, 2012

South Asia: Travelogue by a Kiwi Veterinarian

This travelogue, by a New Zealand veterinarian who served in South Asia, describes how he came to understand the need to rely on God.

  • Nomadic Goat Herders

    Working in the rural area of South Asia with nomadic goat herders felt like traveling a thousand years back in time. It was both invigorating and terrifying to be so far from home.

Jet-lagged and nervous, I found my way to the meeting place and found Abdullah, my translator and guide. He was wonderfully friendly and took me to the office in the city.

The driving here is the worst I’ve seen (out of half a dozen third-world mega-cities I’ve visited), and it didn’t surprise me that we had a minor accident on the way. The office had armed guards, broken glass, and high fences – the risk of attack is very real here.

After a night in the city, we were off to visit the nomadic goat herders, which is only a few hours drive but feels like a thousand years back in time. It was both invigorating and terrifying to be so far from home. It’s like a cross between a National Geographic magazine and a Bible story. To see the disciples walking past would not have surprised me in the least.

Most of the tent villages where I stayed had been warned of my arrival and had a bunch of sick animals waiting to show me one by one. Sometimes the complaint was obvious, such as an infected wound, but many animals were just “poor doers”.

As a New Zealander, just experiencing this Southern Asian cultural change would have been fine, but to take action as veterinarian was a different story. To perform is quite different than to observe. Creating medical plans in the comforts of a real clinic is so very different than in the wilderness, and this meant a lot of hard brainwork. It also put me in a place of really needing God’s peace and the knowledge that He wanted me here, and so he had better come to the party! Because the workers had been living with these people for many years, they had earned a good degree of trust. That trust was extrapolated to include me, which was a very important part of learning and teaching. Although the workers had given fairly realistic expectations of my work, there was still something of mixed feelings in the air between, “What does this guy know?” and, “Great he can sort out all our problems!”

This “What does this guy know?” attitude was manifest at one meeting with a rather well educated village leader in a place where cows are popular. Early in the conversation, he told me that they had been raising cows for a very long time and that “we know what we are doing, thank you.” I had enough experience to know that other villages were really struggling in their milk production, so I told him that. I told him that I hoped I could learn important Southern Asian techniques from him to teach the others who were not doing so well. Then I told him that in New Zealand, even when farmers are producing 30 liters upwards, they still come to me wanting more production. Perhaps his village also wanted to increase production? From the prompt reply of, “Yes” we had each other’s undivided attention for hours.

In the nomadic camps, I had to be taught everything. Not just the culturally obvious things like not looking at women, but even eating and toileting had to be learned. For instance, guys will never stand when in the restroom! Since there were no toilets around, one had to pick a quiet time of the day and a quiet area to find a convenient bush to hide behind. I got up early on about the third day in country to go about my business. Just as I was standing up to gather together my ballooning South Asian pants, I heard a menacing hiss and realized I was perhaps a meter from a coiled snake. It had reared its head up, clearly telling me to get out of there. I’m told it was likely to be a viper or an adder snake. So, struggling with everything being culturally strange, I have to add to that there were the physical dangers of being killed by wild animals! I really struggled to understand how or why anyone would be able to live here with their families with so many difficulties. Later, I discovered that the American family who was showing me around had never seen a snake in their nine years in country, so my fears were perhaps inaccurate!

Although most of the veterinary work was overwhelming, there were enough occasions where I felt genuinely helpful. Health issues like wound infections are “tidy” enough to deal with regardless of location, culture, etc. As time went on, I found I could recognize more simple “missing pieces”. I saw enough cases to develop a protocol that I tried to teach to everyone I came into contact with.

Because I had travelled in several third world countries, sometimes for good periods of time, I did not expect any real culture shock. But the complete isolation and danger (food poisoning, militia, animal danger, etc.) of this part of South Asia and all of the required hard work put me in a position of really feeling God's presence. I could feel the love of God continuously through thick and thin, and I prayed almost continually! This wasn’t a “protect me and I’ll owe you” sort of praying, rather a “You are the Lord and no matter what happens, You are Lord” humbling sort of praying.

Because I was so welcomed by the local people, I felt an immediate closeness to them. We had the same goals of wanting the best for their animals and therefore for the people. But due to the language barrier and not being able to read cultural cues, we could not become more than friendly. To commit to years in a country like this has a stronger appeal now than before this trip.

Many of the deeper conversations I had during the trip were with the workers around the towns I visited. There is quite a move to becoming culturally integrated with the Muslim people – much more so than I had realized. Some will do the Ramadan fasting month, some will pray with the Muslims five times a day at prayer call, and all will dress like Muslims. This is a far cry from workers of old who taught the savages about being civilized! This new approach is not completely novel to me, but the extent is very challenging to me. The number of people who come to follow Christ seems low, but it is very difficult to gauge due to the secrecy involved. It is relatively common for new Christians to be killed by family members for disgracing their family. I am still working through the pros and cons of this approach and the level to which one should go along this track. Certainly, I am immensely proud of the workers I met and their decisive direction they are taking for the glory of God.

Because this was my first trip in a veterinary capacity, it was difficult to change my clinical thought processes to become South Asian-ized. I think it is very likely that going with another vet (or two at maximum) would have aided the brainstorming needed in coming up with good plans. Sometimes it would be long after the event before I came up with an appropriate thought or idea that could have been very useful at the time. More brains increase the chance of coming up with good ideas. Another great advantage would have been to reduce the feeling of isolation. Many times, my translator chatted for ages with the locals in their language, and I was left to my own devices. This was wholly appropriate but strange for me. Having someone else to chat to in these times would have increased my enjoyment no end. Actually that leads me onto a big part of life that was minimal in South Asia: fun. I’m pretty sure this was my issue here. I like to be able to have a giggle with people I know throughout the day and what a great stress-reliever that is. In South Asia, it was quite difficult to create that situation despite the wonderful people I was around. I assume that living in South Asia for a longer period would enable me to relax enough to find the light-hearted moments easily, but it was an issue for my short-term stay.

Many times during my visit, I was asked if I would come back. Certainly there is a need for a long-term veterinarian to live and work with the Non-Government Organizations in South Asia. The answer was, and still is: “I don’t know.” To be honest, there were many times that I couldn’t wait to get home and out of the uncomfortable situations. But the times of meeting incredible people, meeting God in a new way, and finding ways where I could fulfill God’s will, were very powerful. I am presently very aware of a silence from God over details for our family’s future. We feel confident about our plan for the next year but that’s it. We will be involved in this field in the future, but we don’t know where or how. Perhaps there is an opening for Linda my wife to experience a short-term visit to get a taste of what to prepare for. We need to work through that one.

I’m not sure what I would have done differently if it was all going to happen again. For all the hard bits, I think I coped OK. Everyone seemed to really like me and what I was achieving. I would try very hard to relax a bit more, but that’s easy to say while I’m back here in New Zealand! I would have asked in advance for more specific information on the timetable and what to expect. I would have asked for more info on my budget for medicine for the animals and therefore how I could treat certain problems. Not huge things really.

I am amazed how anti-spiritual New Zealand is in comparison to South Asia. Even talking to colleges about non-scientific things like love is extremely awkward. The trip taught me about reliance on God that is so difficult to understand here in my New Zealand life. I have everything sorted here. I have stability, security, answers. But in South Asia, I had none of these things, yet was given a view into the other part of this world where God resides. I’d like to have my cake and eat it too, but it is difficult to rest on one’s laurels and to trust Him.

-Written by Steve H.