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The story of an UNMISS veterinarian in Bor: A lifeline to the people

The "waiting room" at the only veterinary clinic in Bor, overseen by an UNMISS vet from the Indian Army.

For Lieutenant-Colonel Richmark Fernandes, a peacekeeper from India serving with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, being around animals has always brought joy.

“In my village, we had a lot of chickens and cows growing up. I always loved them so much,” he says.

His passion for animals of all shapes and sizes later led him to pursue a degree in veterinary sciences, after which he joined the Indian army, where he has been serving as a veterinarian for the last 15 years.

“The satisfaction you get when you see a sick animal getting better cannot be expressed in words.”

But he never thought that his career path would one day lead him to work in faraway Africa, based in Bor in South Sudan’s Jonglei region, tending to livestock in remote communities. When that opportunity knocked on his door, however, he never hesitated.

“I saw an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of the animals and their owners,” he smiles.

Richmark Fernandes currently oversees the only veterinary clinic in the greater Bor area, and so far it has been a dream come true, both for himself and for the his multitude of clients and patients.

As the sole veterinary facility around, it represents a major source of hope and relief to the thousands of herders who rely on livestock for their livelihoods.

The South Sudanese, many of whom have been keeping cattle for generations, take pride in maintaining their cattle in tip-top shape. Their wellbeing is essential for their owners to be able to take part in certain socio-cultural and economic practices, especially when it comes to marriage ceremonies. Here, the family of the husband-to-be will pay many, many cows to the parents and relatives of the future bride.

A typical day at the clinic for Richmark, who has affectionately come to be known by locals as “Richmond,” starts at eight in the morning, usually with the waiting room already packed with bleating, mooing, chatting and, occasionally, barking visitors with health issues of varying degrees of severity.

“We examine close to 60 patients daily. They come here with anything from tuberculosis to east coast fever, which is usually fatal,” the army veterinary explains.

Prolonged armed conflict in the country has prevented herders from being able to properly care for their livestock. Insecurity, combined with a lack of vaccines and medical services in general, has taken its toll, resulting in many farm animals being in bad shape.

Luckily, though, the situation is steadily improving. The much-needed medications have become more readily available, and livestock and other domestic animals are recovering their traditionally rude health.

Richmark also provides advice on how cattle can be best reared to maximize their full milk and meat-producing potential. One pro tip is that their diet should include food other than grass, which is sometimes contaminated.

“If they can follow this suggestion, herders can increase their cows’ milk output from the average litre and a half per day to three and a half litres. They will also give birth to healthier offspring,” the vet explains.  

In addition to providing medical services, the Indian battalion in Jonglei has assisted in renovating the clinic and ensuring the timely delivery of drugs and other necessary equipment to keep it active.

The work of Richmark and Indian battalions over a total of almost nine years has been greatly appreciated by local herders and government officials alike. In fact, a letter signed by John Dut Kuch, Jonglei minister of agriculture, forestry, livestock and fisheries hangs proudly on the wall of Richmond’s office.

The effects of their work have been especially palpable in the area considering that ongoing volatility brought on by years of inter-ethnic conflict had nearly destroyed its cattle industry, the aftermath of which still lingers.

“Without the care and attention to detail that we receive at the clinic. we would have lost most of our animals,” states local herder Majak Kuol.

Richmond is not yet entirely satisfied with his accomplishments, though. 

“We are currently training eight animal health workers, which will bring the total number of qualified personnel in the area to about 50. We also provide short-term training to herders from nearby villages,” he says, adding that in an ideal world a much larger number would be available.

Sometimes Richmark lectures at the John Garang Memorial University for Science and Technology, turning young aspiring veterinarians on to this important and satisfying line of work.

Although it has been difficult for Richmark being far away from his family, he has managed to stay energized all these years.

“The zeal to serve the people of South Sudan keeps me going, and the gratitude received from them is truly tremendous and touching.”