Photography and Article by Heidi Thulin
It’s a hot, sunny late-June morning in northwestern Uganda, and Dr. James Gibson and five of his veterinary students are huddled over an anesthetized dog, discussing the best course of action. The previous day, the group drove from the capital city of Kampala to Arua to offer their services to the missionaries and workers needing animal assistance, and when Radio Pacis, a local Christian radio station, heard of their arrival, the manager asked if they could remove a mammary tumor from one of their guard dogs. It is a good thing they came, too, because this dog was in dire need of intervention. In fact, anywhere James brings his students, he discovers that his skills and services are in high demand.
In many villages and towns throughout Uganda where poverty is a major problem, many people turn to farming as a source of income. They dream of a successful poultry farm that yields plentiful eggs or of cattle herds that produce fresh milk. Unfortunately, many of those people have never worked with animals before, and rather than having a thriving livelihood, they find themselves plagued by unhealthy animals that are unable to produce anything profitable. In desperation, these farmers turn to their community veterinarian. But an honest veterinarian is hard to find.
Veterinarians in Uganda have a tainted reputation. Oftentimes, the person working on an animal masquerades under a fake degree, gives the wrong medication, or pressures the client to pay bribes in order to receive proper treatment. James talks about these ethical decisions with his students on a regular basis. “I see my work as having a two-prong approach,” he said, “trying to instill passion in the job and passion for God within that. I want them to see that they don’t have to follow that same path [of corruption] in order to do well in life. A vet has a privileged position. You’re being allowed into people’s lives. You have a position of power to be a real force for good, whether it’s their pets or their farm animals that you’re treating. It’s easy for me to want to do all the treatments myself, but it is so much better for me to be training vets and setting them on the right path, so they can multiply themselves and head out into Uganda, working with integrity in their profession.”
Since 2012, James has been an honorary lecturer at Makarere University, Uganda’s only school with a veterinary program. Besides lecturing in the classroom, he invites small groups of his students to accompany him on these home visits. These educational trips serve multiple purposes. Firstly, they give Ugandans in remote areas the chance to receive quality animal care. James and the students give vaccinations and teach the owners proper feeding, hygiene, and mating practices, along with other general husbandry topics.
Just as importantly, the trips also expose his students to new, and sometimes difficult, environments. “We don’t have so many animal hospitals around,” Timothy, one of the students, remarks, “and so we need to learn how to improvise on the field. A surgery location should not have direct wind interference, which can cause contamination. It should be quiet and not dusty. Generally, the place should be clean.”
But finding an ideal surgical location can be tricky at a place like Radio Pacis, where the red dust is in abundance and one of the only shaded locations is at the station’s dumpsite. Piles of discarded wood and wire, an old water tank, and broken plastic chairs surround the operating table. Halfway through the surgery, a leaf falls into the dog’s open wound, and James quickly demonstrates how to handle the contaminated object and treat the wound so it will not become infected.
“I’ve always enjoyed surgery and working with my hands,” James tells me. “Even in the UK, I’d take students out and spend some time in the different practices where I worked. I’d mentor and train them, just as I had been mentored and trained in the past.” And for his Ugandan students, who are not used to teachers treating them as equals, this technique of teaching is a pleasant and welcome surprise. Having dedicated time with their teacher allows them to build confidence in their veterinary skills and to ask more pointed questions about the profession in a friendly, respectful environment.
“What I love best is studying surgical treatment and procedures,” Patrick, an older and eager student explains. “That [training] is making me complete. Dr. Gibson is a person who encourages us a lot, even during challenges in our practicals. He is always on the side of the students and wants to help out when we are stuck.”
It’s not just in the professional areas that James wants to help these students, however. “It’s the side chats and the talks in the car that I see as God-given opportunities and the main point of what I’m doing all of it for,” James says. “I know the word is disciple, but it’s more like guiding, provoking, and making them question what their beliefs are or why God might want them to do certain things… As I build more and more relationships, things become more real, and that’s very African. The more they get to know me, the more they trust me—not just in relation to the work side of things, but also in relation to the spiritual side of things.”
And it’s obvious that this group of students does trust him on the spiritual side of things. Later that night, after the exhausting but successful tumor surgery, the group gathers on couches and openly discusses the act of giving and how they can benefit their community through loving sacrifice. “Generally in veterinary practice, the things we use cost money,” a student named Alex mentions from his seat by the window. “Even getting the skills costs money. So, as a Christian, if I meet someone who cannot necessarily raise the money but I really think their animal needs help, I can help them. Even if there’s no way I can make a profit. Sometimes, you are at a loss, but as a Christian, I can give it up as a sacrifice. God provides for me, and I think I can also provide for someone else.”
Patrick also shares how, as a vet and proper caretaker of animals, he will be able to model the way other people should live and work. “After I finish this program,” he says, “I want to buy my own land for a farm, so I can provide nutritious milk to the community. People can come to my farm and learn best practices from me. I want other people to have a better living, not only myself.”
God is working in the hearts of these young men, and James feels blessed to be a part of their professional and spiritual growth. “All of the students realize the benefits of coming with me on these trips, even though I tell them it’s a Christian activity. A Muslim guy came along this time, and he fitted in really well. He participated in things I didn’t think he would. If people are open, we can pray that God’s Holy Spirit will speak to their hearts and show them that Christians are not the enemy or that they are not so different. Show them that God loves them individually. We can pray that Jesus’ light will shine for them.”
The next morning, as we are bumping down the road to Kampala in an over-stuffed Prado, I listen to the young vets laughing with one another and reviewing all the new things they’ve seen and learned on this trip. They are clearly passionate about their future profession. In that moment, I realize that if this small group of students takes James’ teachings to heart, they can create a better future in Uganda—for both animals and farmers. It is for that hope that James works everyday.
A few months prior, a student named Michael approached James after class and spoke some encouraging words to him. “Please keep doing what you’re doing,” Michael said, “because your ministry is working. People are seeing God’s heart through what you’re giving, what you’re promoting, and through the skills you are allowing us to achieve.”
When James tells me this testimony, he seems overwhelmed with gratitude and he quickly clarifies, “I’m simply trying to point and prompt and disciple in a loving way. That’s all, really.” It appears to be working.