On a cold windy Saturday evening, I stroll down Kotido-Abim Road with a friend Poncianah Akumu. From across the street, a young man calls out, “Doctor, you need to come and see my goats.” Almost immediately, another woman riding on a bicycle shouts, “Dr Ponch (short for Poncianah), there was a man asking for your number. I think he needed your help.”
What should have been a 15-minute walk to Patience Akure’s place takes more 40 minutes. Poncianah Akumu and Patience Akure are veterinary doctors in Kotido District, the only females in this job in the area where almost every household has an animal or two. Today, we tell Akure’s story.
Starting work in Karamoja
Akure, 25, is the daughter of the late Peter Akure, a former member of the National Representative Council (NRC) and the Constitutional Assembly representing Kotido. Hers is a family of firsts because her father was the first Jie to become a Member of Parliament and minister as well. He was the minister of Cooperatives and he represented Kotido District.
“Actually, most people here (Kotido) still doubt I am a Karimojong maybe because I have spent much of my time here. But the only way I have proved them wrong is when I speak Akarimojong and also when I tell them about my parents,” she says.
Asked why she chose to work in Karamoja, ignoring numerous juicy offers including those in wildlife veterinary medicine and some which came with higher pay from other parts of the country she answers, “I have always dared to do things differently and I love challenges, especially when it means helping my people. The only way you can help the Karimojong is by helping our animals. That’s our lifeline and that’s who we are. If you want to kill the Karimojong, take cattle away.”
On returning home for holidays in 2008, after a year at the college of veterinary medicine, Makerere University, it dawned on her that Karamoja was not doing well in terms of animal health, even large kraal owners did not know what to do with the visibly malnourished animals, plus the region had only one veterinary doctor, the district Veterinary officer, Dr Pascal Panvuga.
“I saw an opportunity and the next day I was at the district and the day after that, I was in the field. Dr Panvuga must have felt some sort of relief because he had got another person to work with apart from the community health workers and we hit the road,” she describes the first days.
“Despite my zeal for work, I was not prepared for what I saw on my first day. I had never seen such a crowd of cattle, with just two veterinarians and a handful of helpers to do the work. That was before the herdsmen started shouting and insulting me for being a woman and a non-Karimojong. Some even thought I didn’t know what I was doing, they simply could not take having a woman among pastoralists,” she goes on.
This might have scared her, but it did not deter her. Her first day in the field (Panyangara Sub-county) just encouraged her to work more with insight about the community’s attitude towards women.
There was only one veterinary doctor then serving three districts of Kotido, Kabong and Abim, Dr Paul Lochap.
She notes, “So I was the second veterinary doctor working outside government offices. Currently, the entire district has only five veterinary doctors and three are men.”
Dr Akure adds, “I am not the first female veterinary doctor to work in Karamoja region. I am the first Karimojong woman and a Jie to be specific to become a veterinary doctor and above all, work in Karamoja.” She views the whole issue of being a pioneer as more of a challenge than an achievement given the “rugged road” ahead towards transforming Karamoja, when livestock will be more of an instrument of socio-economic transformation.
Currently working as a Livestock Health Specialist at Kotido FAO office, the soft spoken, slender Akure says she neither imagined herself becoming a vet nor working in Karamoja one day. Maybe she just loves being among her people as she put it.