A team of veterinarians and other supporters of Heifer International participated in a Veterinary Study Tour of India from Feb. 25-March 10 to see rehabilitation following the 2004 tsunami.
After the tsunami, the AVMA joined with members and other contributors to provide $1 million through a matching-grant program for new Heifer projects in India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. The Heifer mission is to alleviate hunger and poverty by providing families with agricultural animals along with training in animal care and sustainable agriculture.
Heifer hosted the veterinary tour of India's southeastern state of Tamil Nadu, which immersed the team in a whole new way of looking at the world. Poverty was everywhere amid signs of tremendous wealth, and the team wondered how people could be content with such contrast. One priest responded that a man might be physically and materially poor, but if he is rich in dhamma—pure living and pure thinking—he will know inner contentment.
Poverty in India arises not only from population growth and caste regimentation, but also from the devastation of a 1999 supercyclone and the 2004 tsunami.
A woman from Mamdabathur, a village on a beach, described the day of the tsunami this way:
The men were just returning from their normal early fishing at about 8:30 a.m. We women were in our mud-and-thatch houses with the children awaiting the men's return when we began to hear the sound of waves—big waves, much louder than we had ever heard before.
Then we heard some people running away from the ocean along the road next to our houses. They were shouting, "The waves are coming!"
We didn't know this was a tsunami. It was just a lot of water, and we didn't know its origin.
The first wave washed people and all their belongings back away from the beach. Ten people clutched onto one tree. Someone else, in chest-high water, was able to stand on a rock wall. A second wave came into what was left of the town at about 9:30 a.m. And the people ran farther away.
The waves were too strong; 44 of our people in this small village lost their lives. All of our livestock died. All of our food was gone. The waves washed away all of our clothes, household goods, boats, nets, and boat engines.
One woman could not find her daughter, even by 5:30 p.m. Then, the woman found out that her daughter had died.
When it was over and we had time to realize what had happened, we judged that a wall of water 15 meters high had washed over our village—and took away all of our belongings, food, comfort, and livelihood.
That night, and for several nights afterward, we slept on the road. We had no food or extra clothes.
Soon, though, relief began to pour into the village. A nearby technical college housed the villagers. Food, milk, and clothing arrived from other local villages and then from national and international agencies.
The Society for Education, Village Action, and Improvement—an Indian nongovernment group and a Heifer partner—helped meet the challenge. The organization built more than 140 temporary bamboo-and-thatch houses. The veterinary tour arrived just days before the villagers would be moving into permanent block houses, most likely abandoning the original village.
The village men didn't start fishing again until about six months after the tsunami, partly because they had no boats or equipment and also partly because they were afraid of the sea. An understanding of how a tsunami happens isn't common knowledge. Besides, many of their dead family members were in the water with the fish.
But other partner organizations joined SEVAI in following the Heifer model of community development—including the Sant Nischal Singhji Foundation, which works throughout India, and BLESS, a nonprofit organization in Tamil Nadu. These groups use funds provided through the AVMA matching-grant program to bring about lasting change in numerous villages along the coast.
Meat goats, with the proper vaccinations and owner training, are beginning to provide a long-term solution to income generation. Meanwhile, chickens are a short-term source of daily protein from eggs and an occasional meal of meat—and they also provide a weekly, marketable commodity.
A lingering challenge is the salty soil. The people who live near the ocean normally use the land for small gardens, grazing pastures, or rice paddies. Because of the wash of sea water during the tsunami, the soil is salty and plants grow poorly. The salt will leach out of the ground and plants will take up the excess only slowly, which is a major problem. With Heifer funds, though, the regional agronomy department has started seed beds of leguminous plants for livestock feed and soil renovation.
During the veterinary tour, about 14 months after the tsunami, the families were eating fish and eggs every day. Goats and extra chickens went to the market. A young goat of 16 to 20 kilograms sells for 800 rupees, $20 U.S., in the local market. Life is beginning to look much better.
Similar Heifer projects are under way in other countries with support through the AVMA matching-grant program. Slowly and steadily, support from veterinarians and other donors is helping put lives and homes back together.
Participants in the Heifer veterinary tour will continue to share their stories and pictures from a life-changing experience.
The leaders of the tour were Dr. Marie Suthers McCabe of the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, who is also the 2005 Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year, and Dr. Terry Wollen, director of animal well-being at Heifer International. The other veterinarians in the team were Dr. Julia Allen, Seattle; Dr. Edward R. "Bud" Ames, Corvallis, Ore.; Dr. Roger Ellis, Granville, N.Y.; and Dr. Jean Nemzek, South Lyon, Mich. Six other supporters of Heifer International were also part of the team.