Each month we feature and honor someone who works tirelessly to promote wildlife conservation or one health in Africa. This person receives a care package of support, to let them know how much we appreciate the work they do, and to provide them with some much-needed resources for self-care and relaxation. Psychological health & well-being are often neglected in such a demanding career, in order to prioritize the needs of their patients, or the needs of the wildlife they work so hard to preserve and protect. Silent Heroes are all too good at putting themselves last on the priority list, and we hope to change that!
Dr. Innocent Rwego
Tell us a bit about yourself & your current work:
In the past 15 years, I have been working in different sectors starting with government, to conservation projects, academia and with donor organizations. I worked as a Gorilla Vet with Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project Inc. (now called Gorilla Doctors) from 2001 to 2005. This worked involved conducting disease surveillance in mountain gorillas, conduct interventions where necessary and work with conservation organizations and local human health practitioners to make sure the health of the endangered mountain gorilla is catered for. I went on to work for University of Illinois, Kibale Ecohealth Project as a Project manager, work that gave me opportunity to work closely with communities, conduct research at the human-animal and wildlife interface as a PhD student and to mentor students.
I have been teaching and mentoring both undergraduate and graduate students for more than 10 years. Some of these great students have been in, and come from, countries such as Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and USA. I teach at one of the best universities in the Africa, Makerere University.
Currently, I work as an Assistant Professor at University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary Medicine and as an Adjunct at the School of Public Health. My work has mainly been outreach on USAID funded projects. Since 2010, I worked on a USAID project called RESPOND as a Regional Technical Advisor working with 6 countries in central and Eastern Africa. This project later changed into USAID One Health Workforce. I work as a Senior Technical officer working with around 20 schools of Public Health and Veterinary Medicine in 8 countries of Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda. All these institutions are under a network called One Health Central and Eastern Africa (www.ohcea.org). My work involves providing technical support in developing short courses, reviewing and developing curriculum, training students, faculty and government officials especially related to infectious disease detection, prevention and response. A bigger portion of my role also include facilitating partnerships development, project management, participating in design, implementation and monitoring of the project and ensuring compliance of project contracts.
My current work, together with work I have done with past institutions, organizations and projects, has provided me with an opportunity to strengthen my skills in mentoring students, conducting research, working across cultures and disciplines. In addition, it has given me an opportunity to strengthen my communications skills whether to the scientific world, to government officials or to the community. Of course, my people and project management skills have improved. I am now able to beat deadlines, work across cultures and disciplines, manage big projects and at the same time make a difference in the health of the community.
What made you decide to become a veterinarian?
My late grandfather used to own many herds of cattle. During school holidays we used to go visit our grandfather. We would go out to herd animals and sometimes participate in milking the animals. As we grew up the number of animals kept dwindling. This affected me somehow and I wished I could make a difference.
Another factor that made me join Vet school was this one gentleman who used to work a veterinarian in my home town Kisoro, Uganda. I was always amazed at what he could do especially how he handled dogs to vaccinate them against Rabies. He also used to inspect meat. Now, as a child, seeing him ride his motorcycle, treat animals, vaccinate some animals and then carry out meat inspection made me admire him. He was also a very religious man. His wife was also one of the best Primary School teachers I had to go through. Seeing him and the contribution him and his wife made to society made me feel proud of them and one of the biggest factors that made me study hard to go to school.
I remember one day, on my first day at Makerere university, someone from my home town telling me that Veterinary school was hard and that I would spend 8 years doing the course. I informed him that whatever it takes, I will finish veterinary school on time and I did. Maybe my role model contributed to this? I don’t know, but what I know is that I am glad I went through veterinary school with support from my great faculty, fellow students, family and friends.
What is one of the most challenging aspects of your job?
One of the greatest challenges of my current job was working across different time zones given the tight busy schedules and working with different cultures. However, modern technology has helped. I was able to overcome that with making sure I am flexible with time management and people, putting everything on the calendar, making sure I have options in case one app or technology didn’t work and documenting everything I was doing.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is working with young, energetic, enthusiastic and innovative students. Students from different cultures and disciplines are always willing to learn under whatever circumstance to generate knowledge and contribute to people’s livelihoods. I have also been privileged to learn different working cultures of academia versus development organizations both local and international, governments versus private sector, local communities versus the researchers, developed world versus developing world. For instance, on the surface, the work culture and approach to development for academia and NGOs might seem the same but when you go dig deeper its different. I have built relationships with people from different cultures, learnt some languages, eaten different foods and above all learnt to be flexible no matter the circumstances. Very few people get an opportunity to work closely with government agencies in different countries, with academic institutions and Intergovernmental organizations such as FAO, CDC. My current job has also given me an opportunity to work on infectious diseases, project management, diplomacy, building partnerships, mentor students and faculty and conduct research at local community on various topics.
A Silent Hero is someone who gives tirelessly of themselves, without the need for recognition. Who is your ‘Silent Hero’ and why?
My silent hero is a man or woman in the village. I am a PI on an Ecohealth project that works closely with communities in and around Queen Elizabeth National Park (funded by IDRC-Canada). I see people toil every day trying to make a difference in this world despite the challenges. They work from morning to evening on farms looking after their animals or growing crops, trying to raise funds to take their children to school or raise funds for hospital. We rarely think of them as heroes. They make a difference in this world supplying us food, protecting the environment, raising up children that will serve this world. They do all this with hope, optimism and with few resources. They never appear on front pages of newspapers as heroes, nor do they get recognized. Still, they move on! These are my heroes.