Towards clearer One Health policies in eastern Africa: Interview with HEAL Project interim regional manager

In November 2020, Zuleka Ismail joined the One Health for Humans, Environment, Animals and Livelihoods (HEAL) Project as interim regional manager. Zuleka brings more than seven years of experience in managing and monitoring public health and veterinary programs in pastoralist systems to the table.

She sat down with Saba Ermyas, communication officer at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), one of the implementing partners of  the HEAL Project, to talk about her work, her new role and her aspirations for the project.

Tell us a little about your background

I was born and raised in Dire Dawa city. I studied veterinary medicine at Mekele University and I am currently pursuing a Master of Advanced Studies in international health degree at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, University of Basel, Switzerland. I started my career in Dire Dawa working as a veterinarian in the regional livestock laboratory and later at an abattoir. In 2015, I joined the Comitato Collaborazione Medica (CCM) office in Filtu Zone as a veterinarian operation researcher. I am very proud to have been part of the team that conducted the first One Health operational research in Ethiopia,  an assessment of pastoralists’ needs, perceptions and behaviours towards human and animal health, in relation to local social-ecological context. The resulting report has inspired and become a baseline for One Health work in the country including the HEAL project. Similar studies have also since been replicated in Kenya and Somalia.

In 2016, I joined the Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (VSF) Suisse in Dire Dawa in response to the El Nino drought and 2017 in Gode Somali region in a program supporting the global eradication of peste des petis ruminants and pursuing pastoralist resilience through improved animal health service delivery in the Somali region. Later, in 2018, I worked with the VSF-Suisse program in Addis Ababa before becoming the learning and development team leader.

What inspired you to work on One Health?

I am a veterinarian. At the beginning of my career, I did not appreciate the connection between animal health service delivery and human health services. But my experience in the One Health operational research with CCM opened my eyes to the scope and opportunities of One Health in my line of work better.

My parents are originally from Somali, but my father moved to Dire Dawa. Coming from a pastoralist family, I see the straightforward link between pastoralists lives and One Health. When I was a child, my dad used to tell me stories of how communities living in the lowland areas have the best life. They drink milk, eat meat and have a great life. But growing up I have also witnessed realities that are the complete opposite of these stories. Pastoralist communities face many challenges attributed to both nature and policy. They carry many burdens. The effects of climate change are making their lives worse. They have not been integrated into the national system, for example in the healthcare system, because of the fear that they will leave. In the past, the rains did not fail them as they do now, so they had more water but now access to water in many pastoral areas has reduced drastically. Without adequate water, they are unable to maintain their animals and their lives and livelihoods are threatened. They have a highly nature-dependent lifestyle and the One Health approach is very important in ensuring the survival and sustainability of these vulnerable communities.

From your experience, both from working in the field and from your family life, what benefits do One Health projects like HEAL bring to communities?

I have spent the majority of my career working in the field. I saw how a single activity can change people’s lives. Think of a poor widow with six children with only five to six goats. She will prioritise buying medicine for her children over her goats. This is where the support from HEAL and other One Health projects can come in. It costs on average USD2 to vaccinate up to four to five goats. These USD2 can save goats which will give the widow milk and healthy children.

Who are most vulnerable in pastoralist communities and how is the HEAL project planning to support these communities?

In pastoral communities, like in other societies, women are more vulnerable to the burden of catastrophes compared to men. They have less ownership and control over livestock and have a limited say in their sale and exchange. HEAL mainstreams gender aspects in its interventions. We look at the whole pastoralist system in our work. During the project’s inception phase, a gender and One Health context analysis was done to understand the gaps and ways of integrating gender into One Health.

As the interim regional project manager of HEAL, what is most exciting about your new role and what keeps you up at night?

The regional nature of the HEAL project is advantageous because it gives us a chance to integrate interventions by taking into account the experiences from the other countries. If a certain intervention does not work in Ethiopia, we should look at the aspects to adjust when we’re implementing our activities in Kenya and/or Somalia given the similarity of contexts in the lowland areas of these countries. The challenge would be the level of adoption of One Health at country level. The current state of One Health adoption differs in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. We need to do more and get more resources and time to implement One Health projects in these countries and to move towards clearer policies where needed.

What do you think your success will mean to women and girls in rural communities?

Whenever I am asked this question, I always think about this 10-year-old boy I came across while working in Siti zone, Somali region. He was playing with his seven-year-old sister; he came to me and said, ‘please take my sister with you so she can be as educated and successful as you are!’ I hope my success will inspire communities and convince them to send their daughters to school.

HEAL is a big regional project with multiple implementing partners. From your experience, what do you think will be most helpful in ensuring HEAL achieves its goals?

I have mostly worked in developing, managing, monitoring and evaluating veterinary and public health programs. In particular, my focus has been on emergency preparedness, response and resilience, livelihood security, climate change adaptation, nutrition, One Health and food security in pastoral communities and among internally displaced persons.

I strongly believe in the importance and benefits of joint coordination and collaboration among groups, agencies and individuals in achieving a project’s goals. In short, my experience and expertise has equipped me to support and contribute to achieving better impact in people’s lives through multidisciplinary and multisectoral projects such as HEAL.