Feb. 21, 2024

Black scholars shape the future of veterinary medicine

Insights from UCalgary vet med PhD students in honour of Black History Month
Three people stand against a railing in conversation
From left, Eva Mutua, Mostafa Farghal and Grace Ochigbo. Samantha Hust

February marks Black History Month in Canada, a time to honour the contributions and achievements of Black Canadians. It's a period of education, reflection and celebration, highlighting the rich history, culture and innovations of Black communities. 

To celebrate the Black community members at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) we sat down with four graduate students to explore their experiences, goals and perspectives related to both their academic journey and their cultural identity. Through our conversations, we learned what Black History Month means to them and gained insights into how others can celebrate and commemorate this important observance, not just in the month of February, but year-round. 

Get ready to meet some of the inspiring minds behind vet med: Grace Ochigbo, Mostafa Farghal, Eva Mutua and Emmanuel Muunda.

Grace Ochigbo

Grace Ochigbo grew up in Benue State, which is in the Middle Belt Region, also known as the North Central area of Nigeria. She did her undergrad in veterinary medicine at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, and MSc in veterinary pharmacology at the University of Ibadan, both in Nigeria. She worked as a faculty member at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Jos teaching pharmacology and toxicology before arriving in Canada in 2021 to pursue her PhD at UCVM, where she also serves as a graduate teaching assistant. 

Her current research focuses on discovering novel antiparasitic drugs of plant origin to improve the health of animals. Reflecting on her journey into veterinary medicine, she says, “Vet med found me. I grew up with a lot of domestic animals. We loved animals. Being a vet is puzzling because the patients don’t talk and I’m one who loves challenges. I love observing and figuring out what is wrong.” 

In the future Ochigbo hopes to continue her career in academia: “I was born with a passion for teaching, research and community service. In academia, you get the best of all three wrapped in one." 

Ochigbo is a part of the Idoma people, who are primarily farmers and hunters and cherish their communal lifestyle. “We are industrious, intelligent, strong (yes, we have warriors!), proud but loving people who love to welcome others and share our heritage with them," says Ochigbo. 

Her favourite cultural celebration is the New Yam Festival. This festival marks the beginning and end of the farming season and celebrates accomplishments in the community and culture. 

"At the festival, many yams are harvested and prepared in different ways like fried or roasted; my favourite is the roasted ones with palm oil," Ochigbo says. She describes the celebration as very energetic and loud, filled with music and dancing. 

“One thing other people may not understand about Idoma (Nigerian) culture is the payment of bride price,” says Ochigbo. “It is a symbol which signifies a merger, as marriages are undertaken to unify and strengthen kingdoms in our culture."

Ochigbo didn’t know about Black History Month until she came to Canada. "Growing up, I was just a regular Idoma girl living in Nigeria. Celebrating our culture and who we are was just a regular thing for me. For me, I celebrate my background with festivals throughout the year — not just in February." 

For others to celebrate Black History Month, Ochigbo recommends learning about the efforts and contributions of Black Canadians and celebrating them. She has also noticed that during February there is lots of African music (Afrobeats) playing and pop-ups for Black businesses. 

"To celebrate Black History Month, you can support these businesses and watch documentaries on the history of Black people in Canada.” 

Two people stand in front of a University of Calgary sign smiling and looking at one another

Grace Ochigbo and Eva Mutua.

Mostafa Farghal

Farghal grew up in Asyut, Egypt and received his bachelor’s degree in veterinary medicine from Asyut University. Afterward, he worked as a teaching assistant at Minia University in Minia City, Egypt, where he received his master’s in animal behaviour and welfare. In June 2021, he moved to Canada to pursue his PhD at UCVM. His PhD focus is animal behaviour and welfare. Farghal says after he completes his PhD his goal is “to be a very good professor, taking expertise not just from Canada but from different countries."

"Egypt is a country for all," says Farghal. "In Egypt, you can find people of all ethnicities — we have lots of diversity. By our Islamic tradition, we don’t celebrate one ethnicity without celebrating another; we are all equal."

A large celebration in Egypt is Independence Day, also known as Revolution Day. This event is celebrated with concerts, fairs and military parades. Farghal celebrates this day on July 23; this is the first time Egyptians had the opportunity to rule themselves after independence from the British empire. “I usually celebrate this day by watching movies for the revolution or attending a symposium,” says Farghal.

When asked how others can celebrate Black History Month, Farghal encourages that “every community should take time to focus on Black culture and history — read about it, watch documentaries and get more information. Don’t just take information from the media, but from Black people themselves."

Eva Mutua

Mutua is from Kenya, specifically Mwala Kivandini in Machakos County. She attended primary and secondary school in Machakos County before pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, and her MSc at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Mutua made the move to Canada in 2022 to commence her PhD at the University of Calgary.

Currently in her second year of her PhD, Mutua's research is centred on animal behaviour and welfare, which she affectionately calls the “mommy project.” Her work delves into evaluating maternal behavior and cow temperament, exploring their interaction and stability over time. Mutua harbors a deep love for research and is particularly passionate about the human-animal relationship.

Mutua’s ethnic background is Bantu, which is a group of people from Africa spread over a vast area from central Africa to east Africa and into southern Africa. Specifically, she belongs to the Kamba people from the east part of Africa. Although Swahili is a common language in the area, Kenya is home to many tribes with their own languages.

When asked how she celebrates her background Mutua says, “Being with people that are from my community and from my tribe is a celebration all the time. I love speaking in my mother tongue, I am so excited because in our department we have Emmanuel who is doing his PhD, who is from my tribe, so we speak our mother tongue and to me that is a celebration.” 

Mutua also has a second name, Katile, which is from her mother tongue, and she feels closer to home with each mention. She proudly wears a bracelet adorned with the Kenyan flag, a constant reminder of her roots, and delights in encountering others with the same bracelet, evoking a profound connection to her homeland.

Mutua offers her thoughts on celebrating Black History Month: “Black History Month should be celebrated from a place of beauty and not difference. We are culturally unique, but we are not different. Be open to learning new experiences — we all have something beautiful to offer.” 

She recommends asking a Black community member or friend to tell you more about their food, and maybe you can share it together. “Just be open to experiencing something from somewhere else.”

Two hands wearing multiple bracelets

Eva Mutua proudly wears a bracelet adorned with the Kenyan flag

Emmanuel Muunda 

Emmanuel Muunda.

Emmanuel Muunda

Like Mutua, Muunda was born in Machakos County, Kenya. He later moved to Nakuru County in Kenya's Rift Valley for his undergraduate studies at Egerton University. Following this, he pursued his MSc in agricultural economics at Kenyatta University, located in Nairobi County, the capital of Kenya. Before commencing his PhD studies at the University of Calgary, he served as a research associate for the International Livestock Research Institute, conducting and supporting research activities across various livestock value chains in Africa and Southern Asia. 

Muunda embarked on his PhD journey at UCVM in 2023, with his current research focusing on the application of economic analysis approaches to assess how improved cow comfort can enhance animal health and farm productivity within smallholder dairy farms operating under resource constraints. 

Reflecting on his ethnic background, Muunda emphasizes the significance of music in his community: "Music defines our moments. One of the ways of expressing ourselves in my community is through songs and drums. Every activity has a way of incorporating music into it — whether happy or sad moments." 

He further highlights an aspect of Kenyan culture that may be unfamiliar to Canadians, noting that "an average Kenyan speaks three languages: First, the mother tongue, then Swahili, which is a national unifying language, and finally, English, the language of instruction in school." 

Muunda shares insights into the challenges and benefits of multilingualism, as sometimes it takes him longer to translate what someone is saying across languages, emphasizing the importance of patience and understanding in ethnically diverse environments like Canada. 

When asked about his observance of Black History Month, Muunda says, “I celebrate my identity every day as a Black person. Given my upbringing in Africa, most of the Black history I have been exposed to traces back to the colonial era and the struggle for independence from European colonizers. I acknowledge the injustices faced in North America, such as slavery and racism. Black History Month is about understanding past wrongs and striving for a better future, recognizing that people are people and judgment is not just skin deep." 

Insights into inclusivity

When asked how UCVM could better foster an inclusive environment, the four PhD students offered valuable insights. "UCVM has a wide variety of people from different countries. In our lab of five, each member represents a different nationality, and it's truly beautiful," says Mutua. 

Ochigbo adds, "UCVM is doing a good job because you don’t see people using labels — they see everyone as a member of a community irrespective of race or nationality." While acknowledging UCVM's strides, there's a desire for more cultural awareness events and activities. Additionally, there's a call to enhance recruitment processes to ensure equal opportunities for talented individuals from marginalized groups. 

The generously stories shared by Grace Ochigbo, Mostafa Farghal, Eva Mutua and Emmanuel Muunda remind us of the importance of listening to each other's experiences and educating ourselves, not just during Black History Month, but every day. By embracing diversity and celebrating our differences, we enrich our university community and create a more inclusive environment where every voice is heard and valued.

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