Staff story: Pendo
Pendo Msegu is an APOPO Mine Detection Rat Training Supervisor & Animal Welfare Officer.
"My name is Pendo Msegu and I am a Training Supervisor at APOPO’s Training and Research center in Tanzania. When I first joined APOPO I began as a Data entry clerk. It soon became clear that I was a hard worker and an eager learner. I was asked if I wanted to learn how to train the HeroRATs and naturally I jumped at the opportunity! This training taught me about animal behavior, animal welfare and all the standard operating procedures for training rats. After 6 years I was encouraged to apply to become a Training Supervisor and to my surprise I was selected.
The rats are nocturnal animals and do not do well in the heat, so we train them very early in the morning. I begin my day at 5am. After getting ready and preparing breakfast for my whole family, I leave while everyone is still asleep. It takes me an hour to get to the APOPO training minefield where we teach APOPO’s Mine Detection Rats, or HeroRATs, to search for landmines.
When a rat is being trained it searches a box for landmines guided by 2 trainers who stand in the safe lanes on either side of the box. If rat smells explosives, they scratch the surface of the ground. The rat is then rewarded for their find with a treat of banana or peanuts. Our HeroRATs can search an area the size of tennis court in just 30 minutes. This would take a manual deminer with a metal detector up to four days!
At the training field I supervise a group of trainers assigned to me. I make sure they train all their rats for the day. During these sessions I observe the trainings and make notes and evaluate both the rat and trainer performance. When necessary, for example if there is a shortage of trainers or I need to illustrate a certain technique, I will also take part in the training of the rats.
Once the rats are done for the day we all stop for breakfast and around 10am I continue with my data entry duties back at headquarters as well as early training of the youngest rats who are not yet ready for the minefield. Sometimes we get assigned back to the field for maintenance, like painting plates for the boxes or straightening the pins of the safe lanes. I have been training APOPO’s Mine Detection Rats for over 10 years now. After lunch I move on to health care duties, tending to sick rats, checking overall rat health and well-being. I also supervise rat playtime and enrichment activities. This is why a few years ago I was officially assigned the added role of Animal Welfare Officer here at the center.
After conflict, even decades afterwards, anyone who strays onto a minefield is at risk. Everyone is vulnerable: women collecting water or gathering firewood, children playing, men working on the land or tending cattle. Many people who step on a landmine die from the injuries before they are found or reach a hospital. Nearly half of landmine accidents are children and they are more likely to die as their bodies are closer to the blast. As a mother myself, I find that unacceptable and I am grateful that in my own way I am helping people all around the world go about their normal day without the fear of death or serious injury.
Tanzania is a very male dominated society but I was lucky enough to have a father who wanted me to finish school. Despite him not being an educated man he saw the importance of all his children getting an education. After finishing elementary school I was not placed in a government high school and my father could not afford a private school. He asked me older sister who was working at the time, if she could help finance my education. My sister put me all the way through high school and even supported me through out my vocational training. This is a debt I will never be able to repay as it goes far beyond paying my tuition fees.
My responsibilities at APOPO are varied and I love my job! It brings me joy to know that somewhere in the world, the rats that I helped train are saving lives. However, landmine detection is a field still dominated by men and at first I was worried that I would be held back. Many Tanzanian men still think a woman’s place is at home but here at APOPO I feel encouraged and supported. I have been allowed to grow based on my performance and work ethic and my male colleagues at APOPO treat me as an equal.
Before I started work at APOPO, I didn’t really like rats. I used to associate them with disease and saw them as rodent scavengers. Once I got to know them and saw what they could do with their incredible sense of smell I grew quite fond of them! I am proud of our HeroRATs and I tell all my friends about them!
I am a single mother but through my job I support my son, my sister’s two children and my father. I have invested in a small tailoring business, which my sister helps me run. I enjoy creating beautiful clothes for all kinds of people almost as much as I love singing in our church choir. My mother was initially apprehensive of me working with rats, especially giant rats! I always assured her that they are tame like our pet dogs and having raised them from when they were just five week old pups they were used to being handled by humans and wouldn’t hurt me.
My family is proud that I am helping communities in countries like Angola and Cambodia. There are many personal challenges that I still have to face, but working at APOPO has given me a better perspective on how I can shape my life going forward. I think the best thing of all about my job is hearing about how the land is given back to the people who live there, completely free of landmines. How children can play safely and people can once again farm their land without fear of losing a leg or blowing up."