I usually keep my ramblings pretty general, but this time I'd like to tell you about a lady I met last week. I'm in Kenya at the moment, looking at the progress made with the harness since I was here in December last year.
During the week we've been away altering carts, meeting donkey owners and giving out harness for them to try. The harness has already been tested over the last six months and during the weekends Amos, the Kenyan Harness Co-ordinator, has been taking me around our original "Guinea Pigs". One of these was a lady called Ruth.
You know sometimes when you meet someone, the impact hits you straight between the eyes? Ruth radiates dignity and confidence; I mean you can see the aura around her. She'd been using the harness for five months, which is about its lifetime, and she loved it. We made a couple of small alterations and she went on her way.
The next day we went to her home, where she told me a little about herself. She'd started working with her donkey about two years ago, after her husband lost his job. There's no welfare system in Kenya, and with three kids to feed Ruth decided she had to act. She bought a donkey and cart, and started to deliver goods around her home town.
The main cargo here is water, which is one of the worst. Every bump, pothole and hill sends the water up and down the container, tipping the balance of the cart, so that one second the donkey has the whole weight on his back, the next the cart is trying to lift him off the ground. Since she's a responsible type of person, she quickly found our donkey project and asked for advice, but even so, her donkey developed bad wounds from the local harness.
When the harness trials started last December, she volunteered to try the new sisal rope harness we'd just come up with. Now, six months later, her donkey has no wounds at all.
As we sat over tea and traditional 'omelettes' in her tiny hut my eyes wandered around the room, it was spotless. A TV occupied pride of place in the centre and was being watched by her two visiting sisters from a neighbouring village. Outside her kids played happily in the dust with their cousins and friends. Ruth continued to talk, quietly and confidently about her donkey, and the difference it has made to her and her family, occasionally with her sisters, obviously proud of her, emphasizing a point. "My donkey keeps us alive, and more, my kids all go to school, they always have food and clothes, the bills are paid, and there’s enough left to give us a few luxuries, like the TV”.
“It's hard work though?” I ask, she just smiles, and says that after school her children often come and help. Once the water round is done they will deliver goods from local stores to people's houses.
I asked her more about the problems she faces. "Lack of knowledge" she immediately replied. "we have local vets, and I'm happy to pay for their services, but they don't really know very much about donkeys, they need training. Also for ourselves, until I found The Donkey Sanctuary there was no one to help us, we could see that our donkeys were suffering, but what to do? How were we to change the situation? Then you guys came along, and now I know that there is someone to ask, someone who takes me seriously, and who will do their best to help."
Was there anything else we could do, I asked. "Teach me, I can make this harness I know, everything in it is here in my local shops, and I can see that it's not hard to make. Teach me how you put it together, my friends want it, and are willing to pay, after all, it's very cheap. I can make it and start another little business, and, I want to know more about my donkey, am I looking after him OK? He works so hard and I want to do right by him, and keep him strong and healthy"
I told her that that was exactly what we wanted to do, and asked if she'd come on a short course if we set it up. "Tell me when and where, I'll be there", she replied without hesitation.
Looking into her dark, serious eyes I knew I'd just made a firm commitment that I'd better live up to unless I wanted to join the long list of failed hopes and broken promises she'd already endured. We sipped our tea, and I gazed around again, night was falling, but here, in this little room was an oasis of calm, quiet security.
Ruth's love for her family, her determination and strength were built into these four walls, and were the only decoration necessary to make even me, an outsider, a Mzungu from another world, feel like I was totally at peace, but, reality calls, she has children to feed. Amos and I have a long week ahead of us visiting other "Guinea Pigs", working with the people to help them take better care of their donkeys.
I met a lot of 'Ruths' during the following two weeks - a lot of good, hardworking, caring people, some spending all their free time working in their communities, unasked and unpaid, providing a direct, personal link between their neighbours and The Donkey Sanctuary staff, helping those who wanted to improve their donkey's life, and setting a growing example to the many who still see their donkey as just another tool to be used in the relentless pursuit of pesa, cash.
I tell people who ask that I'm an optimistic pessimist, or perhaps that's a pessimistic optimist, but for the first time I get the feeling that we are winning. I've never before felt such an air of determination and hope from so many people, and I can't wait to get back here in a couple of months and get these people trained up. And I can't help myself from imagining that this is the start of a growing revolution for donkeys' rights. We've gone from a handful to hundreds of ordinary people, each one working to change their neighbours.
In my head I can hear my Gran, "Don't count your chickens, castles in the air, etc" and I come back to earth, but there's still that little bubble of excitement, bit like indigestion really, that won't go away.