Malawi is known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’. With a largely agricultural economy, the vast majority of Malawians tend the soil as subsistence farmers and so the whole country depends on the kindness of the seasons for its staple crop, maize. Last year’s poor rains meant that harvests were down about 20% and this year, the rains ended early and abruptly. The best estimates are that current harvests will be down 30% from normal.
Donkeys may seem disconnected from maize harvests and the increasingly erratic seasons but they play an important and developing role in the whole agricultural system. Donkeys are regularly seen transporting water, firewood and crops from the fields but people are now also looking to their donkeys to help till the land, enabling a larger plot to be managed. As farming and water supplies become more precarious, the adaptable, hardworking and sturdy nature of donkeys can really help to close the gaps that start to form (as we often see in more drought-prone parts of the world). It is more important than ever that their welfare is considered as part of that whole agricultural system.
My visit to Malawi this week happens to have coincided with The Lilongwe Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (LSPCA)’s first-ever farm clinic in Kawale village near Lilongwe. Several years ago, the village had a resident assistant veterinary officer (AVO) funded by the government but when the funds dried up, the position became vacant and the house, office and dip tank all fell into disrepair. LSPCA arranged today’s farm clinic through the local government and, pleasingly, neighbouring AVOs came to learn from LSPCA’s veterinary team; every treatment is a learning opportunity.
This is a very new and exciting project for donkeys in Malawi. Many of the most common welfare problems facing donkeys in Malawi appear to stem from when they use carts designed for oxen. The yokes cause terrible neck wounds and when the donkeys try to communicate their pain and discomfort, this is misread as aggression; a vicious cycle forms. Also, without better carts available, the owners currently have little choice but to just increase the padding on the yokes and to keep the donkeys going.
Today’s clinic was a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Malawian donkeys and their owners. LSPCA’s dedicated veterinary team set to work addressing wounds, hoof problems and other problems of the donkeys as well as tending to dozens of cows, goats and chickens. Meanwhile, the AVOs got to know the teams and future plans were made to help build their skills. The community and education teams got to know the community a little better and exciting plans started to form.
The future looks brighter for Malawi’s donkeys. LSPCA, with funding from The Donkey Sanctuary, are just starting the first substantial donkey-focussed project in the country and with such a strong team and vision, I’m so pleased that they are focussing so much time on these often forgotten yet increasingly indispensable animals.