On the small island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, a short boat ride takes you from the airport to town – and the very first thing that every visitor notices as they climb up the harbour-wall steps is that the ‘traffic’ on the island comes solely in the four-legged variety with barely a wheel to be seen. The island’s population of around 3,000 donkeys is relied upon for pretty much all forms of transport and has been tended to by The Donkey Sanctuary for over 25 years. The location of the Sanctuary’s office and clinic is truly magnificent: a coastal spot on the main strip where the watering trough is well used by the working donkeys heading up and down the seafront. Inside the office, Dr Elisabeth Svendsen smiles down from many of the pictures that dot the office walls and her warm presence is almost tangible.
Several donkeys have recently been admitted to the clinic for observation or treatment and some young orphans have also been taken in. Two of the curious younger ones kept nipping into the office to get a good look at the visitors as we discussed the project’s approaches, much to my delight.
I spent much of today with Felix, the newest member of the Donkey Sanctuary Kenya family. He was recently appointed as Project Leader in Lamu and is settling into island life very well, having already been accepted into the donkey owners’ football team. After introducing me to the rest of the team, we went out to see how donkeys are used on the island. Lamu is currently suffering from a severe downturn in tourism due to recent unrest on the nearby mainland. Many people have left and the island is under curfew in the evenings, all of which means less income for everyone. Nonetheless, donkeys being used to transport building materials are worked as hard as ever during the day and in the narrow streets, saddle packs were being loaded and unloaded with everything from bricks and rubble to passion fruit. Through it all, the Lamu Sanctuary’s work continues to provide care for donkeys and education to local owners – something that is hugely appreciated by the locals I spoke to, many of whom spoke fondly of meeting Dr Svendsen.
The three-way relationship between The Donkey Sanctuary, the community and the donkeys themselves has a depth, a history, a power and a warmth to it. A truly unique place.