Renata Harper is a South African freelance environmental writer and editor with a passion for wild spaces. She celebrates our planet, and its creatures and keepers, through writing and other creative media. She recently visited our project in Bahir Dar in Ethiopia.
Most tourists visit Bahir Dar for its setting on the southern shores of Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile, and because the town makes for a convenient base to explore the monasteries and churches on the lake’s islands and shores. I’ve chosen instead to spend a few days observing the incredible work of The Donkey Sanctuary Ethiopia (DSE).
My partner and I are at the end of a three-week trip around the northern half of the country – never enough time to get to know a place or its peoples properly, but sufficient to understand the essential role that donkeys play in the average Ethiopian family’s life.
Unfortunately we have also witnessed some distressing cases of neglect and mistreatment of both donkeys and mules. 'It shocks us too, but what we see is a reason to act,' says project manager and veterinarian Dr Tewodros Mekonnen, when I pop into DSE’s humble office in Bahir Dar.
There are approximately 7 million donkeys in Ethiopia - 2.4 million in the Amhara region. Donkeys generally transport grain, farm produce, firewood and water, though we have also seen them carrying construction material (in Lalibela) and salt blocks (alongside camels, in the blinding salt lakes of the Danakil Depression).
'It’s safe to say there is almost no donkey in Ethiopia that’s not working,' explains Dr Mekonnen. 'The donkey plays a critical role in the livelihoods of countless Ethiopians, particularly women and children. If a family has no donkey, the woman will do much of the carrying. This is why the DSE works to protect donkeys and secure livelihoods.'
Two hours later we’re on our way to the village of Fereswoga, and to what is considered one of the most successful and well-integrated DSE projects in the Amhara region. 'That’s one of ours!' says Nahom Wagaw, animal health and welfare extension officer, pointing at a young man whose donkey is sporting one of DSE’s prototype pack saddles. 'That’s the kind of positive impact we can make.'
A pack saddle is the saddle on which goods are placed on a donkey’s back; a humane pack saddle is a simple but effective way to promote donkey welfare. Made from affordable local materials (fertiliser sack, sisal ropes and a hessian sack or blanket), the DSE saddle greatly improves the lives of its wearers. The inner fabric is heat and sweat absorbent (which reduces chafing and the risk of sores) and a gap down the centre of the saddle protects the animal’s spine (loads should never sit directly on an animal’s backbone).
Forty minutes later we arrive at Gubrit Primary School, our first stop in Fereswoga. Supporting humane education in schools is another – and arguably the most important – way to secure a brighter future for Ethiopia’s working equines. With support from the regional education bureau, the DSE’s colourful educational book, Animal Welfare Education for School Children, is distributed to 12 primary schools in Amhara, to be used in class and by animal welfare clubs.
About 1,750 pupils in the region pass through this educational programme, and about 60 school teachers receive training annually from the DSE around animal welfare issues. 'We use poems and drama to encourage and internalise empathy,' explains principal Andualem Bekele, who is also an active member of the community’s volunteer-based Animal Welfare Committee. 'Kids then go home and teach their families and neighbours.'
One of his students, Getaneh (11), whose family has three donkeys, confirms this: 'I tell my family what I learn about donkeys.' Yibeltal (10) concurs: 'I show my family how to care for the donkeys; then they listen.'
'Schools like this are a key agent for change,' says Dagne Yiradu, community partnership and education officer and my interpreter for the day. 'Children have a high attachment to their animals and take easily to the idea of animal welfare.'
Next we visit Fereswoga’s humble equine accessories centre, a one-roomed establishment from which Tewachew Shiferaw (25) and Getenet Wubie (28), both physically disabled, manufacture pack saddles – like the one we’d witnessed earlier – and cart harnesses to sell to their own and neighbouring communities.
The DSE has trained 45 harness makers in the region, who also have the capacity to train others. 'Our focus is to help them diversify and to create cooperatives of harness makers, donkey/mule accessory manufacturers and even beekeepers,' explains Yiradu. 'By diversifying their skills and working together, they have a greater chance of success.'
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges faced by the DSE team, though, is the longstanding cultural perception, partly backed by religious beliefs, around donkeys as “impure”, weak or stupid. This leads to the animals being low on the livestock hierarchy and open to neglect or abuse. 'We have a vision to inspire compassion,' says Dr Mekonnen, 'even if this change comes slowly.'
The commitment of Dr Mekonnen and his team reminds me of the importance of perseverance; of doing good work for a better future that may be beyond our lifetime, but always remaining open to the possibility that it might come sooner than we expected.