The remote, mountainous nature of the grasslands in North West Cameroon mean that tractors and even motorbikes are completely impractical for transporting farmed produce from the fields to the market. Distances are long, paths are narrow, terrain is challenging and the extreme, polarised wet and dry seasons create special challenges for the people who farm this area. The only practical way to work the land is with the help of donkeys in much the same way as some of the steep farms in Devon used to be farmed. Very close to home, just a stone’s throw from where The Donkey Sanctuary is now based, are the Weston Plats; these were steep, cliff-top farms between Sidmouth and Branscombe, where donkeys were routinely used from the 19th century until the plots were abandoned in the 20th century.
Last week, I was privileged to meet farmers in six communities in these challenging lands. I was struck by the relationship between the owners and their donkeys; compassion and care run deep with thanks, in part, to the work of the Foundation for Animal Welfare in Cameroon (FAWCAM), which has been funded by The Donkey Sanctuary since 2010. The FAWCAM team have worked with the communities to help them to understand the value of donkeys, the importance of welfare and to educate them in some of the practices needed to keep their donkeys well. But while the farmers show compassion and empathy with their donkeys, other members of the community see them as somewhat of a menace; some people believe that a bite on the arm from a donkey will result in losing the limb and some believe that donkey dung transmits terrible diseases and can kill those that touch it. The dislike of donkeys means that when donkeys wander around to graze in communal land, they are being attacked or confiscated, with owners having to pay large fines to retrieve them. The FAWCAM team plan to work with the wider communities and leaders to improve the value of donkeys and to find better ways to share grazing land with others.
Now, I’ve come to expect the unexpected in this job but one experience was quite out of the ordinary. I knew that the Mumya community was celebrating its Cultural Week and we were very grateful that the farmers took time out from the festivities to meet us and show us their donkeys. As the FAWCAM team and I were talking with a donkey owner in the shade of a eucalyptus grove on the edge of the community, we could hear shrill whistles and yelps coming closer through the trees. Suddenly, one of the team shouted, “Bow down, bow down!” The team, the farmers and I all crouched in the grass as a spinning, barefooted figure emerged from the undergrowth covered from head to toe in feathers and wearing quite a terrifying wooden mask. A crowd followed, whistling, singing and yelling at the spirit as it ran throughout our group and among the crowd of donkeys. They all brayed along, adding to the chaotic scene. Fearing to stand and show disrespect, we all stayed crouched until the figure and crowd disappeared off into the distance. I just hope that the spirit looked kindly on Mumya’s donkeys!