It’s funny how things depend on your perspective and this week, perspectives are changing dramatically.
On your average world map, ‘Somalia’ is the nation shaped like a number 7 which forms the Horn of Africa. The rest of the world, however, hasn’t formally recognised this fledgling nation, its currency and its government, so it remains invisible on our maps.
A functional democracy, the nation has a full set of ministries presiding over the people, the Somaliland shilling is widely used, independent visas and immigration processes are in place, and peace and security are taken very seriously. The international community, however, refuse to recognise the existence of this fledgling nation, its currency and its government, preferring to hold out for a unified future along the lines of the country in the maps we have come to know.
This week, I am visiting the Social and Animal Welfare Service (SAWS), funded and supported by The Donkey Sanctuary for their recent work in the Burcao region to the east of the capital, Hargeisa.
The SAWS team, led by their executive director Dr Ali Hassan, are uncommonly passionate advocates of animal welfare and are well-positioned to work with all types of people. I have been learning and supporting how they work with groups including marginalised donkey owners, the wider public and even the ministries of justice and livestock who are keen to develop new animal welfare laws and support the inclusion of donkeys into national livestock policy.
And just being here has led to a lot of raised eyebrows amongst all these groups. Western donors have been working in Somaliland for some time focussing on human development but The Donkey Sanctuary is the first international organisation to visit to talk about the importance of animals as sentient beings and as key parts of the livelihoods of the most marginalised people. Visiting some of the people who rely on them this week, it is resoundingly clear how the welfare of donkeys is indivisible from the welfare of people.
Economic marginalisation and water shortage in Hargeisa has led to a policy of rotating water supplies; different areas receive water on different days to give the best supply possible to as many people as possible. This means that one of the major roles of donkeys in town is filling this distribution gap by transporting barrels of water around the city in carts.
For about 20p (US $0.30), donkey owners can fill up a 220-litre tank of water which they then take and sell to the public for £1 (US $1.50). Within a day, the maximum they can manage is about 10-12 trips so can earn up to around £8-10 (US $12-14) per day, five days a week.
Today, we visited the Duria area of Hargeisa, described by Dr Ali as an urban slum where the water-carrying donkeys live with their owners. Donkeys have such a low status that owners are prevented from renting houses by landlords, so they live here in very poor conditions. Together with Dr Ali, the SAWS team included a vet (Dr Naasir), animal health worker (Abdul-Nadr) and a community advisor (Mukhtar). Several harness wounds and other wounds were treated and Abdul-Nadr trimmed some overgrown hooves.
We spoke to many of the owners who are keen to learn how to look after their animals better; the owners certainly value their animals but a lack of knowledge and support means that when a welfare problem arises, it can escalate quickly.
I’ve been hugely impressed to meet many Somalilanders who are keen to make a difference. I met a bank employee today who was bordering on tears when describing the plight of donkeys here. A strong and active diaspora are getting involved and are excited to hear about donkey welfare and early discussions with various ministries have been very positive.
Not only has my perspective of this impressive state been radically changing this week, the perspective of Somalilanders towards their donkeys has been noticeably shifting. Even the Minister of Livestock told me that this is the first time that people are starting to talk about donkeys and the people that rely on them in a positive way. With people like the SAWS team now on the case, I’m sure that perspectives will keep changing for the better.