What is the best way to start my first visit to Ethiopia since 2008... of course it is a 14 hour round trip to a wonderful agricultural college in Alage some 225km from Addis Ababa.
Accompanied by two of my colleagues from the UK together with five of our Ethiopian team we travelled in two vehicles from the hustle bustle of the big city right out into a very rural part of the country in the Rift Valley. We passed literally hundreds of farming scenes where cattle,goats,sheep and oxen roamed by their thousands, being escorted by young and old to graze and drink water, as far as the eye could see across the valley. Some came exceedingly close when whole trains of animals crossed the road in front of us. There were also thousands of donkeys, many grazing with the other animals, but also many doing what donkeys do most in this rural area, provide the means of transport for almost everything needed by the local people going about their daily business.
Whilst many donkeys looked in reasonable condition and their loads not too great, there were as you can imagine sights that made you wince and, as if we needed any reminding why our ongoing work is so necessary to improve the lives of these hardworking, often unrecognised beautiful creatures.
The final part of the journey was a 40km drive along an unmade road past numerous villages large and small leading up to Alage College which sits in 4,200 hectares of farmland....yes 4,200!.
And what a sight greeted us when we arrived... many hundreds of students, the College Dean and his staff and a group of six Donkey Sanctuary Ethiopia staff, who operate a donkey care and welfare education programme to 800 students each year.
The students study for three years at the college to become Animal Health Assistants and Agricultural Extension Agents. Once qualified they return to their village communities with a thorough agricultural training including since last year a course in the care and welfare of donkeys.
Why so many students and college staff to greet us you might ask... it was the official opening of a large donkey unit that has been provided to us by the College which includes facilities for amongst other things training in veterinary, recovery, community education, and harness and cart making and building.
The facilities also include accommodation for five resident donkeys and recovery boxes for any donkey coming in requiring treatment. The College (which is operated by the Ministry of Agriculture) is working in partnership with us to make sure that in every community throughout Ethiopia, where there are an estimated seven million donkeys, that there have been specially trained members of each community that can deal with improving the care and welfare of donkeys, which in turn helps each local community.
After a number of speeches, with both College and Donkey Sanctuary staff thanking each other for what has already been achieved to date, we received a tour of the facilities, met the resident donkeys, unveiled a commemorative plaque and drank coffee brewed in the traditional way, we thanked all involved and set forth on the 225 km return journey, which is a separate story in itself.