He may be the smallest of the boys, but 11-year-old Tanchi Sedibana - also known as Kenny - is not discouraged as he attempts to groom all the donkeys around him before being politely told he should ask the donkey owners first.
Kenny is a donkey driver in the Waterberg Valley in South Africa, an area where boys often look after the family donkeys while their parents are working, taking the donkeys out of the kraal (an enclosure for livestock) early in the morning and doing general handling and grooming. Common problems include mishandling - particularly whipping - badly fitting harness, parasites, and general overwork.
This story is gradually changing, however, and Kenny is one of the pioneers. He is part of the National Donkey Upliftment Project run by the National Council of Societies for the Protection and Care of Animals (NSPCA) and funded by The Donkey Sanctuary.
The project works to improve the lives of working donkeys through the education and training of donkey owners and drivers as well as direct assistance to the donkeys. Last year around 1,150 donkeys and 700 donkey handlers were reached.
Kenny’s enthusiasm hasn’t been lost on Morgane James, training manager at the NSPCA.
“Kenny is always standing with the donkeys, leaning on them, petting them - he’s a really nice kid,” she says.
Under the project Kenny and the other child donkey drivers in his community are learning to take better care of the donkeys. They put them in the kraal at night and give the donkeys water after they have finished working. The children then share some tender moments checking the donkeys for injuries and ticks, removing thorns and stones in hooves.
“I check the donkeys for wounds and ticks and give them water,” Kenny says, adding thoughtfully: “I respect the donkeys and work with them in the right way."
Morgane points out that respect is a word that comes up often.
“The general feeling of the children is that the donkeys behave better because they are not whipped. They say they understand better that donkeys are important and they know that donkeys help them and their communities.”
Not everyone listens and some people, especially older men, do still whip their donkeys. This hasn’t dented the enthusiasm of the younger generation, however, as could be clearly seen at a donkey handler competition NSPCA organised to celebrate Youth Day.
Each handler had to demonstrate how he controlled the donkey on long reins, picking up a hoof safely, how the bridle was taken off and on to see if this was done carefully so as not to damage teeth and whether the ears were handled with care and then some general questions about the donkeys.
It was possible to see how far the handlers had improved even if they were performing just for the show, Morgane adds. “We can tell by the donkey’s reaction - are they head shy, do they flinch etc - and we were really pleased to see the improvements.”
Everyone got something - a little party pack of sweets and fruit and donkey-themed colouring books for all. The top prizes included sponsored bags of donkey food.
“It’s lovely to see the kids taking their prizes home - so proud of what they achieved,” Morgane says. “And it keeps the families talking about donkeys - rewarding good behaviour certainly has great results.”
Kenny, who was among the jubilant prize winners, would certainly agree.
“It was a bit overwhelming for him,” Morgane says, “he was thrilled with his prizes!”