Almost everything about Hargeisa is unique and there is definitely an underlying beauty to the place. The local trees are flowering with a jasmine-like smell, the arid hills surrounding town change from orange to dusky pink through the day, weaver birds zip around the acacia trees making nests and there are smiling and friendly faces everywhere I look. Camels wander around the surrounding hills, enjoying the fresh leaves on the low bushes that dot the land. No gun-toting militants here; this is not Somalia, it is Somaliland.
Of course, not everything is as rosy as it feels. Years of economic isolation have taken their toll and despite remarkable progress, there are still major barriers to development. Economic migrants continue to head for Europe, many perishing when crossing the Mediterranean on their way. Solid waste is becoming a huge problem with plastic filling the dry river bed that snakes through town.
Today, I have been visiting some donkey owners with Dr Ali, the executive director of the Social and Animal Welfare Service (SAWS), which has been recently supported by The Donkey Sanctuary for work in Burcao city. At first glance, most of the donkeys we met seemed in good shape. Owners feed them a varied supply of grains, maize and greens. In most cases, the donkeys were alert, calm and interested to see what we were about. No signs of lameness, injuries or diseases could be seen. However on closer inspection, the real welfare challenges of Hargeisa’s donkeys became clearer.
At one market site, we spotted a donkey with some old but ugly firing scars on the front legs. Firing is a practice where a donkey is burnt as a treatment for certain injuries. While firing seems to have been used more or less worldwide and still has its advocates, luckily most are moving away from it and as it is certainly very painful for the donkey, education on less harmful alternatives is a good way forwards.
Later in the day, we visited a rubbish-collection area where some owners were keeping their donkeys in the shade of some trees. One donkey and owner in particular caught my eye; in amongst the bottles, old buckets and other waste stood an absolutely beautiful donkey. His owner, a man called Hussein, was a real hero. He showed me how he groomed his donkey, how his donkey liked a scratch under the chin and how he had spruced up the headcollar with some tassels. Hussein’s practice may not be perfect but the love, compassion and willingness to learn certainly shone through.
Sadly, as we headed on, we saw a far less fortunate donkey than Hussein’s. Despite the same cart, harness and working pattern as all the others, this donkey’s welfare was going downhill fast. The owner was clearly distressed with the welfare and had tried several things which he thought would help, including giving more food. He’d added several extra blankets under the saddle and had tried to make a ring-donut from cloth to protect the spinal wounds that were causing serious pain to the skinny donkey. The chest strap was rubbing the shoulders into open wounds and the donkey had clearly fallen a few times and so both carpi (knees) were scraped. The visible welfare problems could be related to something more serious. Dr Ali talked with the owner and agreed to take the donkey into temporary care while the underlying causes were identified and addressed and while the wounds were treated.
After a long, emotionally intense day, I am writing this on the porch of my hotel in the shade of the jasmine-scented trees. Tomorrow, I’ll be spending the day with the SAWS team to reflect on their plans and work to support improved welfare practices and to prevent the rapid decline of donkeys when problems appear. The team here are doing hugely important work in a fascinatingly unique place.