When Mary Murika was born prematurely in a hospital in Mannar, Sri Lanka, in 2002 her country was in the middle of a devastating civil war. “Her mother was in constant fear due to the bombing, shelling and gun shots,” says Sister Josephine, director of the Mannar Association for Rehabilitation of Differently Abled People (MARDAP). “They had to run from place to place to survive.”
Around the same time the Tamil Tigers (LTTE – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were facing defeat against government forces in 2009, Murika was starting school. She couldn’t keep up with the other children and she was admitted into MARDAP’s school for differently abled children, where she received speech therapy, yoga and other activities to help her grow.
“In the beginning she was reluctant to interact with the other children and they were scared to go near her,” Sister Josephine says.
But that gradually began to improve with the assistance of some long-eared friends through a donkey assisted therapy project run with help from our partners the Donkey Sanctuary India. The project brings together children at MARDAP’s school with donkeys helped by Bridging Lanka, a charity which works with the large feral donkey population in Sri Lanka. The children feed, groom and talk to the donkeys, which stimulates their emotional and physical development.
The benefits for the children are obvious, says Ramesh Kumar, Veterinary Coordinator for the Donkey Sanctuary India, who was part of the team who set up the project in 2015. “The children responded so fast, from being afraid of donkeys to hugging them and feeding them by hand. One staff member at MARDAP observed to me that a child with hand coordination issues was seen using her hand better while grooming the donkeys.”
At the moment between 12-15 children take part in the sessions at a temporary donkey shelter. Construction of a new donkey assisted therapy centre is also underway, with completion scheduled for the end of December.
Children are not the only beneficiaries of the project. Thirty-eight-year-old Anthony Nicholas was born with a speech and hearing impairment. At the age of ten he was an orphan, having lost his father to rabies and his mother to tetanus in the same year. He was taken on by MARDAP as an odd job man when he was 26 and living with his uncle.
In 2015 his fortune changed again when he attended two of the donkey assisted therapy sessions.
“Since then he has developed tremendous interest towards donkeys and their wellbeing which has even influenced him to join Bridging Lanka as a caretaker for Bridging Lanka,” Ramesh says. “He has also helped us during the donkey assisted therapy sessions because he understands the emotional needs of the children.”
Murika has also shown a love of animals thanks to her new bond with donkeys. It has transformed her from a nervous child to one who is confident and happy.
“She is a happy child with a smiling face. She is happy with everyone and loves coming to school,” Sister Josephine says.
While the country begins to heal the wounds of war, the children and donkeys of Mannar are looking forward to a brighter future.