Selam (Hello), I am Rachel (or Ra’hel as I have been renamed here in Ethiopia). I am the incredibly lucky student that has been selected by The Donkey Sanctuary and the British Veterinary Association for this year’s travel scholarship. The Donkey Sanctuary has sent me out to Ethiopia to learn about the working donkeys and at the same time carry out a small study that I hope will contribute to the growing understanding of these animals in Ethiopia. I am spending four weeks in Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia, with Donkey Sanctuary Ethiopia. It is my first time travelling alone and, despite the rush of my plane leaving 20 minutes early (early, not late!) from the capital Addis Ababa, I made it safely to Mekelle where I was met by a large welcoming committee. The Donkey Sanctuary really is one big family, and our Ethiopian relatives are the most wonderful people: friendly, funny and delighted to show me their country and include me in the hard work they do.
I was quickly into the thick of it and spent the first morning in the village of Awhana helping out at the mobile veterinary clinic that Donkey Sanctuary Ethiopia provides every week. As soon as we had parked up, the donkeys and their owners came flooding over – hundreds of donkeys, hundreds! The first thing that struck me was how much the owners respect the Donkey Sanctuary Ethiopia vets and how grateful they are for their help. They would wait 30 minutes to see a vet about a small rub or slight lameness.
But the clinics aren’t just about veterinary care. The Ethiopia team works with owners to help them understand the best ways to look after their donkeys. This ensures the work they do is sustainable – every donkey owner that is shown how to prevent wounds means that there is one less donkey that will need treatment in the future. Since many of the wounds we saw were caused by poor harnessing, the team also ensure a local harness maker is on hand at these clinics to work with the owners to make the harnesses better fitting and more comfortable.
Donkeys are an integral part of life in Ethiopia. It is harvest time right now and without donkeys helping to transport the crops, livelihoods would cease. Without the donkey, people could not afford to live – it’s as simple as that. The nature of the donkey makes it an easy animal to take for granted; they do not complain at hard work, too heavy loads or rough treatment. But Donkey Sanctuary Ethiopia is working hard to show owners how to care for their donkeys themselves – both physically and through their behaviour and attitudes towards them – so that both the donkeys and the owners can look forward to a better future.
I have learnt how The Donkey Sanctuary uses a simple assessment tool to record information about the working donkey’s behaviour, body condition, and the prevalence of wounds, lameness and disease. This assessment also pays attention to the whole animal, such as the life of the donkey, how it is used, and any local beliefs and traditions that might affect the donkey’s life. The teams are beginning to incorporate this welfare assessment into their everyday routine so that they can monitor the impact of their work on improving the welfare of these animals.
It has been an eye-opening trip so far. Watching as a seven-year-old girl trotted along the road behind her donkey before it stood gentle as a lamb while we dewormed it and cleaned its sores, I was reminded that even here, where life is tough for all, the donkey is a creature of pure kindness and humility.