A group of people gripping notepads gather under the sharp sunshine of a winter’s day in Nairobi, Kenya. They’ve travelled from as far as Mexico, Egypt, the UK and neighbouring Ethiopia with one thing on their minds: donkeys.
The 25 men and women have come together to attend a two-week harness workshop organised by The Donkey Sanctuary. Poorly designed or badly fitting harness, as well as a lack of harness altogether, are major causes of welfare problems in working donkeys across the world. The participants are here to share their experience of harness-related problems and take home lessons learnt from fellow harness makers, behaviour specialists and other experts at the workshop to improve donkey welfare in their communities.
One of them is Dagne Tesemma Alemu, a harness maker from Hawassa, a city in Ethiopia’s Rift Valley. “There are too many reasons for bad welfare of donkeys in Hawassa,” he says. “The first is that people basically use donkeys for cart transportation and since the topography of the area is very flat, it encourages them to overload the donkey with cargo, which causes injuries.”
According to Senior Harness Officer Nicholas Mungiria from Kenya, welfare problems in his country are often caused by the use of what’s called a ‘necklace’. As the name suggests, this is not a full cart harness and can cause wounds on the neck and shoulders. In addition, when donkeys fall sick owners are willing to pay for services but the vets themselves are not trained in treating donkeys. There are other problems too.
“People traditionally believe donkeys are carriers of tetanus so they don't keep them in their home compound at night. They leave it out on the street at night where they can be hit by cars or trains or slashed by people,” he says.
Only two days in and the sharing is proving fruitful, says Alex Mayers, International Community Partnership and Education Officer. “The cross-pollination of ideas has already proven valuable and such an experience gives a boost to the team as they work towards becoming champions back in their home areas,” he says.
A “champion” of donkey welfare is someone who can lead and help others to learn in a variety of contexts. One aspiring champion, Community Harness Officer in Egypt Farid Shawky, currently trains 35 local harness makers. Most participants will be doing Level 3 harness training - the top grade - but even though their eyes may be set on achieving this goal, the aim of the workshop is teamwork rather than personal ambition.
“We want to move forward as a group”, says International Harness Consultant Chris Garrett. In a rousing address to the group he adds: "Tell us what you need to take back to your communities. This is your future, your programme."
You can hear more about the remarkable journey of one of the harness makers, Luis from Mexico, in the podcast below.