Donkeys are relatively new additions to the beautiful Malawian landscape. Since the late 1950s, groups of donkeys were imported from a range of neighbouring countries in various programmes to address poverty. However the correct harnesses, carts and donkey-specific husbandry techniques were not also imported at the time. Malawi’s population of donkeys has grown to an estimated 15,000 which is mostly concentrated around the capital city. Here, the Lilongwe Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (LSPCA) has been in the process of starting the country’s first donkey-focussed project with support and funding from The Donkey Sanctuary. I’m visiting LSPCA this week to learn about their brand new project and to help get things off the ground.
Imagine this for a minute: According to the World Bank’s 2014 gross national income calculations, the average income works out at only $250 (about £175) per person; less than 50p per day. Whereas this has been steadily rising across sub-Saharan Africa for at least the last decade, it has been falling in Malawi year on year since 2011. Lieza Swennen, the project director at LSPCA, told me today that about 90% of the population are subsistence farmers. Whole families live off half-hectare plots because this is about the most that can be managed with just a hoe.
Donkeys do not work to plough these fields; children and women use donkeys to collect water and, in the harvest seasons, transport maize (the national staple) from the fields. As appropriate donkey carts have never existed here, donkeys pull unwieldy ox carts with yokes which are very badly suited to them. As draft animals, their power comes from the chest and not the neck. Therefore, as well as making poor use of a donkey’s power, ox yokes cause pain and discomfort and, depending on the cart balance, the weight, the working practices and conditions, often also cause terrible wounds.
After a morning in the office with Lieza and some of her team, we drove to some of the surrounding communities with Edson (the education officer, LSPCA) and Mr Piri (the local senior assistant veterinary officer, employed by the government) to see some donkeys before the project really gets going. We practiced assessing and describing donkey welfare using The Donkey Sanctuary’s hand-based tool; and as well as seeing a few donkeys with good welfare, we saw a range of welfare problems with some quite severe cases. Despite being at the end of the wet season, we saw a wide range of body conditions as well as wounds of various severity caused by the yokes. Without much in the way of veterinary care, the main treatment for wounds is to rub soil into the wound to prevent flies making it worse. In one village, we even saw a donkey and an ox struggling to pull the same cart. There is lots of work to be done and thank goodness the LSPCA are here to champion these donkeys.
Tomorrow, I will be meeting the brand new project coordinator for the first time; she doesn’t officially start work until next week. Already, the LSPCA’s plans are very exciting and a rich pool of talents in the team means I already have very high hopes for the future for Malawi’s misunderstood donkeys.