The fertile, agricultural districts of Chibombo and Chisamba in central Zambia have a relatively recent relationship with donkeys. Supplied in large numbers by the government in the early 2000s, few people had experience of looking after them properly. For the last five years, The Donkey Sanctuary has partnered with Mwamfumba, an agricultural co-operative that fills this knowledge gap, improves the welfare of Zambian donkeys and supports the people who rely on them.
The rains are over a month late and everyone in this predominantly farming area is patiently waiting to plant their crops. Not everything is on standby though; the welcome committee at my guesthouse in Chibombo was certainly pretty lively. Within five minutes of putting my bag down in my room, I had removed four large (and somewhat agitated) red and black spiders, one giant cricket, two smaller 10-legged beasties, a brown stick insect, a stunningly colourful beetle and a black spider that could run as fast as your average housecat. Feeling a little besieged, I put up my mozzie net (taking great care to tuck it firmly in) and went out for dinner. Only after I sat down did I spot the evening’s champion arachnid, like a tennis ball in both diameter and furriness, frozen to the wall. As the spider and I tensely watched each other over dinner, I caught the eye of a local guy at the table next to me. He flicked his eyes up to the little monster and nodded slightly. Just loud enough for me to hear, he said ‘Oh, a Zambian Crotch Spider’, and with a twinkle in his eye, he continued to eat. It could be the antimalarial tablets talking but I think I saw the spider chuckle softly as I anxiously crossed my legs and wolfed down my cabbage and rice as fast as I could.
After a jumpy night’s sleep, I spent today with some of Mwamfumba’s team visiting a village to learn about local harness methods and Mwamfumba’s approach. Samson (the technical director for its donkey project), Nelson (chairperson), Loveness (treasurer) and I were also joined by several community livestock officers as well as Aaron and Chambwe, the two harness officers for the project. The team told me about the unusual and quite recent history of donkeys in this part of Zambia. In 1995, an epidemic of a tick-borne disease led to huge numbers of cattle dying. Chambwe told me that he had owned 46 cows (used for traction and meat) but, within a few months, only had six. He was left destitute and unable to feed his family. In 2002, a government scheme was offered where donkeys from Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia were given on a loan basis to families to replace the cattle to work on farms. More resistant to diseases, the donkeys represented a pretty solid investment. Over the last 12 years, Chambwe’s first two donkeys have grown into a group of 12 which are all looking great and he was able to support his children’s education.
Chambwe and his donkeys were lucky that his family had a strong background in keeping donkeys; his parents moved from Zimbabwe in the 1950s, having kept donkeys and having made and sold harnesses there. Other farmers and donkeys weren’t so lucky. The donkeys were imported but no education or training was given to farmers on how to look after them. People used the harness, carts and techniques that had previously worked for the cows (such as yokes) on the donkeys which caused a lot of welfare problems. Recognising the need, Mwamfumba started working with local communities on donkey-care, welfare, harnessing and behaviour and are seeing rapid changes in these districts; with very little tradition of using donkeys, the communities were very keen to learn.
Thanks to The Donkey Sanctuary’s support, 40 community livestock workers have now been trained to visit farmers, give advice and demonstrate good practice. Amazingly, the team are all volunteers with no car and with only one motorbike (provided through The Donkey Sanctuary) between them to reach far-flung corners of the districts. The Donkey Sanctuary recently helped them to buy a fleet of bicycles so that their community livestock workers can pedal out into the communities and for those who don’t have any access to wheels, they walk up to 25km to reach donkeys and farmers in need.
Today, Chambwe and Aaron were demonstrating donkey-specific harnesses as an alternative to using oxen-yokes on donkeys. People were soaking up the information and frantically scribbling down everything that was said. Afterwards, as we shared a pot of chibuantu (the local ‘welcome’ drink made from crushed maize, boiled for 40 mins with a little sugar – like a lovely, runny semolina), masses of information was exchanged, including tips about the local mkololo tree, the bark from which can be ground up with a little salt and applied to treat wounds on donkeys with fast-acting results.
Walking the 5km track towards Chibombo town with the team after the visit, I was reminded of how hugely impressive the work of Mwamfumba is in the face of myriad challenges, how resourceful and positive they are and how they simply get stuck in for the donkeys. One of the team said to me today that in the wet season, the track to his village is impassable. When I asked how he copes, he replied: ‘We just hitch up our trousers and go anyway!’ The true Mwamfumba spirit! It’s been a real pleasure to roll up my sleeves and join them today but after last night’s encounter at dinner, I’ll probably think twice about rolling up my trouser legs!