How do you keep donkeys hydrated on a sandy island with no natural springs or lakes? Having lived on Kenya’s rural south coast in the past where the only source of water was whatever rain run-off you could harvest, I had expected Lamu to have a similar problem.
It seems odd that access to fresh groundwater would be a luxury but on parts of Kenya’s coast, the permeable coral rag rocks often mean that when you dig a borehole, you get water that is quite brackish. However in this predominantly sandy island, the groundwater seems to get naturally filtered and the water is surprisingly fresh, cool and crisp. This is great for the islanders – but as there are no natural springs or lakes, the donkeys on the island need a little help getting access to it.
For the past 11 years, Mohammed Swaleh (better known as ‘Mbuni’) has worked with the Donkey Sanctuary Kenya to maintain a windmill in the sandy agricultural centre of the island. Hundreds of donkeys benefit from Mbuni’s work to keep the windmill greased, well-maintained and free from silt.
Guided by Lamu’s office attendant Omari, I was joined by Lamu project leader Felix and the Kenyan team’s education officer Josiah as we made our way along 3km of winding paths through coconut and mango trees to the windmill to meet Mbuni and to see how it is used. Mbuni explained that there had been a well on the site for generations – his father and his grandfather before him had drawn water from it. Now, two to three times a day, Mbuni walks from his nearby smallholding, or ‘shamba’, to the windmill to make sure the water keeps flowing.
While we waited, Mbuni climbed up the windmill to do his usual checks. As if to prove the windmill’s importance, at this moment a donkey owner arrived with his donkey so it could drink and rest for a while in the shade. As the donkey drank, Felix talked to the owner about the life of his donkey, the work it carries out, and learned a bit more about local culture, beliefs and values in terms of donkey welfare.
All the talk of fresh, crisp water was making us feel a bit parched so on the sweaty walk back to the office, Mbuni kindly invited us to stop at his shamba for a drink in the shade of a huge tamarind tree. Omari got hold of a machete and a few deft swipes later, we were sipping away at fresh coconut milk and feeling much better. Man or beast, Mbuni is definitely the person to rely on when a thirst needs quenching!