It has been a very intense 24 hours in Tanzania. Yesterday afternoon, I took the slow and dusty journey by public 4x4 from Arusha deep into the Maasai lands. My travelling companions are Johnson Lyimo, project coordinator for MAWO (Meru Animal Welfare Organisation, who we fund for their donkey projects and are staffed completely by volunteers) and Dr Semufali, recently appointed to the new government post of Animal Welfare Inspector for the region. I should add that although buses can’t cope with the road, it didn’t stop the 4x4 drivers from aiming for a similar capacity – there were another 15 people in the vehicle with us! The squidged mass of humanity actually helped soften the bumps quite well!
We are visiting MAWO’s project site in Loiborsoit village, chosen as their focus because it was considered to have the worst welfare of the areas they scoped. Problems include poor communication with the animals, poor harness leading to cuts on the back legs of donkeys and very little in the way of awareness of veterinary services for donkeys. Here, they were truly the forgotten animals. The village has no electricity, no surface water in the dry season and just one rough road to get in and out, meaning it hasn’t been on the radar for many NGOs in the past. When we arrived, we had an hour or so of daylight to get our bearings before enjoying a gorgeous sunset. With a few solar lights to find our way around, we settled down to sleep at the agricultural training centre. Luckily, the chilly temperatures at this altitude seem to keep the bugs at bay so there weren’t too many critters lurking in the dark pit-loo hut!
This morning, I met with an inspiring group of women. Calling themselves ‘Edamunoto Osikiria Loiborsoit Simanjiro’ (Remembering the Donkeys in Simanjiro), these ten pioneering Maasai women, informally known as ‘the mamas’, work with donkeys every day and fully appreciate the value of donkeys to the community. In the dry season (this time of year), the mamas use donkeys to fetch water from wells and they each carry about two gallons for livestock and the women’s families. But while the contribution of the donkeys is great, their status is seen as very low by the community as a whole. My first encounter with the women was during a clinical visit this morning. A man could not catch a donkey for deworming and the considerable energy he spent on trying to catch it simply frightened the donkey more and more. When the man admitted defeat, one of the mamas calmly stepped up to the donkey and held it kindly without so much as the donkey blinking. The audience, mostly men, watched with mouths open as she showed them how to read donkey behaviour and how to communicate and handle them according to the behaviour they showed.
After the clinic, we had a long chat with the mamas who told us about their plans for donkey welfare. Thanks to MAWO, they have received training in many aspects of donkey care and welfare and recently hosted Donkey Sanctuary Kenya’s Amos Supeet, who worked on harnessing with them – and they are already seeing results. The wounds are healing and hair is growing back, and as the community see the improvements in the health and strength of the mamas’ donkeys, they are starting to realise the importance of good welfare. The mamas each plan to form their own subgroups to share what they have learned, and a well-balanced cart design is being piloted to see how it can lighten the donkeys’ burden. MAWO will be there throughout to monitor this pilot and make sure new technology introduced doesn’t cause any damage. While we were there, we presented the delighted mamas with MAWO’s 2015 calendars featuring photos of them making harnesses. Each of the mamas had a wonderful story to tell about how interested their family and friends were in their group; one visiting lady from another village even dropped in as we were talking to ask about the harness she saw as she was passing. Such interest is spurring on the women to start making and selling the harnesses to raise some money while improving welfare at the same time.
At the end of the discussion, the mamas presented me with my own Maasai blanket, tied it around me and asked me to call each of them ‘mama’, welcoming me to their culture and village. They also named me ‘Koriyango’, which is a name given to young Maasai men between 25-35. Given that I’m well into the top half of that bracket and that there are countless unflattering African animal-related nicknames available, I wasn’t complaining! One of the mamas invited us to her ‘boma’, the compound of huts and animal pens where she lives with her husband, his other seven wives and countless children and grandchildren. She told us many stories of life and relationships in the boma, how animals are used, how they are protected from hyena and lion attacks with thorn bushes, the rites of passage for young Maasai and how proud the family are of her work to improve the lives of donkeys.
After the two mile walk back across the dusty plains from the boma to the village (keeping a nervous eye open for hyenas after mama’s earlier comment), we reflected on MAWO’s plans as they move forwards with a very exciting project here. A delicious dinner of stew and maize porridge was whipped up by some of the staff in the training centre, which left us all feeling sleepy and relaxed. The 4x4 back to town leaves just before 5am and if anyone is going to believe I am truly a young ‘Koriyango’, I’d better get some beauty sleep!