‘Welcome to Mlolongo,’ said Amos, Harness Officer at Donkey Sanctuary Kenya, as we turned off the Mombasa Road.
I was visiting the small but burgeoning township of Mlolongo on the edge of Nairobi to meet with Daniel, a donkey owner who you may remember from our Winter Newsletter last year. Along with many other workers, Daniel and his donkeys transport water from the nearby Syokimau Dam to town to facilitate building work. Back then, he told us how pairs of donkeys would carry 400 litres of water in carts up a potholed, steep and broken road to supply the construction industry. Donkeys were often tied to the carts by ropes around their necks and had to fetch the water from a quarry that was several hills away. As well as the wounds and suffering that the donkeys faced, the work was so slow the donkey-users would push their animals to make trips as fast as they could. Faster trips meant more income.
The DSK team had been working closely with the Mlolongo Donkey Owners Association, to which Daniel is Chairman, to develop harnesses and make improvements to the carts, which has vastly improved the donkeys’ welfare. Their success has seen a huge drop in the number and severity of wounds, as well as improved communication between the users and the donkeys.
But in a dreadful twist, when donkey welfare started to improve through better harnessing, healthier donkeys started to be stolen in the night for meat. As a consequence, the number of donkeys has plummeted from over 90 donkeys a couple of years ago to less than 20 now. Carcasses had been found just a few hundred metres away from where they had been taken. The challenges facing the donkeys, their owners and the wider community in this area were harsh, complex and inextricably linked. What kind of action could possibly turn this around?
I knew that James Duncan, a trustee of both The Donkey Sanctuary UK and Donkey Sanctuary Kenya, had visited Mlolongo after hearing about the struggles of the donkeys there. He had been instrumental in setting in motion a chain of events to create an integrated action plan with the group – and I was keen to hear more.
Moments after getting out of the car, Daniel arrived on the back of a motorcycle taxi. He greeted us warmly and took us to the place that is set to turn the Mlolongo donkeys’ fortunes around: a huge water tank, sponsored by The Donkey Sanctuary.
He explained how pipes now lead up from the quarry and pump water directly into a tank in town. Donkey users can collect water from the hose running from this tank and the construction industry is charged 10 shillings (about 7 pence) extra for every 200 litres of water they get. The donkeys no longer need to haul water up and down the broken, hilly tracks and are now only used in the final few metres to carry water from the tank to the building site. With the demand on the donkeys greatly reduced, they get more time to rest – and because the trips have become much shorter, it has also freed up time for the owners to earn money in other pursuits when the daily demand for water has been filled.
The new water tank is tackling the community’s challenge of water transportation after losing so many donkeys, but what of the theft problem itself? When I asked Daniel to tell us more about donkey theft, he straightened up and looked straight back at me. ‘I used to have 11 donkeys and now I only have three. This problem is very severe, but don’t worry, we’ll handle it.’ Then a smile stretched across his face and he said: ‘The additional money that we raise from selling water from the tank covers the petrol for the pump, repairs, servicing and a security guard to watch the tank – but we will also have some left over. We’re hoping to buy a small plot of land to keep our donkeys in at night with a security guard to keep them safe.’
The group has started to link up with other associations in the area who face similar challenges. This sort of local collaboration has given the Mlolongo community a stronger voice to campaign for better policing and local-authority support in preventing theft. It’s truly inspirational in the face of such complex problems – and if I ever get a bit low in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I want to think back to Daniel’s proud smile and his community’s collaborative action to make lasting change a reality. My trip really was an inspirational journey in every respect.