Although the journey is short from the Donkey Sanctuary Kenya’s Nakuru office to Subukia, a small town on Kenya’s Rift Valley floor, it is also quite beautiful. As we bounced along the potholed road from town, the walls of the mighty Rift Valley towered up on either side of the road to frame acid-green tea plantations, regimentally-spaced coffee bushes and all manner of dusty little shops and businesses from open-air blacksmiths to painted wooden cafes filled with white plastic chairs. As we crossed the equator (twice, thanks to a kink in the road), I noted with light disenchantment that it was marked only with a little yellow sign and not a fat red line across the ground like on the maps. I chose not to share my puerile sense of humour with my Donkey Sanctuary Kenya companions and just quietly sniggered to myself.
When we reached Subukia town, Nicholas (harness officer at Donkey Sanctuary Kenya) introduced me to Pastor, the chairman-elect of a fledgling community group of 23 donkey owners and users. Donkey Sanctuary Kenya has worked with donkeys and individuals in Subukia for several years and while the donkeys' lives improved through veterinary treatments, people soon realised that prevention is better than cure and Donkey Sanctuary Kenya spent more time with owners to raise awareness of welfare and to find sustainable solutions to the causes of welfare problems.
Donkeys are part-and-parcel of everyday life in this part of the Rift Valley. In the wetter seasons, they transport harvested crops and agricultural goods and in the dry season, they transport water. Regardless of season, they also transport construction materials and dry food goods around town and together, the owners and donkeys work around six hours each day to earn a living. The group clearly care a lot about their donkeys; each member has between two and four which they rotate between to grant each one enough rest. Pastor was delighted to tell me about his oldest donkey, a lovely old chap named ‘Guka’ (meaning ‘Grandfather’), estimated to be in his thirties.
When I met Pastor and the energetic new group, they showed me the problems their donkeys faced and showed real empathy for the plight of their ‘colleagues’. In the past, they had copied the designs of carts in neighbouring communities and had done their best to make sensible carts without fully understanding them. But in the mishmash of designs, the shafts are generally too close together causing nasty wounds, the carts are badly balanced and the weight of the carts rests fully on the neck of the donkeys. The group are desperately upset to see that their donkeys have been getting wounds and so have asked for Donkey Sanctuary Kenya’s support to improve the design and to maintain the quality of the carts and the harnesses needed to hitch the carts to the donkeys.
In a strong act of unity, they recently decided to band together and are currently officially registering as a community group so that they could open a bank account, each contribute some money and use it to improve their donkeys’ welfare and act as a financial buffer for when drought hits or when donkeys are lost. Donkey Sanctuary Kenya’s team are supporting them all the way, including with registering their group, and are already planning the work to help the group learn what they need to do to change their carts. I am sure that Donkey Sanctuary Kenya’s work in Subukia has had a very positive impact on people’s attitudes to welfare and it is wonderful to meet a group with such empathy and passion to improve. I know that next time I head along the Rift Valley floor to Subukia, I will be meeting happier, healthier donkeys and a proud group of people who are making a real difference.