Tanzania turns out to be really quite big. The landscapes are big, distances are immense, the sky is vast and the forests of baobab trees are amongst the chunkiest I’ve ever seen. As I headed west from Dar es Salaam with the team from TAWESO (Tanzanian Animal Welfare Society), I had my nose pressed against the window like a child at a sweetshop. During a brief stop on the way, we had the ‘fortune’ of discovering a monstrous ‘scorpion wind’ - a spinning, whipping tornado-like wind that picks up the sand into a tall tower and then flings it against whichever unfortunate idiot isn’t astute enough to pick the right direction to run in. I’m still picking grit out of my pockets…
Eleven hours after we departed from TAWESO’s office in Dar, we arrived at their main community site in Mpwapwa district. The town was previously a German colonial base and the pleasant climate, beautiful hills and myriad dramatic expressions in the thousands of baobabs makes for a wonderful place to be. But under the surface, the water table has been dropping for decades and as the wells dry up, donkeys are being used more and more to transport essential water from further and further away. Dr Thomas (TAWESO’s executive director), Richard (the donkey project coordinator) and their team of community mobilisers have been funded by The Donkey Sanctuary since 2010. They take a fascinating multi-pronged approach to tackle the increasing welfare problems and in the space of the past two days, they have given me such a whirlwind look at their multifaceted projects that even the scorpion wind would be jealous.
Their first step was to establish a baseline by surveying the many villages, speaking to local farmers, donkey owners and donkey users to build up a solid picture of the welfare issues. At the time, the biggest issue by far was wounds caused by harnesses as donkeys transported water over the hills surrounding town. Since the initial survey, TAWESO’s approach involved working with owners, users, school children, local government officials, village leaders, local agricultural colleges, animal welfare inspectors and community livestock officers to prevent wounds, improve treatments, ensure better local monitoring of donkeys and build awareness of animal welfare in general. Tanzania’s recently implemented Animal Welfare Act has been described as one of the best in Africa but before it can be enforced, people need to understand what welfare means. As Thomas said: ‘If everyone who mistreated an animal were arrested as per the Act, the prisons would be full. We need to educate people first so they know the best way to treat animals and know how to follow the right way.’
And this is exactly what TAWESO has done. As well as publicising the Act and teaching owners, children and local government what constitutes good welfare for donkeys (and all animals), it has worked intensively with several donkey-owning groups to improve their harness design. During my inspiring visit I have met government officials, livestock colleges, community groups and a primary school class where Thomas and the team made great use of a knitted ‘woolley’ donkey which he picked up recently from The Donkey Sanctuary in the UK!
I also met one owner and group member called Henry who introduced me to his donkey named Amaani, meaning ‘Peace’. Using The Donkey Sanctuary’s welfare assessment tool, we saw that Amaani was doing brilliantly with very friendly, positive behaviour, a healthy body condition, no wounds, no lameness and no signs of other illness or disease. Henry told me that he previously used no harness on Amaani and just hung 20 litre cans of water on his back with rope. One year after TAWESO taught him how to make a padded harness, he noted that Amaani no longer sweated, no longer got wounds, was now a healthier weight and no longer kicked. To demonstrate the new-found relationship, Henry showed me how he used verbal commands to communicate with Amaani who seemed to know he was on show; he moved, stopped and turned on command in a perfect display of partnership. Henry aims to spread what he has learnt to others in the village and hopes to also contact owners in other communities. Interestingly, he noted that now there was a much stronger bond between himself and Amaani, he felt even more obligated to meet and exceed the requirements of his donkey. By understanding each other better, the pair is set to make enough money for Henry’s children to attend secondary school, something that Henry said would not have been possible before.
With my head spinning from so many amazing stories of change and possibility from TAWESO’s community partners, I’m leaving Mpwapwa and heading on another long, dusty bus ride tomorrow. Through the snapshot visit, one thing seems clear: TAWESO’s multiple-directional approach to tackling donkey welfare is truly inspiring. There is much more work to do to spread the messages but with such a strong, dynamic team at TAWESO and with so many switched-on and excited community partners willing to take up the challenge, the daunting battle seems utterly winnable.