Today has been a truly Zambian experience. I’ve been visiting The Donkey Sanctuary’s long-standing local partner, Mwamfumba Co-operative and the team wanted to show me what life is like for the donkey owners in the villages of Chibombo district.
Most of the shops, offices and businesses in Chibombo are clustered along the main road north of Lusaka which is known as Cairo Road (if you keep following it north, I’m told you’ll eventually see why!). Huge lorries plough this highway constantly but cars are completely out of reach for most people in this area. Most Brits would probably enthuse at paying Zambian prices for fuel (currently £1.06 for a litre) but for local farmers netting an annual household income of around £300-500, this is simply astronomical. As soon as you get a few hundred metres away from the Cairo Road, the gravel roads disappear into twisting, dusty tracks through the agricultural plains for hundreds of kilometres in each direction. To travel the 25km to Mwaluvingu village, we set out on a mishmash of motorbikes and bicycles and as I clung on behind Samson (the technical director for Mwamfumba’s donkey project), we bounced and wound our way through the lovely landscape to meet Lesho, the headman of the village and other team members who had cycled and walk in.
As is tradition, we were treated to a cup of chibuantu made from ground maize as we discussed the many benefits that Mwamfumba has brought to this donkey-owning community. Lesho told us that after he had lost many cattle to disease, he received two donkeys from the government on a loan basis but at first, didn’t know how to look after them properly until Mwamfumba came along. Mwamfumba’s dedicated team of 40 community livestock workers (CLWs) continue to travel to villages such as Mwaluvingu to talk with owners about donkey care, welfare, handling, behaviour, nutrition, deworming and many other areas. The CLWs collect data using The Donkey Sanctuary’s hand-based approach and routinely meet together to discuss trends and problems and to plan ways to improve things for the donkeys. As the CLWs come from these communities themselves, they already have a great rapport, and do a brilliant job of supporting others to solve their own problems. As soon as they learnt that donkeys need to be dewormed, community members bought their own de-wormer for the CLWs to administer on their visits; people are proud of their animals and no one is looking for free hand-outs.
The Zambians in this area care a great deal about their animals and I got the strong feeling that when they first received their donkeys from the government in 2002 without any training, it upset them greatly to see their donkeys suffering without knowing what to do. This innate passion for the welfare of their animals has led to a huge commitment and drive for change where Mwamfumba works. After a traditional village lunch of boiled chicken and millet-meal (as the guest, I was honoured with the best piece of chicken, normal reserved for the head of the house), we went to see Lesho’s family’s 11 donkeys. I was hugely impressed. His original two donkeys are still looking great at the wonderful age of 20 and their descendants are all in superb condition. The women and children in the family love them and are happy to work in the fields with them (whereas they felt unable to control traction cows). The whole family plays a part in looking after the donkeys and it was lovely to see the whole family each cuddling their favourite.
The family group of donkeys walked to take a drink by a nearby well as we chatted. In the distance, a large male donkey from another village came strutting towards the group, keen to join them despite their clear reticence. As the situation unfolded, Lesho, his family and the Mwamfumba team simultaneously fell silent and watched the fascinating display of natural donkey behaviour in awe for a good 20 minutes before the male gave up and headed back. The onlookers were so intrigued by donkey behaviour that they took the time to observe and study it with the same enthusiasm and fascination as someone seeing it for the first time. For me, the behaviour of the people was just as wonderful to see as the behaviour of the donkeys!
After returning to town and washing the day’s grit off my face, I’d say there is nothing like a well-balanced dinner to round off the perfect Zambian day. Vegetables were provided in the form of delicious sautéed pumpkin-leaves and there was a choice of peppered potatoes or pasta. The protein? Caterpillars. Fat, wrinkly little things with a pleasant, mildly fishy taste. I asked the lady in the kitchen to give me a lesson in how to prepare them; they come dried so you soak them in water for a few minutes and simply fry up with a little oil, onion and garlic. They’re a very common food in Zambia with bags of dried caterpillars going for about five kwacha (50p) or so at roadside stalls. My colleagues now know what to expect in their ‘secret-Santa’ gift at this year’s International Department Christmas lunch!
It has been a privilege to spend time with the Mwamfumba team over the last few days. There is a need and a thirst for knowledge about donkeys in Zambia and thanks to The Donkey Sanctuary, Mwamfumba is filling those gaps with dedicated people who understand donkeys and the communities they live in. My hat goes off to their dedication and for what they achieve with the resources they have. Thousands of donkeys are now living longer, healthier and happier lives. Well done Mwamfumba!