It isn’t easy for outsiders to really understand the lives of donkeys and the people who rely on them. And without understanding and building a relationship with local communities, it is next-to-impossible to bring about improvements in welfare that will continue after the outsiders have moved on. With the Donkey Sanctuary Kenya’s (DSK) team based in Nakuru town, I spent today with the people of Kagoto village who rely on donkeys as we walked in their shoes to see how their lives, and those of their donkeys, are interwoven.
The Rift Valley is a stunning place. Kagoto village, a bustling place on the northernmost fringe of Nakuru town, sits in the Rift Valley floor and is nestled up against the western wall of the valley. ‘Kagoto’ means ‘ballast’, a name that comes from the gravel quarries that pepper the valley wall in this area. As the village expands, houses are popping up at incredulous heights up the valley wall and a small scattering of houses are now established high on the rim of the valley, peeping down across the rest of Kagoto. The only way to get to these communities is through twisty pathways through the quarries and steep, dusty inclines and the only way of getting water at the top is to carry it up from the bottom.
The communities that need to bring water up the valley wall rely on donkeys for the task and to understand more about the way that they donkeys work and the lives of the community members that rely on them, we rolled up our sleeves, put on sturdy shoes and walked alongside them to experience it first-hand. At the water-point in Kagoto, we met the donkeys; quite a few were very young and some were even under a year old. Even though they carried less weight than the adults, there can be serious health and welfare implications later in life if a donkey is worked before it is fully developed. The tail strap which held the pack saddle in place was clearly uncomfortable and in some, was leading to chronic pain where it was rubbing. None were lame (although the movement of the younger ones was certainly compromised) and there were no other signs of illness or disease. But were we getting the whole picture?
After meeting the community members, we started walking together up the valley wall. On the way, we asked them lots of questions, shared some jokes and started to build a relationship to understand each other a bit more. One of the ladies, Joyce, told us about her two donkeys. It costs her 2 shillings (about 1.5p) to fill each 25 litre jerry in Kagoto and the first load that she carries up to her home, just over the ridge of the valley, is for her family to use each day. After that essential trip, she often goes a second or third time to the valley floor to fetch water to sell at 50 shillings per jerry (about 36.5p). This income supplements her husband’s income to help look after their children. She communicates well with donkeys and the stick she carried was only used to tap the jerry-cans and never the donkeys. We learnt about how she stables her donkeys and how much she values them. Her harnesses were made from the material she could get hold of locally and she was keen to explore ways of making it more comfortable. For her, the biggest concern (and one that was hidden from us in the earlier welfare assessment) was that donkeys sometimes slipped on the steep, gravelly slopes and donkeys had been lost on certain parts of the path.
Joyce’s story was one of many. By actually walking with the community, boundaries between the DSK team and the community fell down, stories were shared and the complexities of welfare of these donkeys could be teased out. A journey of a thousand miles starts with just one footstep and the first steps towards understanding the community and donkeys of Kagoto were made in orange, Rift Valley dust.