Who cares about donkeys? “Doing all the donkey work” is not a new saying, but negligence of the animal associated with various dirty jobs often goes untold.
When Malawians mention ‘the donkey work’, they are likely whining about the laborious and boring part of their job.
Sadly, there will not be many donkeys to do the undesired jobs unless the remaining few start getting fair treatment.
The beast of burden remains endangered animals in the country, though it plays astonishing roles when it comes to transport, farming and generating income.
According to the Department of Animal Health and Livestock Development, there are almost 15 000 donkeys in the country.
However, the animals, which pull carts, ploughs, ridgers, harvesters and other farm machinery, are living and working in tough conditions that threaten their survival.
Asked to take care of the animals, most Malawians seemingly retort: “Why should I do the donkey work while I have better things to do?”
Senior veterinary assistant officer Hophin Malivasi Phiri outlined numerous atrocities faced by donkeys that do works the people often shun.
“There are lots of welfare issues,” he said. “They include long working hours, harsh environmental conditions, excessive work, pulling improper equipment and limited veterinary attention.” Phiri says.
To Phiri, the problem is weightier than the proverbial straw that broke the donkey’s back.
He is upset the majority appears unworried with the preventable burdens that threaten the animals’ lifespan, health, population and productivity.
On the market, a donkey is worth up to K200 000.
Concerned with the situation, Lilongwe Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (LSPCA )has launched a project to enhance the welfare of the donkeys.
The society, with support from the Donkey Sanctuary Project of the United Kingdom (UK), is working with the locals who own donkeys to ensure they have adequate understanding of their animals better to safeguard them from injuries, diseases and deaths.
Lilongwe plays home to the highest number of donkeys in the country. Phiri estimates the population at 5 226, about two thirds of the national total.
The society’s initiative also offers improved access to basic medical services in communities where the donkeys work and live. The organisation runs a weekly mobile clinic in which smallholder farmers get free medical services for donkeys.
LSPCA programmes director Lieza Swennen says: “For these donkeys to perform to the best of their abilities, they need to be in good health.
“But it is clear the welfare of these animals is not considered important by those who benefit more from them. Consequently, the donkeys cannot work hard because they suffer from poor body condition, lesions, wounds, lameness, systemic infections, ticks and gastrointestinal parasites.”
LSPCA agents and veterinary officers visit the donkey owners and work with them from analysing the disease or injury to administering medication.
“So far, we have administered medication to nearly 400 donkeys in Lilongwe,” says the Donkey Project officer Esimy Chioza.
The animals often suffer from wounds.
However, the irony is that the animals often denied care benefit their proprietors immensely.
Micah Chezare owns five donkeys in T/A Maliri, Lilongwe. He earns up to K35 000 a day by hiring them out.
Cars are rare on a rugged earth road that passes through the remote locality and most villagers prefer using carrying farm produce from their fields and homes to the market using carts drawn by either oxen or donkeys.
Chezare sometimes hires out his cart to transfer people and household items. On a lazy day, the cart is seen hauling basketfuls of grain to and from maize mills.
“You are a very important person in the rural village when you have donkeys. They are very powerful animals and easy to handle even by children. They are child-friendly,” says the farmer.
He confesses switching from cattle to donkeys due to rising cases of theft sparked by high demand for beef in the capital.
Due to high demand for donkeys, the profit-seeker admittedly forces the animals to work long hours.
As a result, Chezare pays medication fees worth about K2000 per injury when veterinarians come calling.
The rural farmers view this as exorbitant and those who hire out the donkeys often ask their clients to know how to handle the animals that require treatment.
In this way, the households that once relied on cattle for ploughing their crop fields as well as transporting water, firewood and farm produce are becoming safe places for donkeys.
“The use of donkeys is transforming our lives. We just can’t do without them,” says Chezare
Phiri said the need for labour is great though many are reluctant to pay for the veterinary services.