In a recent Sustainable Agriculture meeting in South Africa, The African Executive caught up with Peta Jones, a strong advocate for donkeys. Peta A. Jones is an author of Donkeys for Development and a Member of the National Steering Committee, South African Network for Animal Traction (SANAT). She is also a Member of the Animal Traction Network of Eastern and Southern Africa ATNESA and a South African with degrees mainly in the past of traditional African agriculture south of the equator.
A.E: What sparked your interest in donkeys?
Peta: While teaching in a remote rural area of Zimbabwe, lowly paid but needing transport to shops and other places, I acquired a donkey (They should have been two, since I learnt later that they bond with lifelong friends). Later, I was asked to run an outreach service for the community library, and set about finding out how to do this using donkey.
A.E: What are the objectives of ATNESA?
Peta: To improve and expand knowledge about donkeys with the aim of ensuring that they are given a higher value and are therefore better managed and better treated. The donkey is the work animal which has received least attention. In many instances, it has been totally ignored by extension services, scientists, planners and policy makers. There is also little documentation on the present use of donkeys and associated benefits and constraints. Despite the increasing importance of donkeys in Africa, there is still no international research centre with a programme aimed at improving donkey performance and utilization.
A.E: Citing examples, in what ways do donkeys contribute to economic development?
Peta: While donkeys mainly transport goods and/or people, they assist men, women and children in many ways: pack transport of numerous items including water, wood, grain, manure, forage, bricks and even weapons (donkeys helped win wars in Ethiopia); cart transport for people or larger quantities of goods which cannot be handled by pack methods; soil cultivation and weeding using single donkeys or teams of donkeys.
In several countries donkeys have survived drought years better than cattle. This, combined with the high cost of oxen and/or the effects of animal disease, has caused many farmers to turn to the donkey as an alternative power source. The adoption of donkeys has been mainly a result of farmer innovation and farmer-to-farmer technology transfer and has had little to do with the formal extension services. Donkeys are also proving their worth in cultivation, and taking on new tasks such as therapies and tourism.
A.E: Donkey therapy? That sounds interesting! How does it work?
Peta: The emotional and physical benefits of companion animals are now being established in psychiatric hospitals and elderly care units and there is well-researched evidence that the presence of animals can have a direct calming influence.
Donkeys are a focus for the child's affection. Even the most disturbed, agitated or withdrawn child is more relaxed when stroking or talking to donkeys. Riding therapy is also fun. Initially, when children are helped onto a donkey they are a little apprehensive due to their distance from the ground and feeling the donkey move. After a few lessons they gain trust in the donkey and the instructor, they will then begin to touch and stroke the donkey, give verbal commands and try to take control.
Children with special needs often have low muscle tone. Those with cerebral palsy, spina bifida and neuromuscular conditions have weak or wasted muscles and sometimes loss of sensation. Just by sitting on a moving donkey, muscle tone in the lumbar region can be improved. Using arms and legs during riding sessions and a game strengthens muscle groups. By learning to guide a donkey and perform simple tasks using eyes, voice and body, special needs children gain advances in co-ordination - to master the rising trot is an enormous achievement.
Mobility is the greatest benefit of all for every child who depends upon walking aids, wheelchairs or adult support and can never move about unaided. Whilst riding a donkey the children move more freely, faster and independently.
A.E: To what extent has donkey power been underutilized?
Peta: People who use donkeys for either transport or cultivation only are ignoring their potential. Different countries tend to concentrate on donkeys for a single task, yet they are multi-task animals.
A.E: In what ways can donkeys be used more creatively?
Peta: The new uses: therapy (asinotherapy) for the disabled and abused. Mobile donkey-powered libraries are also helping in rural education systems.
A.E: Why is it necessary to have a policy on donkeys?
Peta: They are the only animal whose MAIN purpose is work. Others are primarily meat animals or pets. Work is generally undervalued, resulting in the undervaluing and mistreatment of donkeys.
A.E: Roughly, how many donkeys do we have in Africa?
Peta: You'd have to ask the Food and Agriculture Organization. In 1994 they produced a figure of 12,205,000 it showed increases taking place in every country except the Sudan, but showed no figures for any country south of the Equator, nor for Kenya.
A.E: How far has your organization succeeded in meeting its objectives?
Peta: Not far enough, since I am less an 'organization' than an individual working alone, and Im entirely reliant on fees rather than funding.
A.E: Whom do you network with?
Peta: They are entirely donkey-focused organizations in England, Australia, Canada, the US and Africa, but in the developing world donkeys tend to get included with other animals. Kenya Network for Draft Animal Technology (KENDAT) is giving donkeys a lot of attention and so does an organization like SANAT in South Africa. In Namibia, the Ministry of Agriculture is giving donkeys serious attention, and there is a UK-based charity which is concentrating on giving Namibian donkeys ear tag reflectors so as to reduce road accidents.
A.E: Who are your major clients?
Peta: NGOs and Government agencies continent wide. NGOs include Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ); COOPIBO, a Belgian donor organization and Chilangililo Co-operative, all based in (Zimbabwe). Others include Palabana Animal Draft Power Project (Zambia); People and Nature Trust, (Botswana) and Vet Aid (Mozambique).
A.E: Any word of advice to the African population and legislators on donkeys?
Peta: Major roads should not be constructed without a side lane for carts, bicycles, pedestrians, and donkeys. I very much admire the work that Kenya is doing on donkeys, mostly through KENDAT and KSPCA working in collaboration. Paradoxically, donkeys are often associated with poverty and hard conditions, whereas they are often used to alleviate such poverty. They are often part of the solution, yet their image is with the problem itself.
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
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