At Kavaini River in Mwingi West, Queen Singa summons her two donkeys to load jerricans of water. The donkeys step forward. She holds one of the animals closely by the neck and pecks it then breaks into a laughter. The second donkey nudges closer and makes as if to lick its owner.
“They love me and I love them,” Singa says heartily. It is very easy to see the emotional bond between the woman and her beasts of burden that for many years have become her lifeline in the arid and semi arid Kitui County.
Today, Singa is rushing to a construction site to deliver water where a 20 litre gallon costs Sh25. She will make a number of trips before releasing the animals to go and feed.
The mother of three is part of women groups from the constituency who use donkeys to eke out a living and who have come together to form self-help groups that discuss how to make maximum use of the animals while keeping them in good health and shape.
‘Wendo wa aka’ is one such group with 25 members who have been reaping a tidy sum from their donkey’s toil over the last six years. The women group is among 10 others that have received training from Caritas Kitui - the development wing of the Catholic church - mainly on how to take care of donkeys in order to reap maximum benefits from the animals.
For tasks such as fetching water for sale, ferrying bricks, ballast, cement and other materials to construction sites, the women earn a modest income that helps to take care of their immediate needs as well as paying school fees for their children. Donkeys are also used to transport farm produce whenever there are good rains in the region.
“It is hard to imagine life without a donkey. The animals have become part of our daily lives and are more valued than cows,” says Josprinter Temea, chairperson of Wendo wa aka self-help group.
Temea who owns two donkeys says a single donkey can bring home an average of Sh300 per day. With two or more animals, the earnings are enough to take care of family needs and for saving.
“Our members contribute Sh100 every week to our kitty. We use this money to provide soft loans to our members,” she says. Additionally, the members contribute Sh20 per week for social fund, money that is used for treatment of the donkeys or for annual vaccination.
“We want to keep our donkeys in good shape. With our income, we do not bother our husbands a lot,” she says.
Rosemary Kanyolo has three donkeys and says she cannot trade them for anything. With her animals, she earns between Sh3,000 to Sh4,000 per week, money she uses to feed her family and pay school fees.
However, the beasts of burden would not have been of maximum benefits to the local women were it not for the training offered by the Caritas through Brooke East Africa under a programmed dubbed Mtunze punda daima.
Martin Mwendwa, head of the programme at Caritas Kitui and says the training has opened the women’s eyes to the potential and value of donkeys.
He says the women have been trained on how to make special mats that are placed on the backs of donkeys to ensure that the load does not come into direct contact with the animal’s skin.
“This protects the animals from wounds, because when a donkey is injured, it cannot work effectively,” explains Mwendwa. He adds that one side of the sisal mat is water proof to protect the animals.
Further on the animals’ welfare, Mwendwa says donkey owners are trained on how to deworm the animals with a view to keeping them healthy. The donkey farmers are also placed in direct contact with veterinary officers in case of sicknesses.
With poverty index in Kitui County standing at 65 percent, Mwendwa says donkeys are an important economic mainstay for many households.
“We train the farmers on routine donkey clinics. Over time, we have noted a significant impact on livelihoods,” states Mwendwa.
He says a donkey should have a shed to protect it from sun and rain, should be well fed and given time to rest. Sisal ropes are preferred over nylon ones that would cause friction with the skin, leading to wounds.
Anastacia Kimanzi, chairperson for Kavaini donkey self help group says in the past they never took donkey welfare seriously, saying after a day’s work, the animals would be left to fend for themselves.
“We now know that a donkey should drink water at least three times in a day. Deworming the animals will keep them healthy,” Kimanzi says.
The group is urging every member to have at least three donkeys.
However, the donkey farmers suffered a huge blow few years ago when a private investor set up a donkey slaughter house at Kithyoko. They lamented that close to 30 donkeys were stolen, plunging some families into depths of poverty.
“We would stumble on donkey carcasses rotting in bushes without their skins,” recalls Kimanzi, saying that the donkey abattoir right within their locality pushed the price of a donkey from Sh7,000 to Sh20,000. This gave rise to donkey theft prompting donkey farmers to hold protests demanding closure of the facility.
Kimanzi was among a select group of farmers who took a petition to former Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya urging for closure of Fuhai donkey slaughter house at Kithyoko at the border between Machakos and Kitui counties.
Luckily, in May 2021, Munya closed down the four donkey slaughter houses in Kenya including the one in Kithyoko.
“It was a huge relief for us but we are worried they might re-open the slaughter houses,” she says.
“The benefit we get from live donkeys is far more than a slaughtered donkey. We do not support the slaughter of donkeys,” Kimanzi adds.