On a typical day, Georgina Mumbe from Ithumbi in Mwingi, Kitui County wakes up at 5am, quickly loads empty jerrycans on her two donkeys and starts the journey to source for water which she sells to residents of Mwingi town.
She has done this for the past 20 years, earning her a regular source of income that has enabled her educate her two sons through secondary school. Her last born is in Class Five and she has her two donkeys to thank for.
“I cannot trade my donkeys for anything. They are my source of livelihood,” says Mumbe at her water dispensing joint at the heart of Mwingi town.
With a 20-litre jerrycan going for between Sh20 and Sh30 depending on availability of the commodity, Mumbe who sells between 40 and 50 jerrycans in a day makes a tidy sum.
Mumbe is not the only water vendor. At her place, a horde of water vendors, both men and women sit by, with dozens upon dozens of jerrycans of water for sale.
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Braying a distant away are countless donkeys that seem to be waiting for orders from their masters to hit the road to nearby kiosks run by Kiambere, Mwingi Water and Sanitation Company (Kimwasco) to fetch the commodity.
Water is a fast moving commodity at the sun-baked town, and when the Kimwasco taps run dry, the vendors head to nearby rivers such as Tyaa and Enziu to draw from shallow wells.
This scenario paints a picture of how the beasts of burden come in handy in the entire Ukambani region, and indeed rural Kenya where donkeys are used as a key mode of transportation and source of livelihood.
Like majority of other donkey owners in the county, Mumbe was astounded when the government legalised donkey meat, resulting in establishment of four donkey slaughterhouses across the country. To rub it in, a donkey abattoir was set up at Kithyoko area, some 40km from Mwingi town. With the establishment of the abattoirs, what followed was a fast-paced craze in donkey trade, as prices shot up from Sh4000 to Sh15000. Criminals also crept in to stake a claim in the business.
As demand for donkey meat and skins, mainly for the Chinese market increased, donkey farmers started getting worried that their source of livelihood will be decimated.
Source of livelihood
In major markets within Kitui County such as Mwingi, Nguni, Zombe, Kabati, Kisasi and Ikanga, brokers would hover around like vultures and cart away hundreds of donkeys in trucks every week.
The rude reality of donkey theft hit Mumbe when her neighbour lost her only donkey on the eve of a market day.
“My sons and I had a makeshift structure for the donkeys next to my house so I could hear their movements from my bedroom,” she says.
However, the farmer, and many other donkey farmers across the country can now sleep easy if the ban on donkey meat imposed by Agriculture Cabinet Secretary Peter Munya on Monday holds.
“God has answered our prayers. We hope the minister is serious,” said Mumbe. Her fellow water vendor Kyalo Mutemi, who owns three donkeys and uses them to supply water to car wash joints within the town is also happy. “The idea of slaughtering donkeys is madness. We thank the government for stopping the trade,” Mutemi added.
While announcing the ban, Munya said he had given the four slaughterhouses a month to convert to “slaughtering animals that we are used to.” “The demand for donkey skins in Chinese market was fueling theft and cross border smuggling of donkeys. It was a real threat to thriving rural economies where farmers heavily rely on the animals for their livelihoods,” said Samuel Mulonzya, who is the chairman of Mwingi Donkey Owners Association.