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Where beasts of burden are accorded ‘state funerals’

By Caroline Chebet | May 14th 2021

From carrying luggage and pulling heavy-laden carts through the roughest of terrains to keeping up with the madness of our urban jungles with whips lashing at their wounded backs and behinds, donkeys are truly the beasts of burden.

Ironically, the same humans for whom donkeys toil have coined the saying Asante ya Punda ni Mateke, meaning beasts of burden are ungrateful. How now! 

Yet in some communities, a donkey's "silent curse" after years of mistreatment is believed to be harsh. In the Kalenjin community, the curse for mistreating a donkey can only be undone through cleansing and the intervention of elders. So to ward off this curse, the beasts of burden are paid on their deathbeds for services rendered.

"In the Kalenjin community, a donkey is considered one of the most honoured beasts. It has untold powers to serve humans through its lifetime but when a donkey is mistreated, it is believed to bring untold curses upon its death, which is why we bury donkeys decently just as humans," Lembus Council of Elders, Joseph Leboo, said.

He said in the community, besides burying donkeys like humans, a dead donkey is lowered into the grave accompanied with wads of cash as a token of appreciation.

If a donkey is mistreated, Leboo said, it comes to haunt the perpetrators and might affect the growth and development of their children.

“If there is anything more dreaded, it is a donkey’s curse. It sometimes comes back to affect the sanity of children and strange things might haunt the family like children crying like a braying donkey. Killing a donkey itself is one of the most dreaded "crimes" and it will take the intervention of elders to cleanse one,” Leboo said.

According to Samuel Ngetich, a Kipsigis elder, when a donkey dies in the community, the owner is supposed to bury it along with either money, soap or sugar to appreciate its services not only to the owner but also to the community.

"You see, in its lifetime, a donkey does not only serve its owner. It serves the entire community. Whenever there is communal work like building public amenities, donkeys form an integral part. They carry water, firewood and even building materials, especially in places where even motorbikes cannot pass through. This is why they are given a decent send-off just as humans because they are part of us," Ngetich said.

Among the Turkanas, donkeys form part of the delicacy besides being a beast of burden. In the Turkana community, donkey meat is consumed just as its milk.

"Donkey is one very useful animal. It helps a lot in carrying luggage when traversing long distances. Its milk tastes and smells just as a mother's milk. Just like its tender meat, its milk cures a lot of diseases, including pneumonia,” Vivian Achwa said.

When a donkey dies among the Turkana community, it is consumed unless it looks sickly.

"Donkeys do not often die. It is a rare occurrence. In most cases, a donkey never goes to waste -- we eat it. However, if it is sickly, it wanders off and dies within the bushes," Achwa said.

Paul Lotudo, a Pokot elder, however, said that in his community, donkeys are not considered superior to other livestock.

"If a donkey dies, its carcass is left to rot away in the bush. However, some Pokot members would slaughter and eat them. A donkey is not any special," Lotudo said.

Among the Kikuyu community, when a donkey dies, it is buried intact unlike a cow that is first slaughtered, skinned and buried.

“Traditionally, the Kikuyu community does not eat donkey meat but it is buried just like any other livestock,” Stephen Maina, an elder, said.

Among the Pokomo and Oromo communities in Coastal Kenya, Hassan Golo, said donkeys are also considered like other livestock and carcasses are left to rot in grazing fields.

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