The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 17th July 2013

Harnessing Ethiopia's Vital Force: the Work of the Donkey Sanctuary in Ethiopia

Given by - Chris Garrett

Reviewed by - Geoffrey Ben-Nathan

'So, is the donkey your favourite animal?' asked 10-year-old Mira. 'Well, no. Not actually', said our speaker Chris Garrett, 'my favourite animal is my dog. It sits with me and comes out for walks.'

Mira, who was looking after her grandfather, seemed satisfied. After all, as attractive as donkeys are, they are hard to have in your living room and wandering round your house. Mira's favourite animal, by the way, is her cat. However, as Chris pointed out, the donkey is a family animal, and a very loyal one. It wants to be your friend. It will fight for you, and it will even defend you. According to the species-specific defense reaction (SSDR) theory, donkeys and horses react very differently to danger: the horse has a herd instinct and runs off; the donkey stays with you through thick and thin.

Donkeys, said Chris, do not show pain, and by the time you take them to the vet, it is often too late. Very few donkeys in Ethiopia ever get to see a vet anyhow, as their owners are for the most part very poor. Chris works for The Donkey Sanctuary ( which was founded by the late Dr. Elisabeth Svendsen MBE (1930-2011), in Sidmouth, Devon. By the time she died, 14,500 donkeys had been looked after, and her enterprise has mushroomed out of Sidmouth to much of the world - Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The Sanctuary currently employs 500 people worldwide, and sixty in the UK.

Chris was here to tell us about the Sanctuary's work in just one of the half dozen countries in Africa in which it is now active: Ethiopia. The country's man on-the-spot is Dr. Bojia Endebu, who oversees initiatives in Mekelle, Bahir Dar, Awassa, Debre Zeit, and Addis Ababa. 'Ethiopia is a showcase place for me,' said Chris, who has been in many other African countries. 'Ethiopia is different,' he said, 'Ethiopians are a proud, gentle, and respectful people.' Over the last twenty five years, he has been there many times.

Few of us are aware of the continuing importance of the donkey, and, as Chris pointed out, its role is increasing. China leads the world with 11.5 million donkeys. However, proportionately, Ethiopia is the greatest user: 85% of Ethiopia's 80 million population works with 6.5 million donkeys. A lot of the coffee we drink, the T-shirts we wear, and much more, gets to its initial markets on the back of a donkey, and Ethiopia, one of Africa's fastest growing economies, is more reliant on them than ever.

The thing about donkeys is that they are relatively cheap and they are also low on maintenance. In many cases, this engenders a familiarity which breeds contempt: donkeys are abused; donkeys are taken for granted. This is where Chris comes in. He will help make your donkey live longer, and, in doing so, he will foster a spirit of mutual respect between donkey and owner. How does he do it?

Well, Chris describes himself as an 'International Harness Development Consultant,' and harnesses are integral to the life and well-being of a donkey. What Chris does not know about harnesses is not worth knowing. He knows how to make a harness out of leather costing £3,000, but he also knows how to make harnesses out of shreds of sacking and strips of nylon costing under £5. Chris teaches people to make harnesses and saddles. He might make one, but he will not make more. People have to learn to do it themselves. Knowing how to make saddles and harnesses is, in Ethiopia, the possibility of a living.

Groups are now self-operating making pack-saddles for a living. 'I have just trained my hundredth pack-saddle maker in Bahr Dar,' said Chris. 'They are making 5,000-10,000 pack-saddles a year.' All this helps the donkey immensely. Where there were untreated sores and ulcers, now there are few or none. The result is obvious: a happier and healthier donkey; a more capable donkey; and a donkey that lives and works longer.

Chris is a natural communicator. He comes over the same way in all the cultures he works with. He claims that the Donkey Sanctuary is brilliant at making bonds with people. Well, maybe, but for most people he is the Donkey Sanctuary.

'Why are you helping donkeys? Why not help people?' some taunt. 'By helping donkeys, we do help people,' he replies, 'I have seen people whose whole life has changed because they have started to look after their donkeys. Their donkeys start to want to work.'

Innumerable other questions bubbled out: what materials are available in Ethiopia? What parts of the donkey's body need relief from pressure? What is the working life of a donkey? (Answer: treated badly, 3-4 years; treated well, 9-12 years). How long can a donkey live? (Answer: one managed 54 years, but often, no more than half this number).

We also learned that donkeys are not just pack animals. For instance, there is the Donkey Assisted Therapy (DAT): in the 1970s Dr. Svendsen set up a special Trust for children and donkeys to offer riding therapy. Chris also mentioned that donkeys in Ethiopia are often the wheelchairs of the disabled.

Chris's talk to us was one of the most interesting and inspiring the Society has ever put on. In an almost casual way, we were compelled to reassess many of our assumptions about donkeys. For instance, thanks to Chris we now know of its overwhelming economic importance.

With petrol prices the way they are, and traffic in London travelling at an average speed of just 12 mph, we might soon expect to see donkeys here too. After Chris's talk, one is tempted to transfer the accolade of 'man's best friend' from dog to donkey. Dr. Svendsen named her first donkey Naughty Face, and that is what I am going to call mine too - if Mira has not taken it first.

First Published in News File Winter 2013

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