This post is the first of a series documenting a trip undertaken by a team of volunteers with World Vets who traveled to Arusha, Tanzania in June 2012 to provide veterinary care for the under (or should be say un-) served donkey population. For the full series of posts covering World Vets, please click here.
9 am, June 24th, 2012.
A nervous group of eight mostly strangers assembles on the steps of the Ahadi Lodge with three large bags of supplies, a cooler of vaccines, and a growing sense of excitement. It was the first day of our donkey clinic with World Vets, and we were all a little nervous about what might lay in store for the next four days.
I tried to keep my expectations in check. I had spent the past three days climbing Mt. Meru with our team leader, veterinarian Teri Weronko, and she told a multitude of stories from her many trips involving vans broken down in the bush, smelly yak blankets, and bowls of strange steaming animal products produced by excited host families that all led me to the conclusion that whatever happened, it would be an adventure.
But that’s what makes these trips so memorable, right? Besides, aside from some minor issues involving Juma, we were in for smooth sailing. The entire team as well as their luggage was safely ensconced behind the walls of the lovely lodge, and everyone appeared in good spirits for the start of the project.
We were joined at the lodge by Livingstone Masija, the director of the Arusha Society for the Protection of Animals and our local contact for the donkey clinics. Now, the World Vets executive team does a really good job of vetting prospective contacts before trusting an entire volunteer team- even on a pilot project- to their organizational skills, but until a contact proves themselves there is always the looming spectre that this person will not live up to expectations. As we were to find out, Livingstone is an absolutely amazing man with a huge heart and a mind blowing level of dedication, but at the time, well, the best we could do was hope he truly was as advertised.
Livingstone had brought along four friends from the Donkey Sanctuary Kenya, a venerable organization with deep roots in East Africa: Rob Nichols, James Kithuka, Duncan Ochieng’ Onduu, and Dr. Mushi; four men whose experience helped greatly over the two days they were there lending a hand.
There is a supermarket in Arusha, but the only people who go there are the tourists and Western expats. For the local Arusha community, the real shopping happens in the marketplaces, large, sprawling gatherings that slowly coalesce over the late morning, turning a dusty, empty road into a lively sea of red blanketed Maasai, bleating goats, and overflowing sacks of grains and beans. It was to just such an empty road that we pulled up on that first morning, looking askance at Livingstone as we peered up and down the road, with a grand total of one donkey in sight.
“Don’t worry,” Livingstone assured us. “It will pick up.”
As a local resident, Livingstone is familiar with the ebb and flow of the Arusha marketplace. He is also acutely aware of the distrust some members of the community feel when dealing with strangers waving needles at their valuable pack animals, knowing that his presence as a local community advocate, and the presence of the respected members of the established Donkey Sanctuary, would go a long way in facilitating our acceptance.
True to his word, as the morning continued, people started to fill in, tying their donkeys- or punda, as they are called in Tanzania, to the tree under which the team had set up shop.
Our medical job was fairly straightforward: provide vaccinations, vitamins, deworming, fly spray, and treatment of the skin wounds that many of the donkeys suffered as a result of their heavy weight bearing activities. Placid, strong, and reliable, donkeys are commonly used to carry large barrels of water and sacks of goods miles to market on a daily basis. While animal welfare may not be high on the agenda of many of the people, they were readily convinced that our preventive care would be in the best health interest of the punda, and make them better workers.
We watched as men, women and children ushered the donkeys ahead of them by beating them with sticks and switches. It was to be a common theme over the course of the week.
In the bigger scheme of things, the job of the World Vets team went beyond just the provision of medicine. By providing a good and reliable service, it helps build trust in a community that has not always had the best relationship with its persons in charge. And with that trust comes the willingness to be open to humane education about the proper, ethical care of the donkey.
The donkeys, though generally calm, were a bit skittish around humans and unused to being handled. Head halters were little used in this area, so the first order of business before administering medications to these guys was securing the head. It took a bit of doing but is necessary to minimize the chances of a kick to the shins. We had only one casualty that day, Dr. Teri, who sustained a kick straight to the camera in her hip pocket. She ended up with an odd domed bruise, the rectangular imprint of the camera crowned by the arch of half a hoofprint.
Soon, a small crowd of curious gawkers gathered to observe with amusement the goings-on.
While the team worked out the logistics of who would give the vaccines, who would give the vitamins, and who would give the dewormer, James proved himself invaluable by explaining to the residents how to make a simple halter out of basic rope. This one simple trick can make a huge difference, a more effective and more humane way to move the animals. Here, a gentler approach is explained.
As the marketplace picked up, so did the presentation of the sorts of skin wounds we had been expecting, abrasions along the back from the persistent rubbing of rope and twine. Dr. Kirkhope grabbed the clippers and went to work. (The brown is iodine scrub, not dried blood.)
Every team member had a job. While Rachel was running the pharmacy out of the back of the truck, Rudy was treating wounds, Alana and Toccoa handled injections, and Kyle wielded vials of Vetericyn and fly spray like a medical gunslinger.
Dr. Weronko, pleased to observe the team coalescing into a self sufficient unit, functioned as floater, and made sure each donkey we saw was marked as treated with a visible paint application. Yellow paint, it was determined, was not visible enough, and owners thought the red was blood, so we went with orange or green.
Dr. Beagley could be observed doing just about everything. At one point we were presented with a donkey who hadn’t been eating well. Palpating his dentition, she determined that his sharply edged teeth were in need of floating (a veterinary term for filing down the points). He was a very mellow donkey and tolerated it quite well.
In the towering shadow of volcanic Mt. Meru, the morning overcast over Arusha was welcome, but it was to be short lived.
By one, the equatorial sun burned through the cloud cover, the market was hopping, and we were sweating:
The donkeys were pressed in like sardines under the shade of a eucalyptus. Once one owner had a donkey getting treated, the word quickly got out, and the team found themselves in high demand.
It was hard not to gape at the beauty of the women, regal in their brightly colored fabrics and elaborate jewelry. The team was careful to verify the ownership and consent for each donkey before providing treatment. While most people were agreeable, some of the women declined the treatment. “If something happens to the donkeys after this,” they told Livingstone, “And they become ill, my husband will take it out on me.” They left the rest unsaid.
So for now, they will observe those who did consent to treatment. And perhaps next time, they too will agree. These are the smaller victories by which such projects can be measured over time.
For as many donkeys that were tied together in close quarters, they tolerated each other very gently. Kindly, even, nudging noses in passing and resting chins on each other.
By late afternoon, the rush of donkeys tapered off, and we watched as they calmly marched back off down the road with their bundles, kicking up small clouds of dust in their wake.
We surveyed our supply truck. Clearly, we had had a busy day.
And it was only day one.