Unto The Least of These

Friday was a kick-ass day. Ethiopia recently passed China as the country with the largest population of donkeys–seven million–according to Chale Chaburte, the Mercado clinic head for The Donkey Sanctuary. Seriously? We have more donkeys here than all of China? Fifteen thousand of those animals live and work in Addis and about 200 of them come to the Donkey Sanctuary every day for water and treatment.


The neglect of animals on this city’s streets has been a personal heartache for me. Ninety-five percent of the Addis population depends on donkeys somehow, yet the animals are considered the workforce for the poor and are therefore an embarrassment. They are used all the time but as beings that need consistent care and that experience pain, donkeys are simply invisible.

So on a Friday morning without much going on in the office, Yerus our accountant and I went to Merkato, the largest market in Africa, to check in on our donkey situation.

We met Chale at a corner and he led us to the Donkey Sanctuary clinic. Right now it is being renovated and is closed to donkeys for three days while the concrete dries for new holding pens.

Chale had our undivided attention and showed us plastic bags he had pulled out of donkey’s rectums. Colic is one of the top issues he treats and occurs when donkeys ingest plastic bags. If the bag contained salt or oil (from a street vendor selling fries, for example) the donkey will eat it. It can stay in the digestive tract for years collecting dirt and foreign material until it forms a ball that blocks passage. Gas forms and the donkey bloats and will die if not treated. Treatment includes a dose of paraffin, and in extreme cases, the gas can be relieved by inserting a certain instrument into a certain part of the body cavity and letting the gas escape; I wasn’t clear on the details.

IMG_3795Plastic is a ubiquitous problem worldwide, and despite its world class Waste to Energy Plant Ethiopia simply does not have the infrastructure to deal effectively with garbage collection and disposal. This is a stream next to the Donkey Sanctuary that is also a community garbage dump. Donkeys drink from this stream, as do desperate humans, and the water is used to wash and irrigate vegetables. Ethiopia has yet to follow Rwanda and Kenya in banning single-use plastic; if the ban ever comes, it will be a welcome intervention with ramifications far beyond the welfare of donkeys.

IMG_3696Sores from ill-fitting pack saddles, lameness due to untrimmed hooves and puncture wounds from sharps (donkey’s hooves are too small to shoe so they go barefoot over the city streets and footpaths), tetanus, rabies, parasites, and dehydration are some of the other concerns the two vets who run the clinic treat. Teaching handlers to give donkeys water (there is a myth that donkeys do not need to drink much) and providing padded saddle blankets to reduce back sores are two major accomplishments the clinic has achieved since it opened in 2008.

So then Chale led us into Merkato, a maze of open-air goods, stalls, and small shops that make up the chaos of the market.

IMG_3720We went to the grain market where the donkeys pick up their loads to deliver.


IMG_3735One person might own 10 to 15 donkeys and will bring them to the grain market to load them. A delivery is 6 to 8 km on average with the donkey carrying 100 to 150 kg. The first donkey to be loaded has to stand with the load and wait till the other 10 or so get their burdens.

img_3754.jpgThe first donkeys we saw were two thin animals, both standing with one foot up. Chala knows most of the donkey owners, and encouraged this owner to bring his animals to the clinic, even though it’s officially closed, so he can check for abscesses. The owner didn’t want to look me in the eye or communicate to me and seemed to be embarrassed about the whole thing.

IMG_3726The donkeys were eating out of a feed sack but on closer inspection it seemed to be grains scraped off the ground after threshing and contained a lot of dirt and little stones. The bulk of the grain was teff which donkeys can’t digest.

IMG_3737Then we went on to the loading station. Donkeys can safely carry 3/4 of their body weight, and the average Addis donkey (a smaller, darker, and hairy-er version then the big grey Abyssinian donkey common in Eastern Ethiopia and other East African countries) weighs about 110 to 150 kg. Forty kg is the recommended amount for these donkeys.

One large and healthy-looking donkey had a reputation for being mean, and the owner discussed bringing him into the clinic for castration. A closer look at the animal showed some injuries from being hobbled with cords that were too narrow. White hair grows over scar tissue.

Merkato is a rough place. People hustle to make a living under difficult circumstances without the imagination or the luxury to properly attend to the animals who make it possible. And what we saw that day was after 10 years of education, relationships, training, and veterinarian assistance from the two vets at the Sanctuary. They are making a difference but it’s an uphill battle with limited staff and resources–for example, there is no tetanus vaccine at the clinic right now.

I’ll sign off with a slide show for anyone interested in details about the conditions and treatments offered at The Donkey Sanctuary.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And finally, my favorite picture from Merkato–a vendor selling handmade jebenas for making traditional coffee.


And finally finally, the last picture of the day. Wondwesen joined us towards the end of our time at the Sanctuary, and the three of us went to a restaurant, Romena, close to Arat Kilo for lunch. Walking back to the car we saw these exuberant high school seniors, celebrating the end of the National Exam (and no doubt the return of internet services, which were shut off during exams) by dressing up for Color Day.


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