What Would We Do Without Donkeys?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

ON THE streets of Addis Ababa—the capital city of Ethiopia, the 16th most populous country in the world—the donkey has long been an important form of transportation. Most drivers of automobiles have learned to adapt to them, aware that donkeys generally know where to go and do not lack determination. While donkeys do not fear heavy traffic, their wide loads are tricky, and they do not look back. So, if you don’t want to brush against the charcoal, dried cow dung, or whatever the load happens to be, you had better move out of the way!

The estimated donkey population in Ethiopia is about five million, almost 1 donkey for every 12 people. Millions of Ethiopians live on isolated hilltops, which are separated by deep gorges. Sections of the country’s large central plateau are divided off by countless small streams. To construct bridges or even unpaved access roads to these locations would strain the resources of any country. So the enduring and sure-footed donkey is an ideal means of transportation.

The donkey can handle just about all of Ethiopia’s many climates—from dry, hot lowlands to alpine regions. And it is splendidly suited for negotiating steep slopes, narrow footpaths, stony riverbeds, muddy passages, and other uneven terrain. It can go where no horse or camel can. For millions of people, the donkey is the main means of transporting goods, especially in cities where many homes cannot be reached by motorized vehicles.

Donkeys are able to negotiate tight corners and wind their way through narrow, fence-lined access paths. They need no costly tires and rarely have problems on slippery surfaces. They carry loads of all shapes and sizes, providing home delivery to almost anywhere. While red-faced car drivers sit blowing their horns, donkeys easily find their way through traffic jams. No policeman would think of fining a donkey when it enters a one-way street from the wrong end. And parking is never a problem. A donkey may sell for about 50 dollars, but when you consider the cost of motorized transportation, there is no comparison!

Donkeys in the Capital

In the morning, donkeys by the thousands travel to Addis Ababa—with a population of over 3,000,000—often from more than 15 miles [25 km] away. Wednesdays and Saturdays are especially busy, as these are the weekly market days. The journey may take up to three hours, requiring departures before dawn. Sometimes their owners walk with them, but more often, they run behind them, hurrying to keep up.

Common loads are bags of grain, vegetables, firewood, cement, and charcoal, as well as metal drums of cooking oil and cases of bottled drinks. Some donkeys carry loads of 200 pounds [90 kg] or more. Long loads, such as bamboo or eucalyptus poles, are tied to their sides and are dragged behind them on the road. Perhaps the most picturesque loads are the high bundles of straw or pressed hay under which the animals almost disappear.

A donkey pulling a cart of straw

On their way to market in the morning carrying their heavy loads, donkeys may trot at quite a speed. Once the sales are completed and their burdens are gone, they return home at a more leisurely pace, even stopping to nibble on vegetation by the roadside. On their days off, donkeys are still used for their daily duties of fetching water and fuelwood. They may also be lent or rented out. Some even belong to “fleets” that are part of professional donkey-pack transport operations! In some places donkeys pull carts, or at times, a pair will pull a fair-size wagon.

Worthy of Respect

Donkeys are relatively maintenance-free. They search out their own food and eat just about anything. When treated well, donkeys become attached to their masters. As to intelligence, they have been rated ahead of horses. They also have an excellent memory for directions. Unaccompanied, they can fetch water from locations over five miles away, only requiring that someone at each end load and unload them. They may even be equipped with bells so that people at addresses along the way can hear the donkey coming and accept its deliveries.

While donkeys are hard workers, they have firm opinions on the size of a maximum load, as well as when a pause is required. In these situations, or when the load has been positioned in a way that causes pain, they may just lie down. At such times they may be misunderstood and abused verbally or physically. You may recall the account in the Bible of this happening.—Numbers 22:20-31.

Donkeys deserve consideration and care. It is tragic when a load is not well secured and shifts, causing the donkey to fall into a ditch and break its legs. Sores, various parasites, foot rot, pneumonia, and other problems can weaken these diligent burden-bearers. In view of this, a modern donkey clinic has been established in Debre Zeyit, not far from Addis Ababa. It is equipped with computers, treatment rooms, vehicles for ambulatory treatment, and even a fine theater for donkey surgery. Thus, in 2002, about 40,000 donkeys received various forms of medical attention.

The patriarch Abraham crossed mountainous terrain with his donkey when on his way to Mount Moriah. (Genesis 22:3) Throughout the long history of the nation of Israel, the donkey was part of daily life. Even the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem was on a donkey.—Matthew 21:1-9.

In Ethiopia too the donkey has a long history. Yet, here it has not lost its importance in people’s lives. While trucks and cars have changed over the years, the donkey is still the same model. And it is certainly deserving of respect!


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