I found myself in rural Zimbabwe through a series of fortunate events. As a vet student with a longstanding passion for working equid welfare, I had expressed these interests to several kind and like-minded individuals. So plans were made. I would spend four weeks with two dedicated veterinarians who were responsible for holding mobile donkey clinics down the length of this beautiful country.
An excerpt from a diary documenting my trip to Zimbabwe in August 2014:
“It took an unfortunate day to help me fully appreciate how smoothly everything had been going up to this point. After a night of broken sleep beside the generator, we set off down a cattle-trodden track until we reached a clearing scattered with donkeys. Their patient expressions were at odds with their ears which flapped away incoming insects.
Despite 250 beasts marching past, the clinic was certainly quieter than yesterday. Frantic scrambling in the midday sun had taken its toll. Our energy levels ebbed and dehydration became an immediate concern as we floundered about gathering sweat and dust. It took a horrendous septic joint wound to bolster me into action; regardless of my current state, this donkey was clearly having a significantly worse time. With limited field equipment and no way of returning to this rural location before December, his future looked depressingly bleak. The veterinarians strive tirelessly for the highest standards of care possible. Even so, the severity of this wound and a lack of permission from the owner to put the donkey out of his misery meant there was little anyone could do for this beast of burden. We watched him struggling into the distance despite administering high doses of pain relieving drugs.
On a more hopeful note, the mobile clinic had been garnering support amongst donkey owners. The majority were committed to seeking advice, with the realisation that an improvement in donkey welfare could positively impact their own livelihoods and those of future generations. Incredibly, owners have walked up to 40 kilometres to reach the clinic.
After returning to Rutenga, I wandered to the central market for provisions. The open square pulsed with the activity of shopkeepers and tradesmen selling their wares. Bananas hung out of the reach of fast fingers and ripe oranges were piled high. Just ahead, a woman clutching a baby sprinted away in pursuit of her donkey cart which was travelling uncontrolled down the high street. I joined the chase, caught the reins and handed them over to the lady who was laughing at my attempts. Meanwhile her bemused donkey grazed on rubbish and banana skins.
That evening, our wonderful veterinary extension assistant invited us to the bar in town. The pool table provided huge amusement as we shared braai meat and sadza and listened to sweet Sungura music. Suddenly I was unexpectedly ushered outside by the government vet to meet his lovely wife. She was conversing with another man who happened to be the Tribal Chief of this area. He turned to me with an expression of irritation. “Why did you choose donkeys over cattle?” I explained my interests and hoped we could be friends. But as he clutched an empty beer bottle and sweated an air of annoyance, he revealed his anger over not being consulted over the clinic we had held in his territory. This was indeed our mistake; it was only right to inform any chief of our intentions but somehow we’d been confused about the size of his ancestral land area. The words ‘jurisdiction’ and ‘rebels’ came thick and fast. He would be unable to attend the clinic tomorrow due to prior engagements with the President. He reiterated the importance of being informed as if he were speaking of disloyalty to do otherwise. “To betray me, would be to offend the government.” Goodness. Everyone thanked him for his great wisdom and adopted a submissive posture. It’s easy to become complacent at home. In this moment I realised the complexities of different cultures and social behaviours, and the fragility of human emotions. For a second his anger appeared to dissipate and he offered me a dollar for another drink. I hesitated. “I couldn’t possibly”; thinking this would be extremely polite. Standing there stupidly in the darkness, I felt a thousand eyes boring into the back of my head. “It’s a crime to refuse an offer from the chief, girl.” Despite my profuse apologies and agreeable nods, he begrudgingly handed me the bank note and stalked away. I doubt whether he was actually conversing with the President or whether it was indeed a criminal offence to refuse money. In that moment, I was absolutely certain he was speaking the truth. Those were the rules of survival. I felt truly indebted to my friends from the clinic who had formed a supportive crescent behind me. Their work wasn’t politics or peace-keeping or babysitting naïve Londoners; they simply wanted to help donkeys.”