What Donkeys Say about Ethiopian Society

Aug 22 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye

There is no shortage of social and scientific studies, and sometimes truly fascinating ones appear to explain and express a certain truth in unexpected ways. From rollercoaster kidney stone removal to the negative effects of electronic music on the female mosquito, understanding has been gained from some of the strangest studies ever conducted.

A recent one, funded by the Donkey Sanctuary, a UK nonprofit, is admittedly not as unique, but its findings are no less interesting. Published earlier this year, the study titled “Understanding the Attitudes of Communities to the Social, Economic, and Cultural Importance of Working Donkeys in Rural, Peri-urban, and Urban Areas of Ethiopia” by Martha Geiger et al, expounds on the economic importance of donkeys in Ethiopia. Implicit within the study was the underprivileged position held by donkeys compared to the key roles they play in addressing the economic needs of low-income households.

In a nutshell, donkeys are the black people of the animal world, the lowest caste, the undesirables. Of all the domesticated animals humans have put on pedestals - from the cats that are internet sensations to the dogs that enjoy being pampered to horses that serve as symbols of masculinity and authority - donkeys are socially and often culturally marginalised and underappreciated.

It is because of the supposedly menial work they do. The economic, political and cultural relationship that governs human societies has rubbed off on our treatment of animals within their milieu. Take dogs and cats, which used to have finely defined purposes – in hunting and catching rats, respectively, both of which have elements of economic importance. They morphed into the role of companions. They exist to entertain and for aesthetics, hence the Chihuahua, and are becoming less and less economically vital to the survival of human societies. Strangely, though, their social standing is growing in inverse proportion.

Donkeys are not as lucky. In Ethiopia, where they are instrumental in fulfilling economic needs, they are not even factored into important development strategies, let alone contending for social spaces enjoyed by, say, cows, sheep and goats. The latter are recognised for their economic value. They can be exported to many parts of the world to fetch dollars and slaughtered to be eaten in fancy cuisines.

The last point is perverse, admittedly, but it is the view of evolutionary biologists that the success of a species is not measured by the lot of the individual but by the resilience of the species as a whole. In that regard, constant breeding of cattle for the production of cheap food is an evolutionary advantage. It does not hurt social standing among humans as well.

But what do donkeys do?

The 8.8 million donkeys across Ethiopia are in the service of low-income households. Their primary economic role is in the transport of goods, including dried dung that is used for fuel and water in areas where access is either highly inconsistdent or non-existent.

Ownership of donkeys is, in fact, proven to create positive outcomes in how earnings are utilised.

“Individual donkey owners/users were each found to have individual spending, insurance and investment strategies for using the income earned through their donkeys' work,” the study revealed.

For those on the lower rung of the income scale, these animals do not have a lesser standing compared to other animals. They are not discriminated against. That is not where the problem stems from – it is from the place where social relations are expressed and ossified through a complex and subtle system of privilege and endorsement of members.

Society has irrevocably melded together - if there ever was a distinction - social standing and economic circumstances. The economically underprivileged are also often socially marginalised. It is thus inevitable that the periphery status of those that have low-income is also visited upon the animals that are important to their livelihoods – donkeys.

It is not likely that the lot of animals will be eased anytime soon in countries such as Ethiopia. Considerations of economic development will continue to trump any attempts to ensure that domesticated animals are treated more humanely.

But the case of donkeys is different. Their fate is intimately intertwined with the circumstances of the lower-income segments of society in Ethiopia. The lessening of their suffering will be the surest sign of the improvement of the welfare of the economically disaffected.

Most importantly, strangely and fascinatingly, how society values donkeys will offer insight into how the downtrodden and the underprivileged are understood and treated by those that have power and resources.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 22,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1060]

Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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