Monday, May 16, 2005

So Much Depends Upon a Donkey

Catez at Allthings2all has invited submissions for a Darfur Collection to raise awareness of and stimulate blogging about Darfur. This post is meant as my contribution, though I've just missed the deadline.

What does the following image say to you?

Sudanese refugees struggle to raise a collapsed donkey

©2004 Private, Human Rights Watch

What does it mean that these people have come as far as they have with their donkey? What would it mean to them if their donkey died? What would it mean to us, we who watch from a distance? I wonder if there is a safe distance from which to observe the collapse of civilization--but there I go, getting ahead of myself. After all, how much could a donkey really be worth?

Donkeys range in price from over $1000 US for rare breeds, to well under $100 in many African markets. Market prices in Sudan, home to nearly seven million of the world's roughly 42 million donkeys, have been exceptionally unstable due to campaigns of massive violence aimed at the livelihoods of rural communities. Generally the price has trended upward, as many donkeys have been slaughtered or have died en masse due to starvation and cold, while the small markets where donkey breeders would normally sell have become inaccessible, and, finally, most people, whether or not they have been displaced from their homes, are reluctant to part with their donkeys.

For millions of Darfuris, particularly among those who have been displaced, the value of a donkey cannot properly be measured in dollars, dinars, or bags of millet. The Physicians for Human Rights report on the destruction of livelihoods in Furawiya village, Darfur (See my previous post, When A Whole Way of Life is Destroyed) made the case that although one can attempt to place a monetary value of the camels, sheep and other livestock that have been looted or destroyed, what is really at stake is a way of life. Surely nothing is more essential to daily life in the sahel than the ability to transport water across great distances. For that and many other transport needs Darfuris rely upon donkeys. This simple fact has been noted in various reports:

Roger Thurow, writing for the Wall Street Journal, succinctly captures the systematic quality of the violence in Darfur:

In famines where drought has killed crops, farmers are largely able to recover when the rains return. Darfurians have had experience with this; they protect seeds for the next planting season and try to keep their animals alive. This time, the hunger has been willfully engineered by destroying all aspects of the agricultural system. Seed stocks have been burned, animals stolen or killed, and the tools of cultivation, such as hoes and tractors, smashed.

Donkeys are sometimes counted as livestock in agricultural or economic surveys, but a donkey may also be regarded as a tool, durable heavy equipment, or most often a mode of transport. As such, Donkeys are not only essential to the daily lives of rural people, they constitute a crucial element of the market infrastructure in Sudan and throughout the region. It may even be reasonably argued that donkeys have formed the backbone of civilization as we know it since the time of the Pharoahs. "I don't think it's wildly speculative to suggest that the use of donkeys, which were the first tamed transport animal, played an important role in the unification of distant cities," says Albano Beja-Pereira. "It marks the boundary between human societies concerned with survival and agriculture and stabilized people who wanted to explore and trade." Beja-Pereira directed a research team whose genetic study found that the donkey (Equus asinus) was first domesticated in Africa on two separate occasions, once from an ancestor of the Nubian wild ass, and once from an ancestor of the Somalian wild ass.

Sudan's historical importance as a crossroads of trade between subsaharan Africa and the ancient oikomene is perhaps well known. Certainly the routes of the camel caravans have been studied in depth. Donkey trade routes have been relatively understudied. However, at least one major artery passing from Darfur to Dongala in Northern Sudan is known. Currently in Darfur trade routes of all kinds have been disrupted, as no path appears to be safe, leading to the collapse of some smaller markets, and erratic supplies in large markets, with corresponding extreme fluctuations in prices.

Is this a proper scale on which to assess the catastrophe of Darfur? What does the history of civilization matter to the living? I see connections between the roots of civilization as it has developed over the past five millenia and the existential dilemmas faced by the victims of genocide in Darfur, but I can't say that I've made the case in any scholarly sense. Call it a suggestion, then, a point of view on the crisis that complements what we learn from personal narratives without presuming to stand for them, to say "this is what such stories must really be about."

So how exactly does the donkey figure into the existential dilemma of Darfuris who have fled their homes? In brief, when your household's been dispossessed of everything except what you and your donkey can carry, you quickly run out of resources to maintain both the donkey and the household, and yet the donkey is crucial to your ability to gather resources. Consider the situation of displaced people in Mornay, as reported by an MSF fieldworker last year. If you've been lucky enough to make it into the camp with your donkey, and you've recieved some WFP rations, you still need to gather firewood. The armed men who patrol the camp charge 200 dinars for the privilege of being allowed to collect a donkey load of firewood. That payment is no insurance against being beaten, raped or killed. "Every hundred yards, the carcass of a donkey lies contorted in the sand," we are told.

An even clearer picture comes from Adrian McIntyre of Oxfam, who describes a Darfuri woman's dilemma:

In the grey light that comes just before dawn, 38-year old Muna awakens to a heart-wrenching choice. Should she leave the relative safety of this camp for displaced people in the Wadi Salih region of West Darfur and go out into the surrounding plains and forests to collect firewood for cooking and grass to feed her donkey? If she does, there's a chance she will be attacked, beaten or raped. If she doesn't go out, she won't be able to cook breakfast for her five children. Even the donkey might starve. The piles of rotting carcasses along one edge of the camp are a constant reminder that many other animals have suffered a similar fate.

Not collecting firewood or fodder would have other consequences as well. Like hundreds of thousands of families in Darfur, Muna and her children receive monthly food distributions from the World Food Programme. The staple grains, protein-rich flour (a blend of corn and soya) and cooking oil are a welcome contribution, but Muna needs a few other ingredients to prepare even the most basic meal. So she will sell some firewood in the local market to earn a few extra dinars to buy onions, tomatoes, dried okra or chillies to supplement her family's diet. Without the firewood, she will have to sell a portion of the food ration itself in order to buy the additional items‚ but the amount she receives each month is already barely enough to survive.

The donkey fodder is also very important, since Muna needs her donkey to carry water from the nearby well several times a day. When that well runs dry, as it often does this time of year, she must travel even farther to fetch water. This, too, can be a perilous journey that exposes her to potential violence.

Some readers may be familiar with an issue of interpretation surrounding the poem "so much depends" (aka "The Red Wheelbarrow") by William Carlos Williams. Williams, a practicing physician, had been called to a farmhouse to treat a young patient who hovered between life and death. As Williams gazed out the window, the poem occured to him. Does that tell us anything essential about the poem? Is the red wheelbarrow really simply what it is? What, if anything, does the poem say about life and death?

And so what does one make of the image of a collapsing donkey? It cannot bode well for the people whose lives depend upon it. And it cannot bode well for the future of our common civilization--which isn't to deny that a donkey is what it is, or even to weigh in on matters such as whether the internal combustion engine will ultimately provide more benefits to humanity than the domestication of pack animals. Simply as a matter of how we will live with each other and with ourselves, the massive dispossession and violence signified by the collapse of a donkey indicts us all. Will we allow whole worlds to be swept away? Will this be our legacy? To put our fragility on display, forsaking bonds cultivated over millenia? Can this really be who we are?

posted by Fido the Yak at 2:11 AM.


Blogger Catez said...

Trackback from Allthings2all:
The Darfur Collection

Excerpt: The Darfur Collection brings together various writers who share a common concern for the people of Darfur and a desire to see an end to the suffering and genocide in Sudan. The contributions here are diverse...

May 16, 2005 9:45 AM  
Blogger Eddie Beaver said...

Very interesting and well-written. You pick a unique angle to examine what's happening and ask important questions that those of us in the highly advanced nations of the world often overlook.

May 16, 2005 7:30 PM  

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