An ass of a story

Of all animals, the donkey is perhaps the most important in rural Jamaica, certainly for small farmers in the interior for whom the donkey is an indispensable means of transport to and from their small plots in the hills and mountains.

I first realized how significant the lowly donkey is when I lived and served in hilly, rural Clarendon in the late 1980s into the early 1990s. On the weekend, two dozen or more donkeys would be “parked” in the Rock River town square as the farmers descend from the hills to make purchases at Mr. Alty’s shop and other outlets, and to enjoy some good Jamaican “whites” at the bars.

Evan Jones’ poem, Banana Man, captures well the importance of the donkey to the Jamaican rural farmer:

Banana day is my special day,
I cut my stems an I’m on m’way,
Load up de donkey, leave de lan
Head down de hill to banana stan

Donkey and owners - Kingston -1900 - Library of Congress Online Catalog
A donkey and its owners in Jamaica, 1900. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress Online Catalog

The Christian Work and the Evangelist: Volume 76, published in January 1904, made declarations steeped in the prejudices of the times, but depicted accurately, how important the donkey was:

…in the beautiful island of Jamaica, the donkey is the chosen companion of the black and colored people, for it is nearly four hundred years since his first asinine ancestor was introduced there, a short period in advance of the African himself. Without the ass, indeed, the black man in the tropics would feel himself lost, unable perhaps to transact the humble business which fills the measure of his days. Living in the hills and mountains, far distant from the markets of town and city, he could not so well transport the products of his gardens and provision grounds as he now does with the assistance of his four-footed friend.

The same January 1904 issue of The Christian Work and the Evangelist noted:

One of the most interesting sights in Kingston, the capital of the island of Jamaica, is that of the long procession of black and colored women coming in from the country districts with the donkey-loads of charcoal, bananas and sweet potatoes…. They live far distant, in some valley of the Blue Mountain range, usually at least ten hours’ travel out on the northern coast; but they start at midnight, or even at dusk of the day previous to market-day, and always reach the city just as the sun begins to come up from the sea.

The donkey is so deeply etched in the psyche in rural Jamaica that donkey folktales are not that uncommon. There is, for instance, the Anansi story of The Donkey, the Cat and the Lion’s Head as well as The Race Between Toad and Donkey, which begins thus, “One day, Master King decided to have a race and he would give a big prize to whoever won. Both Toad and Donkey decided to enter, but Toad got Donkey angry with all his boasting about how he’d win…”

In common parlance, in Jamaica and elsewhere, the donkey stands for both stubbornness and stupidity, and is referred to or seen as “the beast of burden.” These ideas are reflected in some Jamaican proverbs and sayings, which use the donkey to convey words of wisdom and advice: Donkey bray say dis world no level; Every day yu goad donkey, some day he will kick yu; Every donkey hab im sankey; Every jackass t’ink im pickney a racehorse; Every man no dribe dem donkey same way; Every time donkey bray im member something; When yu go a donkey house don’t talk about ears; Patient man ride donkey; Mek wan jackass bray; No mek wan donkey choke you; Donkey gallop soon over.

While Jamaica city and towns people think, know or care little about the donkey, there appears to be a mini-crisis as there is a scarcity of donkeys on the island. “It’s the hardest things these days to get donkeys,” one person told the Jamaica Star in August 2016. The donkey shortage is affecting rural small farmers.

The plight of the donkey seems to be global. “Some are ill-treated through the ignorance of their owners, some are mistreated through cruelty, and others are simply ignored and forgotten about,” notes Robin Marshall, writing for Horse Talk out of New Zealand.

There is a Donkey Sanctuary in the United Kingdom to rescue these animals as well as the International Donkey Protection Trust (IDT), which estimates some 57 million donkeys worldwide. The IDT, founded in 1976, seeks “to transform the quality of life for donkeys, mules and people worldwide through greater understanding, collaboration and support, and by promoting lasting, mutually life-enhancing relationships.”

Among other things, IDT works “to reduce the suffering of sick and injured donkeys and mules” and to provide “welfare and care” for donkeys. It built a clinic for donkeys in Ethiopia. “One of the worst problems in the country are saddle sores, and donkeys dropping from exhaustion at the markets,” Marshall of Horse Talk states. Mobile units for donkeys have been set up in Mexico, India and Kenya.

Donkeys are useful animals in various ways. Marshall writes:

Farmers have found that having a donkey among a herd of stroppy bulls settles the bovines down. Donkeys tend to “rule the roost” when they run with young bulls.

Donkeys also make kind and gentle pets for children – and adults — and have been many a horse rider’s first mount.

Many children have had their first experience of farm animals while taking a donkey ride on seaside visits in England.

negril-donkey-races-and-fun-day-2013
Donkey race in Negril, 2013. Photo courtesy of my-island-jamaica.com.

In Jamaica, donkeys are sometimes used for comic relief on a sports or fun day, such as the annual Negril Rotary Donkey Races in Westmoreland and the Donkey Races Festival in Top Hill, St. Catherine. At the Jamaica Zoo in Lacovia, St. Elizabeth, visitors can take donkey rides.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel