Though most Gambians are still dependent upon animals for farming, transportation, and food, they do not treat their animals with the attention and care that one would expect. I cannot even begin to describe how many beaten dogs, badly whipped donkeys, starved horses, and diseased sheep I have seen during my time here.
Over time I have come to accept that some Gambians have bad tempers. Unfortunately, animals in The Gambia often bare the brunt of this anger. Though The Gambia is an exceptionally peaceful country, violence is far from absent. Arguments between people often end with blows. I was shocked to find that my school students would almost instantly revert to punching and wrestling each other over the most minor disagreements.
As an American, I was initially shocked by the beatings. During my first year, a fellow volunteer described it to me as a sequential system; the men beat the women, the women beat the children, and the children beat the animals or each other. In most Gambian villages, it is the children that are in charge of the animals. Since the children are small, they often just beat the animals with sticks to scare them off or to get them to move. The result of this is a perpetual fear of children, and humans in general, amongst even the most large and fierce animals. A large number of wild, mangy, mean looking dogs often roamed my village. My heart-rate would quicken in panic if I saw a pack of these dogs approaching, but as soon as some small child yelled “acha!” the dogs would flea with their tails between their legs. I have also watched a child of maybe 10 years grab a huge, adult bull by the horns and drag it over to a wooden stake to be tied up. The only explanation for this that I can think of is that the bull was so used to being beaten and moved by small children as a calf that it does not realize that its own strength now far surpasses that of the child.
The treatment of donkeys is surprisingly bad. Gambians use donkeys to pull carts, to pull ploughs, to carry water, to carry luggage, and to carry people. However, they do not use proper bridals or hitches. They rig the carts to the donkeys using rough ropes that rub away at the donkey’s skin and create large sores. They often position the donkey too close to the cart so that the cart continually bangs the donkey’s backside. This creates a big rash above the donkey’s tail. I have even seen donkeys that have lost their tails to constant banging by the carts. For steering and control, the donkey drivers usually tie a rope around the donkey’s lower jaw. This rope cuts up the tongue and lips of the animal, which probably makes eating and drinking painful for the animal. Additionally, children only provide the most minimal amounts of food and water for the donkeys. Some Gambians beat the donkeys mercilessly with sticks, whips, and ropes when they are driving carts or herding them. Not surprisingly, donkeys do not have a very long life span. When a donkey dies, the owner simply dumps the body outside of the village and begins searching for a new donkey.
Horses are also used for labour, though they are not as common as donkeys. Some Gambians use proper bridals and hitches on their horses. However, especially during the dry season, most horses become malnourished, sick, and weak. When the rains arrive, the horses are taken straight out to the fields to begin ploughing before they have had a chance to regain their weight and strength. Many older horses do not survive the early ploughing period. Dogs are the only other useful, non-edible animals that Gambians tend to raise. They use dogs for safety in their compounds and often tie them up in their fields overnight to scare off any wild pigs or other animals that might eat their crops.
Most other animals are raised for food; doves, chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, rabbits, goats, sheep, and cows. Gambians tend to apportion more value and care for these animals. Women often give left over rice to the chickens and goats. The goats and sheep are corralled and fed during the rainy season, then left to roam free to look for food during the dry season. If drivers accidently hit a chicken, goat or other valuable animal, they will stop, find out who owns the animal, and pay for it. Muslims will not eat animals that were killed accidently; they will only eat meat from animals that were killed according to custom. Gambians usually use pieces of coloured cloth to denote ownership, though sometimes they just miraculously know. My host father could look at two almost identical goats and list their owners without a second glance.
Cows are by far the most highly valued animals. The number of cows a family owns is a clear indicator of their wealth. Some families will refuse to slaughter or sell their cows for fear of appearing poorer. The Fulas are traditionally the cow herders. Many Fula families will tie down their herds in front of their houses, like they’re showing off their wealth. I suppose some American families behave similarly by parking all their cars outside their garage.
Overall, the only reason I can think of for the relatively poor treatment of animals in The Gambia is that animals are very abundant. If one dies, it is easy to get a new one. Goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens, and cows are abundant. However, they can be expensive. As far as I know, the value of animals can be placed along a scale; chickens (150 Dalasi or $6), sheep (2000D or $80), goats (3000D or $120), donkeys (5000D or $200), horses (8000D or $320), and cows (up to 18,000D or $720). At these values, especially for donkeys, one would think that a subsistence farmer would take better care of his donkeys. However, many of the animals are also very hardy and can take a beating when it is given. Unfortunately, this results in a rather rough life for animals in The Gambia.