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It’s a lifestyle: Clip-clopping donkey carts of rural Namibia

Avatar of inke inke 08. November 2017 - Culture, Discover Namibia

On the dusty roads of the Namibian interior, far from the hustle and bustle of the city, the donkey cart is often the most common form of transport . . . 

While driving southwards along the main road of Namibia from Windhoek, something suddenly catches your eye in the periphery of your vision. Can it be? You slow down and take another look at the gravel track running parallel to the tarred road. Yes, you are not mistaken. Hurtling along – at donkey speed – is a team of clip-clopping donkeys pulling a customised cart and its passengers, on their way to visit neighbours, to transport wares or making their way home. This will be the first of many of the colourful donkey carts you will see as you explore the countryside. Welcome to Namibia!

The many gravel roads that traverse rural Namibia are arteries in the vast country, ideal for this transport of old that has survived through the centuries, providing a vital form of affordable non-motorised transportation for local inhabitants and for carrying essentials such as firewood and water. Donkey carts convey people from village to village - and to wells and clinics, and transport children to/from school – or to the junction of main roads from where they are collected by car. 

Donkey carts are common in the communal areas from southern to northern, and eastern to western Namibia as they wind their way to their destinations at a pace appropriate for rural Africa. And, with the continual rise in fuel prices and the high cost of motor vehicles, people are increasingly depending on donkey carts for transport. The two-wheeled ‘4x4s’ of the Namibian countryside are often emblazoned with car names like ‘Toyota’, ‘Ford’, ‘Opel’ and even ‘Mercedes Benz’ and are drawn by teams of up to six donkeys (or sometimes horses or mules). Humorous inscriptions such as ‘Take me home’, ‘Lady’s man’, ‘Barjero - It’s a lifestyle’ and ‘The king of the road’ are occasionally added. Some of these valuable carts even proudly bear number plates. The donkeys are also given amusing names like ‘Vaaljapie’ (the name of a vintage tractor) and ‘Sondernaam’ (No Name). Originally custom-made, donkey carts are now innovative modes of transport constructed with recycled parts from the scrapyard. These include the tyres, which are repaired with plastic bags when they can no longer hold air in the usual way, and reflectors, so that the carts can be seen at night.

Where did the donkey cart originate? You may well ask. First came the donkeys. Like horses, they are not indigenous to southern Africa. The first shipment of mules and donkeys is reported to have arrived at the Cape in 1656. Donkeys were gradually introduced into what is now southern Namibia in small numbers as settlers began to cross over the Orange/Gariep River from the latter part of the 18th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, German settlers brought in donkeys to breed mules for use in the diamond fields and for military purposes. 

During the depression years following World War I, when an influx of Afrikaner farmers travelling northwards from South Africa entered the country in their two- or four-wheeled wooden donkey carts, the ox-wagon was replaced by the relatively speedy ‘karretjie’ as the main means of transport. In later years, as cars gained popularity, many of the donkey carts were made using remnants of old cars, using the bak or rear part of the car, rear axles and wheels. 

From the 1920s until the 1940s donkey carts were the main form of transport on the farms. When the karakul market started to peak in the 1940s and many farmers were able to purchase their first cars, their donkey carts were passed on to the workers and made their way into the communal areas. By the mid-20th century the donkey cart had become a popular form of transport – and a way of life in rural Namibia. 

Although you may think that mini-bus taxis, buses and bakkies (pick-up trucks) are the modern means of transport in an ever-expanding Africa, the donkey cart still reigns supreme in many parts of Namibia. While the inhabitants of the north-central regions of Namibia mostly use donkeys to plough their fields or to transport large water containers and wood, and the Himba use donkeys as pack animals, the Nama and Damara of southern and western Namibia have wholeheartedly embraced the donkey-cart culture. 

An intriguing – and often unexpected sight, the donkey cart is a quintessential part of the Namibian journey. This is especially so on the auxiliary roads in the hinterland. Just when you begin to think yours is the only vehicle for miles around, a donkey cart will appear on the horizon. 

These are the times to slow down to avoid enveloping its occupants in clouds of dust, wave and become acquainted with the friendly people of Namibia. You can be sure they will be waving and smiling back, and will always have time for small talk.

Donkeys . . . 

The donkey descended from the African wild ass and was domesticated about five thousand years ago in Egypt or Mesopotamia. From there, it spread around the world to be used for transport and as a pack and draft animal. Donkeys were imported into South Africa at the time of the first Dutch settlers in the mid-1600s when the Cape of Good Hope became a re-provisioning station for the ships rounding the tip of Africa on their journeys to the East. The hardy Equids were introduced as pack and draft animals, often to breed mules (a hybrid bred from a female horse and male donkey), which were more in demand for their superior strength, stronger hooves and surefootedness. Donkeys are now common residents of the Namibian countryside. They are even used at some lodges like Gondwana’s Canyon Village to transport guests’ luggage to the rooms, adding a touch of local colour.

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