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Animal performativity: Exploring the lives of donkeys in Botswana.


Donkeys provide affordable and accessible means of transport, draught power and food security for smallholder farmers in and around Maun, Botswana. Their role and welfare is often compromised by people's extensive use of and inability to care for their animals given their individual or broader circumstances. Our paper explores the lives of donkeys and donkey-human relations in Botswana. We apply a feminist posthumanist iteration of performativity to illustrate and explain who the donkey is, what they experience, and the context within and through which these performances are constituted. Methodologically we merge tools from animal welfare science with social science to unearth donkey physical and emotional states of being, as well as the ways in which humans use, care for, and value donkeys in this particular context. Our findings reveal donkey subjectivities (experiences) characterized by relative drudgery, hardship, and compromised physical and emotional welfare; donkey subjects (identities) grounded in their marginalized status within government and everyday livelihood realms; and donkey spatiality (contextual factors) emerging from their performances as working animals, lesser than cattle, and pathways out of poverty. Contributions of our work include empirical insights on donkey-human relations, theoretical exploration of animal performativity, and methodological innovation investigating the lives of animals.


Animals, performativity, welfare, posthumanist feminism, Africa


Donkeys have served as working animals for humans, providing transport, draught power, fertilizer, and food since their domestication in ancient Egypt some 4000 years ago (Bough, 2011; Jones, 1999; Urbanik, 2012). Donkeys possess the longest and heartiest working life of any other domesticated animal. They are drought tolerant, they digest easily harsh vegetation, and they have remarkable stamina; donkeys also exhibit calm demeanors, work steadily and at varying paces, and learn quickly in relation to human demands (Ashley et al., 2005; Bough, 2011; Fielding and Pearson, 1991; Green, 1989; Jones, 2001; Merrifield, 2008; Yousef, 1991). Previous research reveals, however, that efforts to maintain and ensure donkey health and well-being in light of heavy workloads are compromised. People who most depend on donkeys--those with the least socioeconomic means--often lack the capacity or will to address donkey welfare in meaningful ways when they are unable to address their own basic needs (Pritchard et al., 2005). Notably, impoverished circumstances of humans and donkeys are borne out of mutually detrimental processes of marginalization.

Donkeys in Botswana play a vital role in human livelihoods, especially for poor smallholder farmers (Fernando and Starkey, 1999; Patrick et al., 2000). Yet little research exists on their circumstances and anecdotal evidence points to their mistreatment at household and broader scales. This prompted us to explore donkey lives and the significance of donkeys to humans in Greater Maun. For this paper, we thus ask: What does it mean to be a donkey in Botswana? Specifically, what do donkeys experience physically and emotionally, given their daily activities and interactions with humans in this particular place? How is donkey identity shaped by the ways in which their human owners' value, use, and care for them, and how may this impact donkey welfare and, in turn, human livelihoods? How is donkey experience and identity produced through and within local political-economic, sociocultural, and ecological dynamics?

To answer these questions, we apply the concept of performativity, specifically its feminist and posthumanist iterations, to explain theoretically and illustrate empirically how material-discursive practices shape who a donkey is and what s/he experiences as situated within place-based relations of power. We posit that what it means to be a donkey in Botswana is co-constituted by donkeys themselves, their human owners, and the spatial context. Performativity thus illuminates the sociospatial process-of-becoming a particular body (donkey) in a particular place (Botswana). Further, we engage a methodology aimed at generating intimate familiarity with the animal bodily subject. We center the donkey as subject to highlight its everyday embodiment; we merge methods from animal welfare science with social science in the hopes of encouraging donkeys to "speak" more readily through their physical and emotional condition and individual behavior.

As such we embrace feminist commitments to analyzing the body within its spatial context, emphasizing cocreated situatedness, attending to marginalized social groups, and generating empathetic understanding, as well as posthumanist recognition of nonhuman subjects and human entanglements with nature. A feminist-posthumanist approach exposes the logic of exclusion and politics of abjection that impact humans and animals alike (Hovorka, 2015: 2). Ultimately, we hope to contribute a new case study to animal geography on working equids, their welfare status, and their relations with humans in the global south; we hope to enrich understanding of animal lives through extension of feminist performativity to the nonhuman and engagement with multidisciplinary more-than-human approaches to geographical research.


Human performativity

Performativity reflects a robust strand of thought focused on embodiment (habits of the body) and how relations of power work in and through individual lives, institutional structures, and ideological dynamics. Butler's (1990. 1993) seminal conceptualization posits that gender and sex are not fixed, inherent, or biological features of identity, rather they are representations produced and naturalized through repetitive discourses. Performances are acted out through social scripts that prescribe ideals, reinforce the power of certain groups, vary in different contexts, change over time, and are co-constituted across multiple identifiers (of gender, sex, orientation, class, race, age, ability, etc.). These discourses are materialized by the body through embodied agency that is not freely chosen by the subject, but rather historically embedded (Butler, 1990). Butler (1993) argues that we do not have unmediated access to the material, given that the material is itself a product of particular modes of conceptualizing that do not escape the workings of power. She writes, "[identity] posited as prior to construction will, by virtue of being posited, become the effect of that very positing" (Butler, 1993: 5). Hence, we must consider "a process of materialisation that stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity ... [what] we call matter" (Butler, 1993: 9).

New material feminist scholars (see Van der Tuin, 2011) claim that Butler's account of the body fails to consider its weightiness. As such it "conflates the being of a thing with the mode in which it is known" (Colebrook, 2000: 78) and precludes attention to "lived material bodies and evolving corporeal practices" (Hekman and Alaimo, 2008: 3). Scholars such as Grosz (2008: 24) stress instead "the virtualities, the potentialities, within biological existence that enable cultural, social, and historical forces to work with and transform that existence." Braidotti's (2000: 159) "neo-materialism" purports matter's ongoing metamorphosis: "a folding-in of external influences and a simultaneous unfolding outwards of affects," while Haraway's (2003) "naturecultures" engage material-semiotic agents to complexify matter as no longer passive objects that have to be re-presented. Whatmore's (2002: 119) "corporeal differentiation" highlights dispositions and characteristics of specific bodies, which are both effects and affects in the workings of discursive power; materializing performativity must attend to diverse properties, energies, potentialities, emotions, and affordances that flow within and among all kinds of embodied actors and through which each body takes, holds, and changes shape. These trajectories uproot dualisms central to (post-)modern thought whereby the humanist subject of social constructivism or biological determinism is exchanged for a post-humanist one that shifts away from these two epistemological poles (Dolphijn and Van der Tuin, 2012).

Feminist geographers are among those materializing performativity, stretching further than others to articulate the spatial dynamics underpinning performative processes. Since the mid-1990s, feminist geographers have focused not only on the discursive representation of bodies but also on "real" material bodies occupying "real" spaces and places (Longhurst and Johnston, 2014: 270; Nelson, 1999). They emphasize bodies simultaneously imagined and discursively produced, real and physical, sensuous, emotional, affectional entities, and embedded within particular historical and geographical contexts (Longhurst, 2005; Longhurst and Johnston, 2014; Nast and Pile, 1998). "To be is to be somewhere" (Bondi and Davidson, 2003: 338, original italics); subjects and subjectivities are necessarily performed and negotiated not simply in but through space (Brown and Knopp, 2003: 322).

Nonhuman performativity

How do feminist conceptualizations of performativity map onto a nonhuman or animal body in a particular context? Barad (2003: 810) offers a posthumanist account of the materialization of all bodies and the material-discursive practices by which their differential constitutions are marked. Her "agential realism" emphasizes that neither discursive practices nor material phenomena have privileged status in determining the other. Rather their mutually causal entailment means that "materiality is discursive (i.e., material phenomena are inseparable from the apparatuses of bodily production: matter emerges out of and includes as part of its being the ongoing reconfiguring of boundaries), just as discursive practices are always already material (i.e., they are ongoing material (re)configurings of the world)" (Barad, 2003: 822). Within this intra-action, nature is not mute, immutable, a passive surface awaiting the mark of culture, or an end product of cultural performances (Barad, 2003: 827). Further, discursive practices are not necessarily human-based activities wrapped up solely with linguistic expression and meaning (i.e., words-that-describe), but rather are practices-that-produce subjects and subjectivities (Barad, 2003: 818). All bodies come to matter through the intra-activity entailed in material-discursive performance such that human bodies are not inherently different from nonhuman ones (Barad, 2003: 823).

Birke et al. (2004: 168) extend Barad's posthumanist performativity in meaningful ways. First, they note that animals in the natural sciences are typically portrayed as determined by innate behaviors or instinctive responses; while in the social sciences and humanities animals appear as socially constructed. They argue that what is missing is a "sense of nonhuman otherness as a doing or becoming, produced and reproduced in specific contexts of human/ non-human interaction" (Birke et al., 2004: 169). They engage Butler's "queering" to suggest that "animaling" as a verb provides a decisive break from the essentialism of "animal" as a noun. "Animaling" shifts focus to how "animal" is performed through material-discursive practices and relations of power. Second, Birke et al. (2004) stress three kinds of performativity at issue: of animality, of humanness, and of the relation between the two whereby relationships may themselves generate their own performativities beyond an individual's engagement with the social world. Their illustration "becoming rats" reveals how the notion of a "lab rat" is a production of meanings within and outside science with the rat as an agent in the process (e.g., whether it obligingly reproduces or squeals and bites the handler). "Lab rat" is thus a hybrid, constituted jointly by the rat, the people, and the scientific enterprise (Birke et al., 2004: 173).

Animals and humans learn and perform relations with one another through "communities of practice" (see Birke and Brandt, 2009 and Collard, 2012 both citing Paechter, 2003, 2006). Animal performativity thus requires recognizing the creative presence of animals in social life and their part in human accounts of the world (Whatmore and Thorne, 2000: 186). Animals are "saturated with being" and it is within relational processes that animal subjects are configured through particular social bonds, bodily compartments, and life habits that are complicated but neither originated nor erased by their relation with humans (Whatmore, 2002: 36). While not engaging performativity per se, animal geographers offer key insights on animal-human relations as discursive-material practices embedded within place-based dynamics (see seminal texts by Buller, 2013a; Philo and Wilbert, 1998; Urbanik, 2012; Wolch and Emel, 1998). Inspirational examples include those illustrating the ways in which particular animal identities and experiences emerge from animal-human encounters within aquariums, urban areas, national parks, and homesteads (Bear, 2011; Gullo et al., 1998; Lulka, 2004; Power, 2009, respectively). Equally inspired examples stem from those detailing bodily enactments of human-forced animality--agency performed by dairy cows in particular--embedded within industrial agriculture contexts (Gillespie, 2014; Holloway, 2007; Risan, 2005).

Exploring "donkeying"

Situating our work within feminist-posthumanist performativity, our objective is to explore "donkeying." We wish to explain theoretically how "donkey" is performed through material-discursive practices embedded within relations of power in Botswana, ultimately shaping donkey welfare and human livelihoods. We wish to detail empirically "becoming donkey" through the practices-that-produce the donkey subject and subjectivity within a particular spatial context, revealing that the notion of a "donkey" in Botswana is co-constituted by donkeys, their human owners, and local political-economic, sociocultural, and ecological dynamics.

To explore donkeying, we engage a conceptual frame that highlights the (animal) body and its performance. We conceptualize the body through elements of subject, subjectivity, and spatiality: first, subject refers to the body as labeled, inscribed, and constructed through material-discursive practices; second, subjectivity refers to the lived experience of a body; and third, spatiality refers to the place-based relations of power within and through which bodily performance is constituted (drawing on Barad, 2003; Grosz, 1995; Longhurst, 2005). (1) This framing illuminates who the body is, what it experiences, how that body and its experience comes to be in a particular place, and the implications of these processes. Bodies are at the core of our experience, we live our lives as embodied creatures--feeling, sensing, thinking, and acting through the body--and our relationship to space, place, landscape, and others is inescapably shaped by the kinds of bodies we have. Performativity is the sociospatial process-of-becoming a particular body in a particular place.

To explore donkeying, we engage a methodological approach aimed at generating intimate familiarity with the (animal) bodily subject (Sanders, 1999: 148). Exploring animal performativity requires actively connecting with the more-than-human and "focusing on animal bodily involvements in the world" (Whatmore, 2006: 603). We merge animal welfare science and social science, moving closer to animals themselves as subjective beings (Hodgetts and Lorimer, 2015; Urbanik, 2012) and moving beyond wholly human representative accounts to let the animals "speak" (Buller, 2014: 3) and reveal their "beastly places" or lived geographies (Philo and Wilbert, 2000). We wish to highlight donkeys as active participants in the creation of knowledge and meaning. Our approach aligns topically with the work of other geographers on animal welfare (Buller, 2013b; Greenhough and Roe, 2011; Johnston, 2013; Miele et al., 2011; Miele and Evans, 2010; Roe, 2010) and methodologically with those committed to holistic and affected engagements with animal subjects (e.g., Bear, 2011; Gillespie, 2014; Gullo et al., 1998; Holloway, 2007; Lorimer, 2006, 2010a, 2010b; Lulka, 2004; Risan, 2005).


Our methodology elicits the circumstances and quality of donkey lives in Botswana by merging animal welfare science with social science. Animal welfare science gathers evidence relating to the physical and emotional state of an animal as it attempts to meet its physiological and behavioral needs while coping with its environment and relating to other beings (Fraser and Broom, 1990; Webster, 2005). Welfare assessment protocols were included in this study to investigate directly the lived experiences of donkeys from donkeys themselves rather than as interpreted solely by their human owners. In turn, donkey-generated data on their physical and emotional welfare were analyzed in relation to human-generated data (through semi-structured interviews and participant observation) on the ways in which human owners' value, use, and care for their donkeys. Ultimately, we hope to actively engage donkeys, acknowledge and document their bodily involvements in the world, and to connect their circumstances and experiences with the lives, needs, and interests of the humans with whom they interact in substantial and intimate ways.


Data collection took place in and around Maun, a small town in Ngamiland District, northern Botswana, during May through August 2012 (see Figure 1). It involved welfare assessments of 100 randomly selected donkeys to ensure reliability and significance reflective of the larger donkey population (estimated at 24,000). Sampling took place in eight villages and three urban wards, selected from a total of 24 locales in Greater Maun. Nine donkeys were assessed in each locale, sub-stratified by key activities (three donkeys for riding, cart pulling, and resting) to ensure a cross section of donkey roles; the sample included 73 male and 27 female donkeys. Welfare assessments took approximately 1 hour and were conducted by Geiger with local training and in-kind assistance provided by veterinarians and personnel at the Maun Animal Welfare Society and the Ministry of Agriculture. Assessments were informed by equine welfare methodologies, particularly of those working in the global south (e.g., Burn et al., 2010; Pritchard et al., 2005; Van Dijk et al., 2011). As such, we engaged local knowledge and traditional assessment methods--to complement those framed largely within scientific discourse--by incorporating owners' practices and knowledges and inviting them to participate in welfare assessments themselves (Upjohn et al., 2015).

Briefly, physical assessments documented sore and scar prevalence (frequency and severity), eye condition (ocular discharge, infection, and blindness), hoof condition (hoof/ heel cracks and hoof overgrowth), limb condition (abnormal swelling, gait and stride), coat condition (cleanliness and presence of dirt, burrs, and/or mange), as well as overall body condition (emaciated, thin, optimal or obese based on muscle and fat distribution and spine, hips, and ribs prominence). Emotional assessments documented eye expression (bright or dull based on corneal appearance and degree of eyelid openness), ear position (pointing up, midway, down, or back), tail (moving or still), neck position (head raised, level, or lowered), and vocalization (audible or silent). Donkey interactions with the primary researcher (a human stranger) and their human owner were recorded as curiosity (ears forward, interaction via smell, interest in, movement toward an unknown human), avoidance (ears back, body movement away from human), apathetic (relaxed lips, ears/head lowered, disinterest, no movement), or aggressive (ears flattened back, attempted kick/bite, teeth shown, wrinkled nostrils). Beyond univariate frequencies recorded for each parameter, relationships among parameters (physical, emotional, interactions) were analyzed using the Spearman rank order correlation ([r.sub.s]), a nonparametric statistical test measuring the strength of association between two ranked (ordinal) variables (Ha and Ha, 2012). Correlations found to be significant (P < 0.05) may be very weak ([r.sub.s] = 0.00-0.19), moderate ([r.sub.s] = 0.40-0.59), strong ([r.sub.s] = 0.60-0.79), or very strong ([r.sub.s] = 0.80-1.00) thus signifying varying strengths of correlation yet confirming that the correlation does not occur at random. Further details on the welfare assessment protocol and quantitative results are provided elsewhere (Geiger and Hovorka, 2015).

Data collection also included semi-structured interviews with the 100 human owners of the sampled donkeys. Respondents were predominantly male and 41 years of age on average; 91% were small holder farmers with sporadic informal employment selling crops, firewood, and water for an average monthly wage of BWP461. Respondents owned on average eight donkeys and five cattle. Interviews took approximately 45 minutes prior to the donkey welfare assessment and were conducted in Setswana with assistance from a local translator. Questions focused three thematic areas, namely people's valuing of donkeys (documenting descriptors, significance, and socioeconomic status), use of donkeys (documenting tasks, frequency, and context), and care of donkeys (documenting type and frequency of regimen, and perceptions of donkey well-being). Qualitative content analysis involved thematic coding of oral, textual, and observational data and establishing potential links between key categorical artifacts. Data were examined for internal meanings, assumptions, and beliefs associated with donkeys by interview participants; databits were extracted and organized according to emerging themes. Secondary sources (e.g., government policies, veterinary programs, community outreach strategies, census data, etc.), key informant interviews (e.g., government personnel, veterinarians, and animal welfare practitioners), and participant observation (of donkeys, humans, and local circumstances) facilitated data triangulation and a comprehensive overview of donkey-human relations in Botswana.

Donkey subjectivity

We begin our exploration of donkeying (becoming donkey) by illuminating donkey subjectivity as the lived experience of donkeys. Specifically, what do donkeys experience physically and emotionally as they move through daily activities, interactions with humans, and within the local context of Greater Maun, Botswana? Here we encourage donkeys themselves to "speak" through participant observations and bodily assessments of their health and well-being. In subsequent sections, we detail how this experience emerges through material-discursive practices producing the donkey subject and within place-based relations of power. Taken together these empirical insights demonstrate the ways in which donkeys and humans learn and perform relations with one another through a co-constituted and locally embedded community of practice.

Becoming donkey in Botswana means being part of the community. Donkeys and humans share roads, homesteads, and fields. Donkeys traipse through agricultural plots, their furrowing effectively demarcates a place for seeds to gather, and take root during planting season. Rickety carts rumble toward town, with four donkeys to a team, the driver bringing in wood from the bush in hopes of selling bundles to urban dwellers in need of warmth during cold, silent nights. Children ride donkeys bare back, trotting down sandy paths toward the cattle posts, holding tightly onto the manes, directing donkeys with nothing but a skinny wooden stick. A local horseback riding guide recalls "donkeys are the first animals we learn how to ride and the first animals we learned how to handle." He and his siblings grew up nurturing cooperation and communication between rider and donkey. Within Greater Maun there are 24,000 donkeys, living together with and contributing to the livelihoods of some 55,000 humans.

Donkeys gather in pairs or in herds, moving slowly, browsing and foraging for grass, leaves, and twigs. Or they stand solitary, sunning themselves with eyes closed and stillness washed over them. Donkeys are so numerous around Maun that they are an unremarkable part of the landscape, fading into the background. People seem to not notice them. They walk past donkeys, sharing the same space but no eye contact or acknowledgment is made. Pedestrians and drivers move around them to avoid the bodies-in-their-way. Donkeys shy away or turn stoic as if to become invisible. It is a mutual dance of avoidance. In other instances, encounters appear jarring or aggressive. Donkeys are seen hobbled with two front ankles bound together by prickly brown rope tied tightly, making them jump forward with their hind legs to advance along the roadside. The rope rubs, making the ankles bleed bright red as it cuts deep into the skin. Donkeys frequent roadways, seeking the tarmac as an accessible path or for heating during winter months. Poised peacefully on the edge of the road, donkeys seemingly feel the "swoosh" of passing cars and step carefully forward, route determined. Vehicles routinely come to an abrupt halt, drivers laying on the horn to no avail--donkey hooves remain firmly planted on the ground, ears pricked at the sound, a determined look reacting to the driver's request. Once the horn ceases, donkeys walk slowly but assuredly in the intended direction. The driver, impatient, quickly drives around them and speeds away.

A donkey's demeanor is generally quiet and patient. While social animals, donkeys evaluate situations for themselves instead of reacting with herd instincts the way horses do. Individual donkeys may refuse to move or work by running away, kicking out, or throwing off their riders; they do not respond to dominance or traditional cues used on other herd animals (Davis, 2012). Donkeys also internalize pain as a survival mechanism to reduce predator attention (The Donkey Sanctuary UK; Merrifield, 2008), often instinctively bowing their heads and standing still in response. Some people respond to these biological tendencies with frustration and aggression, particularly when relying upon donkeys for transport and ploughing or needing donkeys to simply move aside. Others take it in stride: "I let the donkeys chose their own pace and they never give me trouble," remarked an elderly man traveling into town from a nearby village at a remarkably slow cadence.

From these observations, donkey subjectivity encompasses lived experiences that appear (from a human perspective) both purposeful (when ploughing or transporting) yet unfocused (when they are wandering), as well as peaceful (when they stand on the tarmac bathed in sunlight) yet dogged (when humans order them to do otherwise). Investigating directly, the bodily state of donkey reveals more clearly that the majority of donkeys in Greater Maun experience some degree of hardship and trauma (Geiger and Hovorka, 2015). Physically, of the 100 donkeys randomly sampled, the majority are afflicted by thin body condition (67%), long and cracked hooves (50%), sores on at least two locations on their body (most often on the sides of a donkey's mouth or legs) (53%), scars on at least two locations on their body (most often on the legs) (86%), and poor coat conditions (most often dull, matted, or dirty) (58%). Emotionally, the majority of donkeys exhibit an overall sad demeanor (69%) based on a composite of their physical behavior (eye, ear, tail, neck, posture, and vocalization) and their human-based interactions. More specifically, many donkeys display less than ideal mannerisms such as unresponsiveness (35%), avoidance (31%), disinterest in hand sniffing (59%), dull facial expression (33%), tail stillness (89%), neck stiffness and/or raised (13% had this outward indication of being upset) or neck hanging low (32% acting visibly withdrawn), and tense ears pointing back or to the side (69%). These negative welfare results suggest that becoming donkey in Botswana involves experiences stemming not only from a variety of behaviors and roles but also from challenging and detrimental circumstances.

Donkey subject

We continue our exploration of donkeying (becoming donkey) by illustrating how donkey subjectivity or lived experiences emerge through material-discursive practices that construct the donkey subject. Specifically, how is donkey identity shaped by the ways in which human owners' value, use, and care for them? How may this contribute to donkeys' compromised welfare? Here we draw upon semi-structured interviews with human participants, as well as observations of donkey-human interactions, to detail how a co-constituted and locally embedded community of practice emerges. While humans construct donkeys discursively--labeling and positioning them according to particular social scripts, norms, and ideals--they do so in conjunction with the donkey as materially "saturated with being" (a la Whatmore, 2002: 36) that is both innate and an embodied product of the relationship with their human owners. Donkeying here acknowledges donkey agency and their creative, weighty presence in human discursive constructions of their identity.

Becoming donkey in Botswana means being recognized for contributions to household livelihoods, security, and well-being. Indeed, donkeys are highly valued by their human owners, as illustrated through the range of word associations presented in Table 1. Twenty-four percent of people described their donkeys as family members taking on roles and responsibilities within the household and belonging within the homestead. They expressed feelings of love, kinship, and respect for their donkeys, and alluded to donkey contributions to daily tasks. Donkeys bear family brands of allegiance imprinted on their hip, shoulder, or neck, as well as colored rope tied around their two front legs or neck. Twenty-seven percent of people described their donkeys in utilitarian terms, for example as a foodstuff, plough, or vehicle. They characterized them as sturdy, strong, and hardy animals able to perform physical labor with little nourishment and care. Notably, those people associating donkeys with objects tended to lean on them casually while the donkeys leaned slightly away from the owners, bearing their weight. Thirty-two percent of people described their donkeys as providing assistance and support, for example in terms of income generation, food provision, rest, and spiritual guidance. Of particular importance was time savings accrued from donkey assistance with household tasks. Also notable was the religious connection to donkeys, deemed as creatures of God imbued with patience, humility, suffering, and service.

Becoming donkey in Botswana means that their high value and significance to human owners translates into their intensive and frequent use for numerous household tasks. Specifically, 100% of human owners used their donkeys for cart-based transport to fetch fuelwood or haul water; 87% used their donkeys for riding associated with moving cattle to grazing or water sources; and 97% used their donkeys for ploughing fields. Further, in terms of intensity of use, human owners noted that donkeys work hardest when ploughing, which requires much strength and energy to pull a heavy tool over a long period of time. Human owners also noted that donkeys are at their prime when grazing is plentiful: "Right now [donkeys] are not finding enough food because it's dry, so they get tired fast ... I can ride my donkey for only one kilometre and then it's tired" (Participant 19, 8 June 2012). Human owners traveled up to approximately 60 km per day when using their donkeys with the majority (56%) traveling 10 km or less to their desired locations. Finally, in terms of frequency of use, 48% of human owners used their donkeys on a daily basis, 21% used them thrice per week, 19% used them twice per week, and the remaining 12% used them once per week. Frequency of use fluctuated seasonally such that donkeys may be used on a daily basis for two to four weeks during the week for ploughing tasks and then one or three times a week during the remainder of the year for nonploughing tasks.

Thus, material-discursive practices construct the donkey subject as a highly valued contributor to the household, given donkey demonstrated and human perceived heartiness, stamina, approachability, and loyalty. The discursive idea of a "valuable and useful donkey" is produced by donkeys' natural behaviors and tendencies as effective and efficient workers, which in turn reproduces their value and usefulness for human owners. Yet, material-discursive practices change beyond the household as donkeys' political and economic value lessens. Thus, becoming donkey in Botswana also means a marginalized positionality within political-economic realms.

Specifically, donkeys are labeled "companion animals" within government policy and planning mechanisms, which favor "food animals" by providing them with vaccinations, care, and feed subsidies, and sector investments (Ministry of Agriculture, no date). As one key informant notes: "Donkeys are virtually invisible ... with southern African governments being more concerned about meat animals, they fail to recognize how important donkeys are to people's lives." The lack of veterinary resources also emerged as an issue, given that the three veterinarians available for Greater Maun possess limited knowledge of donkeys compared to other animals. Confusion exists, for example, regarding the use and effectiveness of Terramycine, an antibacterial ointment typically used on equines for ocular infections, wounds, arthritis, pneumonia, strangles, and hoof infections such as footrot (Marzok and Desouky, 2009). One veterinarian claimed "Terramycin is not meant to be given to donkeys; it is generally prescribed to livestock such as cattle, goats, and sheep, not for equines" (Key Informant, 13 July 2012). Further devaluing of donkeys is reflected in their relatively low market value, fetching approximately BWP500 compared to cattle fetching between BWP2000 and BWP5000. People interviewed reflected upon this contradiction with 53% arguing that donkey market value should be higher given that, as one person noted proudly, "donkeys made me who I am today" (Participant 70, 29 July 2012).

Such broad scale devaluation of donkeys trickles down to individual daily practices whereby becoming donkey in Botswana means receiving inadequate care from human owners. Despite sentiments that donkeys should garner greater political attention and economic value, people tended not to invest money, time, and energy into donkey care owing to their belief that "it's not worth it" and their inability to do so given their low socioeconomic status. People provided donkeys limited care regimens in Greater Maun relative to international welfare stands for routine upkeep and health care (see Jones, 2003; Van Dijk et al., 2011; Weaver, 2008) especially in terms of coat cleanliness, hoof maintenance, and water provision. First, regular brushing ensures a clean donkey coat, helping reduce the number of equipment-related sores (Van Dijk et al., 2011; Weaver, 2008). Twenty-four percent of human owners brushed their donkeys, yet did so to stay clean themselves; they brushed the back where they would sit to ride and used rags or bark as implements. Sixty-seven percent of human owners did not brush their donkeys and many seemed bemused by the question, exclaiming "No! I've never seen anyone brush their donkeys [laughing]!" (Participant 61, 21 July 2012) or "I don't brush my donkeys. Donkeys clean themselves when they roll in the sand" (Participant 33, 21 June 2012). Fifty-nine percent of donkeys had dirty coats with burrs and visible dirt. Second, regular hoof care ensures proper donkey posture, steady balance, and efficient gait. Thirty-two percent of human owners trimmed their donkey's hooves, the majority of which used a hack saw rather than using a hoof knife or visiting a farrier. Fifty-seven human owners did not trim their donkey's hooves and claimed that this was not needed because hooves would be worn down naturally from roadways or are rarely long enough to require trimming. Fifty percent of donkeys exhibited overgrown and cracked hooves. Third, regular provision of water ensures sustained donkey hydration and overall health. Donkeys require approximately 20 L of water per day when working in a hot, arid environment such as Botswana (Jones, 1997) where dehydration may cause heat stress, reduced work capacity, increased body temperature, reduced heart rate, impaired mobility, apathy, and weight loss (Pritchard et al., 2006). Twenty-five percent of human owners claimed that donkeys find water on their own, thus did not provide water. The majority (68%) of this subset of donkeys had a thin body condition.

Despite these shortcomings, the majority of human owners (84%) believed their donkeys to be in good health and receiving adequate care regimens. A discrepancy emerged between people's perceptions of their donkey's health and the in-depth welfare assessments conducted. Fifty-eight percent of human owners described their donkey as "healthy, yet the clear majority of these donkeys were thin, exhibited avoidance or apathy, and possessed numerous scars." Further, human owners knew relatively little regarding donkey health issues and relied on a limited array of traditional or folkloric remedies to treat illness and injury. According to veterinarians interviewed, human owners lack information and rarely seek health care assistance for their donkeys (in contrast to their engagement with cattle) (Key Informant, 14 June 2012). Finally, the 16 human owners who expressed concern for their donkeys' health were also those most engaged during the welfare assessments--they participated through questions and comments, and handled their donkeys in a calm, quiet manner. In contrast, the 31 human owners who believed donkeys to be "healthy" handled their donkeys aggressively and were disengaged during welfare assessments.

Thus, material-discursive practices construct the donkey subject as both self-sufficient and undeserving of adequate care regimens. The discursive ideas that "donkeys do not need care" and "donkeys do not deserve care" are produced by the fact that donkey bodies are not deemed foodstuffs and that donkeys are naturally hearty, self-grooming, and water-efficient beings. This translates into care regimen shortfalls, especially in terms of hoof and coat care, and water provision. In turn these minimal material care practices and lacking knowledge base actively reproduce the idea that donkeys do not require care and/ or do not deserve it. Human owners' inability to care for their donkeys on account of limited resources must also be considered a factor although it did not emerge as an explicit theme from semi-structured interviews. We discussed this theme in the following section in terms of labor relations.

Finally, becoming donkey in Botswana means receiving harsh treatment owing again to material-discursive practices rooted in the broad devaluation of donkeys, as well as people's responses to donkeys' perceived stubbornness and naturally stoic manner and overall heartiness. As one human owner explained: "People don't take care for their donkeys because some people think donkeys are less valuable than other animals--that's why they beat them ... They don't believe they have a value like a horse, a cow, a goat, even a dog [she sighs]. We grew up thinking and knowing that a donkey has less value and is worth less than any other animal" (Participant 25; 28 June 2012). While only 16% of human owners shared this sentiment explicitly, numerous episodes of mistreatment or abuse were witnessed during data collection. For example, when a participant asked her children to bring her donkey to its welfare assessment, the two children kicked it in the ribs, smacked it on the shoulders, and tugged on the donkey's ears until it moved. Comments from others suggested similar aggression: "Some people try to drive donkeys like a car, but donkeys get tired just like humans" (Participant 47, 7 July 2012) or "naturally donkeys are meant to be beaten." As another explained, "People will hit [donkeys] and yes, it hurts them. But some people don't care because they will just use someone else's donkey, beat it, use it and let it go. They don't care about it" (Participant 65, 22 July 2012). A government veterinarian confirmed that "we tell them not to beat the donkeys as hard as they do ... [but] donkeys will get beaten to the point where the donkeys have bad sores that get infected" (Key Informant, 7 July 2012). Harsh treatment of donkeys was not shared among all human owners. Numerous people expressed concern and were visibly upset witnessing acts of aggression: "Donkeys are mistreated" said one person shaking his head and clasping his hands, "it's difficult to see." Others described the beating of donkeys as "senseless" and "careless" (Participant 68, 27 July 2012).

The donkey subject is thus a production of meanings by individual human owners and broader societal norms, and by the donkey itself in terms of its biologically rooted behaviors, demeanor, and relations with humans. Donkeys are discursively constructed as vital household contributors, which translates into their intensive and frequent use for numerous tasks. They are also labeled "companion animals" and marginalized in government policy, planning, and outreach services with broad devaluation evident in people's daily material practices that result in the overuse, mistreatment, and limited care of their donkeys. Donkeys demonstrate themselves to be effective, efficient, hearty, stubborn, stoic, and self-sufficient workers, which means that their human owners perceive and treat them as such. Ultimately donkey subjectivity or lived experience--characterized largely by compromised welfare as detailed in the previous section- may be understood as stemming from the tensions between and contradictions of valuing/devaluing and care/lack of care generated by material-discursive practices that produce "donkey" in Botswana.

Donkey spatiality

We conclude our exploration of donkeying (becoming donkey) by discussing how donkey subjectivity and donkey subject are embedded in spatiality or place-based relations of power. Specifically, how is "donkey" produced through and performed within local political-economic, sociocultural, and ecological dynamics? To be a donkey is to be a donkey somewhere (adapting Bondi and Davidson, 2003: 338)--donkey subjectivity and subject are necessarily negotiated in and through the spatial dimensions of daily existence (Van Manen, 2011). Donkey performance in the context of Greater Maun, and Botswana more broadly, may be understood through three themes of note: donkeys as working animals, donkeys as not-cattle, and donkeys as pathways-out-of-poverty. Material-discursive practices that produce donkey subjectivity and subject are rooted clearly in the spatiality of labor relations, species competition, and cycles of poverty.

Becoming donkey may be understood first in terms of working animal-human relations of power, whereby donkey performance of their human-imposed role as "working animals" requires not just any old behavior (Birke, 2002: 432). Donkeys are not necessarily hardwired or instinctively adapted to this context although their capacities and character make them suitable for domestication and labor conditions in Botswana's semiarid climate and socioeconomic circumstances. Donkeys can survive on a wide variety of low-quality plant products, given that the microorganisms in their digestive system help break down touch plant cell walls. They are surefooted on the majority of terrain with their body weight resting on the middle digit of each hoofed foot. Donkeys are also relatively social, communicative, docile, and easy to care for, making them particularly suited to assist people with their daily livelihood tasks (Urbanik, 2012: 83-84). Beyond their biophysical predisposition, donkeys learn and perform their role through their relationship with human owners and human owners learn to act out roles in relation to their donkeys. Here domestication becomes an historical process of performances with the roles of working animal and human caretakers deeply intertwined (Birke, 2002: 432).

Central to such performance is the mutually experienced marginalization of donkeys and their human owners in Greater Maun. Donkeys are essential laborers, providing affordable and accessible draught power, food, and transport for especially smallholder farmers who reside in this locale. As evidenced through this research, donkeys work long hours in extreme heat with few breaks, little social interaction, unfit harnesses and equipment, and carrying heavy or awkward loads; their often compromised physical and emotional welfare is met with little consideration, understanding or recognition from human owners. Yet donkeys perform their roles upon urging of people who have few alternatives, but to rely on donkey labor and assistance; human owners in the study are among the poorest residents in Botswana. Ultimately, donkeys share the same burdens and hardships as their human owners (The Brooke, 2007) through a process of dual exploitation whereby all working-class bodies--human and donkey--are subject to stark inequalities due to exploitative political economic systems that render them marginal (Emel, 1995; Hribal, 2007; Shukin, 2009). While human owners clearly recognize the value and significance of donkeys for their daily lives, their dependence upon them is physically inscribed upon donkey bodies as marks of need and even desperation (Nast, personal communication, 2014). Both working donkeys and their human owners perform their respective identities, roles, and circumstances within marginalized and exploitative relations with one another, couched within the broader political economic system of haves and have-nots, which manifest themselves in Greater Maun.

Becoming donkey may be understood second in terms of species relations of power whereby donkeys are subordinate relative to cattle rendering them "lesser than" in terms of political clout, socioeconomic status, and resource access in Botswana. Government officials lament "wasted" donkey lives with little (no) resource investment or planning efforts focused on donkeys despite their contributions to people's livelihoods. That donkeys are labeled as "companion" rather than "food animals," as well that donkeys align more closely with subsistence rather than commercial-oriented activities reinforces their marginal positioning. In turn, donkeys are placeless in that they wander aimlessly along roadsides or remain tethered at homesteads compared to revered cattle situated comfortably at ranches, cattleposts, and grazing lands. Donkeys rarely feature in veterinary outreach services with government officials and private veterinarians knowing little about their needs or interests. Again this is in contrast to cattle whose health is closely monitored and understood in scientific and indigenous terms by individual cattle owners, government extension workers, and veterinarians. Finally, and coming full circle to the first theme noted above, donkeys are paired with humans of low socioeconomic standing who are unable to purchase or maintain cattle as part of their homestead and financial resources. As such, donkey othering--in contrast to cattle privileging--situates them in marginalized and exploitative working animal-human relationships, generating compromised donkey welfare stemming from extensive use, harsh treatment, and poor care regimens, as well as perceptions that donkeys are stubborn, hearty, and self-sufficient animals. People's engagement with donkeys relative to cattle in Botswana may be summed up as follows: "People are not proud to be using donkeys or owning donkeys like they are about cattle. Donkeys are just meant to be worked. There is a general feeling that donkeys don't need care. After using the donkeys, people just let them go after work. If a donkey dies, they just leave it in the bush and the vultures can get it" (Key Informant, 24 May 2012).

Becoming donkey may be understood third in terms of development mandates and trajectories premised upon donkeys as catalysts for sustaining and enhancing livelihoods of low-income people. Donkeys, like other working animals, are viewed as "pathways out of poverty," given their indispensability to food production, water collection, and transport (Randolph et al., 2007). Unfortunately, such pathways are undermined and even interrupted, given the hardship experienced by donkeys on account of broader labor relations and species relations of power detailed above. Many donkeys are unable to perform to their potential in service of human well-being. Our research reflects this downward spiral whereby the most compromised donkey welfare emerges in situations where they are arguably needed the most.

On the one hand, donkeys used the most frequently and traveling the farthest distances suffer from the poorest welfare in terms of scar presence, body condition score, and negative emotional state. Of the 48 donkeys depended upon by their human owners for daily use, 42% had three or more body scars, 36% had thin body condition, and 54% displayed avoidance, defensiveness, and indifference within human-donkey interactions. On the other hand, donkeys owned by those with lower average household income of BWP379/month (n = 62) suffer from the poorest welfare exhibiting a body condition score of 2 (56%), displaying avoidance, defensiveness, and fright (86%), and receiving more aggressive treatment from owners during welfare assessment. Donkeys owned by those with higher average household incomes of BWP480/month (n = 38) exhibited an optimum body condition score (33%), displayed calmness and curiosity (82%), and received calm and patient treatment from owners during welfare assessment. Statistical analysis further reveals that as one's income decreases hitting of one's donkey increases ([r.sub.s] = -0.205, p < 0.05) and that as hitting increases then body condition score decreases ([r.sub.s] = 0.206, p < 0.05). In Botswana, very low income is considered less than BWP400 per month; low income is BWP401 to BWP850; middle income is BWP85I to BWP1899; high income is greater than BWP1900 (Acquah, 2009; Von Rudolf, 2007).

Arguably then, those human owners who need donkeys the most tend to compromise their physical and emotional welfare on account of their interactions with them. A cycle emerges whereby donkeys become overused, tired, and unresponsive and thus receive harsh or aggressive treatment to encourage them to perform their role. That more affluent farmers tend to replace donkeys with farming technologies and motorized vehicles (Nengomasha et al., 2000) reproduces the idea that a society's continued use of and dependence on donkeys with a lack of progress (Bough, 2011; Starkey, 1995). Consequently, the need for and use of donkeys by the poorer socioeconomic population in Botswana has reinforced the connection between low human status, poverty, and donkeys. As our findings suggest, humans' urgent and substantial need for donkeys to fulfill their livelihood support and enhancement roles have resulted in compromised physical and emotional welfare for the donkeys themselves and undermining their service role for their human counterparts.

Donkey spatiality actively shapes and is shaped by the donkey subject and subjectivity. To be a donkey in Botswana means that one is embedded within place-based labor relations, species competition, and cycles of poverty. This spatiality gives rise to particular communities of practice through which donkey-human relations emerge. Donkeys as working animals perform particular roles on behalf of their human owners, seen as necessarily subordinate to cattle yet vital to pathways out of poverty. Donkey capacities and character, perceived as stubborn and demonstrated as relatively hearty and self-sufficient animals, together with their adaptation to Botswana's semiarid climate and socioeconomic circumstances place them front and center in people's everyday lives. Performance of their vital yet undervalued domesticated roles compromises not only donkey welfare but also the welfare of those people who rely on them the most.


What does it mean to be a donkey in Botswana? Our research findings, based on participant observation, donkey welfare assessments, and human owner interviews, confirm that the lived experiences of donkeys in Greater Maun are full of purpose and contributions to human livelihoods. At the same donkeys experience drudgery and hardship; the majority of those surveyed exhibit compromised physical and emotional welfare reflected by thin body condition, long and cracked hooves, sore and scar prevalence, poor coat condition, unresponsiveness, disinterest, tail stillness, neck stiffness/hanging, and tense ears. Such donkey subjectivities may be understood and explained through the practices-that-produce donkeys. Donkey subjects are perceived as vital contributors to livelihoods yet are labeled "companion animals" and marginalized in government policy, planning, outreach services, as well as within people's daily practices characterized as overuse, mistreatment, and limited care of their donkeys. Donkeys' general stoicism, diligence, and heartiness (re)produces human perceptions of their being stubborn, meant-to-work, and self-sufficient, and in turn reinforce people's daily interactions with them. Finally, donkey identity and experiences are embedded within and emerge through place-based relations of power. Donkey spatiality is rooted in their performance as working animals, not cattle, and pathways out of poverty, all of which (re)produce their central yet undervalued role in people's lives and broader societal realms and their compromised welfare status that undermines their performance.

Taken together these empirical insights demonstrate the ways in which donkeys and humans learn and perform relations with one another through a co-constituted and locally embedded community of practice. Performativity is the sociospatial process of becoming a particular body in a particular place. Donkeying (becoming donkey) emerges through material-discursive practices manifested within relations of power in Botswana, with significant implications for both donkey welfare and human livelihoods. Our engagement with feminist-posthumanist performativity emphasizes its necessarily discursive, material, and relational aspects and pushes further recognition of both human and nonhuman experience and knowledge as meaningful to sociospatial investigations and broader geographical research. Our engagement with multidisciplinary methods, specifically animal welfare science and social science, encourages holistic and in-depth exploration of the lives of animals, animal-human relations, and the contexts within which all beings become who they are, experience what they do, and what this means for those around them. Our focus on working equids in the global south provides valuable information on the roles and contributions of donkeys to smallholder farmers in Greater Maun, Botswana; it also provides a baseline of donkey welfare indicators to inform community-based outreach programming and government strategic planning.

In sum, becoming donkey in Botswana means that one is necessarily an engaged, vital yet marginalized community member whose bodily performances emerge through and within complex labor relations, species competition, and cycles of poverty. Attending to the processes of marginalization that shape both donkey and human lives is a necessary step in addressing the health and well-being of all.

DOI: 10.1177/0263775815604922

Martha Geiger

University of BristolLangford, UK

Alice J Hovorka

Queen's University, Kingston, Canada

Corresponding author:

Alice J Hovorka, Department of Geography & School of Environmental Studies, Queen's University, Kingston ON K7L 3N6 Canada.



This study was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Arthur D. Latornell Scholarship. We would like to thank Maun Animal Welfare Society for assistance during the fieldwork period and their continued work on improving donkey and human welfare in Maun, Botswana. Thank you to the Government of Botswana, especially Ministry of Agriculture, Dr. Mark Bing of Vetswana, and to colleagues at Department of Environmental Science, University of Botswana for in-kind support and encouragement. Thank you especially to the donkeys and human owners who generously gave their time and energy to participate in this study. Finally, we are appreciative of the rigorous and insightful comments from anonymous reviewers and editors that helped us strengthen the paper.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


This study was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (File No. 435-2012-0090) and Arthur D. Latornell Scholarship, University of Guelph Canada.


(1.) While we refer to the singular donkey subject, subjectivity, and spatiality throughout the paper to ensure clarity of argument, we acknowledge and embrace the multiplicity of donkeys' identities, experiences, and place-based dynamics. An individual donkey may take on numerous subject positions and subjective experiences depending upon a particular context. Further, donkeys as a social group are not homogenous, but rather embody multifaceted and differential iterations of being-a-donkey.


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Martha Geiger completed her Masters of Arts in Geography degree at the University of Guelph in 2013. Her research interests focus on working animal welfare in developing countries with her thesis specifically exploring donkey welfare issues and donkey-human relations in and around Maun, Botswana. Ms. Geiger is currently a Research Associate at the Department of Animal Welfare and Behaviour, University of Bristol where she is conducting research the socioeconomic value of working donkeys in Ethiopia and India.

Alice J Hovorka is Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at Queen's University, Canada. Her research focuses on human-animal relations, largely in the context of the developing world, with current projects highlighting the role of chickens, donkeys, cattle, wild dogs, and elephants in Botswana. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Dr. Hovorka explores how animals, as central actors, are embedded discursively and materially in the fabric of human lives, landscapes and development trajectories in Botswana in order to further understanding of human-animal relations in Africa.
Table 1. Donkey word associations.

Donkey as being
My child               "The donkey is my friend, it is doing
                         everything for me. I even take care of it
                         like my own children"
A person               "It's just the same as if I ask my daughter to
                         do something for me"
Good creature          "The donkey is a good creature to me because
                         it gives me income and rest"
Donkey as object
Food                   "You can never go hungry if you have donkeys"
Car                    "A donkey is my car. They take me everywhere"
Donkey as assistance
Love                   "I love my donkeys because of their help"
Life                   "A donkey is holding my life. It does so many
                         things for me. I can't live without my
Help                   "I would suffer if I didn't have my donkeys,
                         I couldn't use another animal if I didn't
                         have my donkeys. My life would be tough"
Holy animal            "Jesus rode on a donkey up to heaven, so I
                         take care of it like Jesus did"
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Author:Geiger, Martha; Hovorka, Alice J.
Publication:Environment and Planning D: Society and Space
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6BOTS
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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