You will always find her in the front seats at any donkey-related event in Lamu.
Every year on May 8, when the world marks Donkey Day, you will also meet this soft-spoken Swahili woman of Bajuni origin either as the guest of honour or the master of ceremonies with a microphone, creating awareness about the plight of these personable animal helpers – donkeys.
Meet Sauda Kassim, a 50-year-old scholar who has dedicated her life to protecting the welfare of donkeys across the Lamu archipelago.
She has a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology from Kenya Methodist University (Kemu), and one would expect to find her teaching, researching, or consulting at some school or hospital.
But here she is, an animal philanthropist on the streets of Lamu Old Town.
Ms Kassim was born in Rasini village, Faza island, Lamu East.
She went to Faza Primary School between 1974 and 1980 before joining Lamu Girls High School, formerly known as Harambee School.
She completed her secondary education in 1984 before enrolling for a teacher training certificate course (P1) at Mosoriot Teachers College in Nandi County.
After 20 years of teaching, Ms Kassim decided to further her education by joining the Kenya Institute of Special Education (Kise) in Thika, where she completed a diploma course in special needs education.
She then enrolled for a degree course in education at Kemu’s Mombasa campus.
After graduating, Ms Kassim joined Kemu-Nairobi, where she completed her master’s degree in counselling psychology.
Nation.Africa sought to find out how an educationist developed her love of donkeys.
Ms Kassim says that when she was a young girl, she used to spend much of her time playing with donkeys rather than her siblings.
She says she did not like it when donkey owners and handlers mistreated their animals but, unfortunately, as a little girl she could not do anything about it.
After high school and before she joined college, she started taking part in various events championing the welfare of the beast of burden.
“My love for donkeys is natural. As I was young, I used to cry every time I saw someone beating and manhandling donkeys or confronting them. After completing high school, I decided to spend time with donkeys and advocating for their welfare,” she says.
When she was a teacher, she says, she would exploit any opportunity to visit the Donkey Sanctuary on Lamu island where donkeys would be taken for checkups and treatment.
The mother of three says that to spend more time caring for donkeys, she quit her teaching profession and furthered her studies before she fully embarked on her new career.
“Immediately after completing my degree in education at Kemu, I came back to Lamu and started writing proposals to various donors on how best Lamu donkeys can be taken care of. Through such proposals, I was awarded a grant, which I fully directed into taking care of the donkeys,” she says.
When she completed her master’s degree, she formed the first donkey association in Lamu.
Since 2018, the association, under Mrs Kassim’s stewardship, has worked to end mistreatment of the animals, helping teach owners how to better take care of them.
“Donkeys are part of our heritage in Lamu. They are part of what makes Lamu a unique place and should be revered and loved and not treated otherwise,” she says.
“Just like humans, donkeys too have feelings and liberties. And that’s why the Donkey Love Association wants locals here to respect these animals. A mistreated donkey will not do you any good.”
Working with the Lamu Donkey Sanctuary, the association holds frequent outreach campaigns where donkey owners are trained on how to handle their animals.
The Lamu Donkey Sanctuary, also referred to as the Donkey Hospital, started in 1987 and takes care of sick, orphaned, old and abandoned donkeys for free.
It is located on the seafront next to Kenya Power offices.
“I’m happy that through such outreach campaigns, the cases of mistreatment against the animals have dropped,” she says.
But Mrs Kassim has a day job working as the coordinator in charge of public programmes, including offering library services and general education at Mwana Arafa in Lamu town.
But she is still fully devoted to ensuring donkeys in Lamu and the world receive the best treatment from their handlers.
Lamu Donkey Sanctuary manager Mohamed Chemusa noted that cases of donkey overloading and general mistreatment by owners across the Lamu archipelago have declined by over 85 percent.
Mr Chemusa thanked Mrs Kassim and other activists for spearheading the anti-mistreatment campaigns in the region.
“Previously, our centre could receive more than 10 cases of battered donkeys daily, with many of the donkeys normally nursing wounds inflicted from cuts, beatings and burns. I’m happy to report that those cases have dropped. We barely receive one or two cases nowadays,” he said.
Faiz Abdulrahman, the chairperson of the Lamu Donkey Owners and Users Cooperative, said they are now more aware about the rights and freedoms of their donkeys thanks to the outreach campaigns by Mrs Kassim’s and the Lamu Donkey Sanctuary.
“Through such campaigns, we now respect the rights of our donkeys and even give them offs from work. We’ve also embraced the art of giving our donkeys beautiful names like Queen, Subira, King, Laziz among others and this gives them the morale to serve us,” he said.
Donkeys are a major means of transport on the over 35 islands in the Lamu archipelago.
Lamu Old Town alone, for instance, has more than 3,000 donkeys.
The donkeys are part of the ancient features of Lamu Old Town, which is a Unesco world heritage site that continues to attract scores of tourists who come to behold its richly preserved culture and heritage.