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The Day of the Jackass
By Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, September 2007



During the late sixties and early seventies the domesticated donkey used to be a common sight in and around Sisters Village. At any given time one of them might be seen pulling a two-wheel wooden cart with produce to or from the local market or just wandering aimlessly around the fields and parapets without harnesses, scrounging for anything edible. If they were not seen it was only a matter of time before they were heard. Asses love to bray. Why? Legend has it that after hiding for years in Egypt, Joseph, Mary’s husband, decided to move his family back to Nazareth. But one night as they camped along the side of the road they fell asleep and no one but their donkey heard the sound of Herod’s soldiers approaching horses. Concerned that the soldiers were coming to kill Jesus, the donkey neighed to wake Joseph. It neighed repeatedly but its voice was just too soft to wake the sleepers. Finally, as the soldiers approached closer, the donkey prayed for a loud voice to wake the family. When he neighed again, he was rewarded with the loud bray such as donkeys have had ever since. Well, this one thing was for sure: the donkeys at Sisters Village were neither shy nor religious. These critters brayed simply because they loved to hear the sound of their voices. They were the ones who gave rise to the saying that ‘every ass loves to hear itself bray’.

The donkeys that roamed around the village stood about three to five feet tall at the shoulder and wore a brush-tipped tail about seventeen inches long. Some of them weighed nearly five hundred pounds. The color of their coats varied between gray and reddish brown but their wiry manes were always dark and their ears disproportionately long in relation to their bodies. Their feet were small but with sharp hooves and they were always grazing gluttonously as though they had bottomless stomachs.

In some other places livestock farmers employed them to keep watch over sheep and goats because they were supposed to make good babysitters. Once a donkey has established a bond with a herd it will protect it against canine predators as it would one of its own. It would make its bed with the animals at night and if it hears any strange noise it will voice a warning to the herd and would even chase down and trample the predator. As expected this instinct to serve and protect often provokes jealousy in dogs, who, understandably so, are made to feel a diminished sense of worth because someone else has infringed on their vocation. And it is for this reason that donkey also hates dogs. Nevertheless, but for their aversion to dogs, the donkey is a pretty likeable animal and for this reason often finds itself endeared to little children. In Sisters Village, however, donkeys were mostly employed as beasts of burden. For the mostly poor residents of the village they were a much more economical means of moving cargo from one place to another.

The donkeys of Sisters Village also had relatives living not too far away, at Plantation Wales Estate, but the latter were either unaware of the family connection or were at variance with them because they claimed to be a superior breed. In any event who could blame the donkey for refusing to believe that he was actually of the same gene pool as that of a horse? Admittedly the horse was a creature much prettier, taller, sleeker, faster, and more gallant, and one that could boast participation in numerous wars through the centuries, before there were planes and tanks and jeeps and weapons of mass destruction. But was it not donkey’s ancestors who pulled the wagon trains that opened up the American West? Was not the great wealth of the Egyptians due to the precious metals that donkeys carried from Africa? Was it not donkeys that carried the wool to the rail head that South Australia exported in the 19th century? And did the British choose horses to work on the beaches? No sir, donkeys had a monopoly on English beaches. Besides, while horse may boast of his chivalry in war it really wasn’t as intrepid as it made people believe. Donkey had seen how in times of panic or danger horse would run away. Admittedly, donkey was not fearless either and in fact would freeze when frightened but it had an explanation for its weakness and that is that it evolved in rugged desert terrain and fleeing in times of danger simply wasn’t possible. Besides, even horse must admit that the presence of donkey has a calming effect on it. If, for example, a horse’s foal had been separated from its mother it would look to donkey for support. Why, there was even a time when donkey was a status symbol of their owners’ wealth, like a Rolls Royce is today. And there was a time when donkey’s milk was seen as medicinal and was given to premature babies and sick children and to people suffering from tuberculosis. Indeed, donkey’s milk contains more sugar and protein than cow’s milk and, yes, weight-watchers, less fat. And who could lay a charge at donkey’s hoof for refusing to accept that he was genetically related to the mule – a less attractive, slower and more stubborn animal? The donkey, for want of pride, would not want to associate with either of his cousins. And so, horse, donkey and mule would pass each other in the pastures without saying a yea or nay (or is that bray or neigh?) to each other.

This is not to say that the horse did not also take offense at the allusion to its racial connection to the donkey. Horse was a proud animal. It did not have ears that were disproportionate to the size of its head. Its neck was characteristically straighter and it did not have a double-curve muscled haunch. Its mane and tail were not coarse and upright and did not end in a tasseled switch. Horse had a true forelock. Added to this, horse did not have a raspy, brassy bray, the characteristic Aw-EE, Aw-EE sound and unlike donkey did not enjoy braying and sounding off at any opportunity. And horse, unlike donkey, had a natural waterproof coat and so did not have to run for shelter every time it rained.

Despite their differences, however, horse and donkey were often forced to become mates, albeit for a short while. These unions took place whenever there was an animal labor shortage on the sugar estates. While the donkey could boast of its ability to carry a full-size human over a considerable distance, and its ability to survive on little food and water for long periods, it was smart enough to know that it could not move a six-ton steel punt full of sugar cane. And while the horse could gallop at breathtaking speeds over the plains and in the fields it was well aware of its limitations in pulling heavy cargo over bridges and hills. And so, in spite of their differences the two of them realized they had little option but to cooperate if they wanted to save themselves from harsh punishment, and so, together they sired the mule. The mule owes its existence to the donkey because of its willingness to mate with the high caste horse, or to the high caste horse’s willingness to condescend to donkeys of low estate – depending of course whose side you are on.

Now, among the curious residents of Sisters Village was an energetic adolescent boy named Hamza Ali. Hamza loved the movies, especially Westerns with his favorite stars, Audie Murphy and the Lone Ranger, beating up on the bad guys. He loved the way the cowboys galloped into the desert, scaled mountainous terrain, dodged rattlesnakes, bullets and arrows, all the while controlling their horses like true masters. Since his infatuation with westerns began he had always wondered what it felt like to be atop a horse. But as he was only four feet nine inches tall, skinny and much too short to tackle a horse, he decided to settle for a donkey. Besides, he had made the determination from observation that donkey was docile and that he could be taken for a ride – literally, whereas horse had to be broken in by a professional before it would let anyone aboard. So he confided in his best friend, Kamal, a shorter squat boy who lived down the street and with whom he had many an adventure in the pastures, his desire to ride a donkey. Together they had snared birds with chewing gum; knocked down mangoes with bricks, bagged wild ducks with slingshots, and caught fish with makeshift seines. The two of them were inseparable and when they walked side by side down the street they looked like Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza.

The opportunity to take donkey for a ride came when Mansingh’s donkey defied the school sign that threatened to prosecute trespassers and squeezed its way through a hole in the fence and into the schoolyard. The grass in the schoolyard was much greener from outside the fence than it actually was and sign or no sign, donkey was not going to be deterred. Besides, he could always plead illiteracy. Unfortunately for donkey, his act of defiance took place on the very day that Hamza’s desire to ride a donkey was at its zenith. With school out and his chores completed he had nothing to do on that hot August day and so he, as his custom was, whenever he was bored, jumped on his father’s Hercules bicycle and went for a ride. He rode aimlessly, along the grass track that led to the community center, took two laps around the police station, then turned around and headed in the direction of his school building. He was surprised at how eerily quiet the school compound and playground had become now that school was out. It was like an abandoned settlement. He stopped his bicycle beside the locked gate, leaned against the fencing, and listened to the sound of the breeze passing around the buildings. Then he saw it.

Appearing from behind the stairs was Mansingh’s young donkey. It was so preoccupied with grazing on the clumps of grass alongside the west end of the school building that it never once lifted up its head to take notice that the eyes of a young adventurous boy had taken notice of it. Without hesitation Hamza banked his bicycle around and started pumping pedals like he was being chased by a demon and headed straight for Kamal’s home. Still two houses away he began to shout at the top of his lungs, “Kamal!” Come quick!” Kamal appeared instantly at the window, as though he was expecting Hamza, and cried, “What happened?”

“We got him!”

“Got who?”

“Mansingh’s donkey. He is trapped in the schoolyard.”

“Mansingh’s donkey? Are you crazy? If Mansingh catches us he will put some good licks on us and then drag us to our parents. Remember what he did to Bisin? He made Bisin go down on his knees in front of all the boys and beg for mercy and call him daddy. Now everybody is asking him who is his daddy?”

“Don’t worry. I don’t think Mansingh knows that his donkey is in the schoolyard. I saw Mansingh selling ground provisions at the market earlier this morning. Besides, it is the last place he will look because he will see that the school gate is closed.”

“So how did the donkey get into the schoolyard?”

“Must be through a hole somewhere. But who cares? He cannot get out. You want a ride?”

“Yes.”

“Well, let us go! It’s now or never. Come on!”

Hamza leaned the bicycle so Kamal could juxtapose his stout bottom unto the wooden handlebar, then he took five running steps and mounted the bicycle and off they went, wobbling and shimmying, all the way to the schoolyard. “There he is!” Hamza shouted as he dragged his left foot on the grass to bring the bicycle to a stop. They dismounted, tossed the bicycle into the dry ditch and scaled the fence. Well, Hamza scaled the fence. Kamal had to be pulled over it. Donkey was indifferent to the commotion that was taking place sixty yards away. He kept grazing. The boys plopped themselves down into the grass besides the chain link fencing. “We need a strategy,” Kamal said.

“Strategy for what? We just walk up slowly to him, you grab him by the reins, and I mount him. That’s all the strategy we need. It’s easy. Come on!”

Well, it wasn’t as easy as Hamza predicted. The donkey stopped grazing and raised its head as it saw them approaching. Then he backed up a few steps as if he suspected they were up to some mischief.

“Don’t look at him!” Hamza ordered, “walk backwards like when you come home from wake house and don’t want jumbie to follow you and look away as if you are not interested in him.”

A battle of wits began. The boys stooped down and looked away, playing with clumps of dirt and grass. But donkey was not fooled. He backed away and eventually sauntered off to the far corner of the fence and then began to graze again. The boys followed suit, played the same game of feigned disinterestedness, and donkey responded by moving again to another part of the schoolyard. The pursuit continued until Kamal became impatient. “Hurry, I have to go home. My mother will be looking for me.”

“Okay. It looks like we will have to make a charge at donkey. Here is what we will do. You stand over there beside the stairs. I will chase him into the corner and then jump on. Here goes. “Giddyup! Go donkey!” he shouted as he clapped his hands and waved the donkey in the direction he wanted him to go. After much screaming and yelling they finally cornered donkey between the uprights that supported the platform and Hamza climbed aboard, clumsily, as donkey was not a willing participant in this exercise. When Hamza had finally settled himself and felt he was ready for his first ride he motioned to Kamal to release the reins. Then he bent low, held donkey’s neck in a chokehold and began to jam his heels into donkey’s lower belly in the manner as he had seen Willo the stable master do when he wanted his horse to gallop. Donkey took off suddenly, but in reverse, and scraped its cargo off its back as it rammed into the underside of the staircase. Hamza slid off as easily as if he was on a water slide and presently found himself in a patch of black sage bush. Then donkey charged forward and crashed into Kamal, knocking him into the dirt. Hamza rose up, his ego bruised and a swelling rapidly forming on the back of his head, but more determined than ever to get his ride.

This time, with no subtlety in their approach, and with caution thrown to the wind, they forced donkey alongside the standpipe. Then Hamza climbed on top the standpipe and lunged for the animal. Just before he landed on its back the donkey moved away and he fell, slamming his face into the donkey’s belly and having his head banged by two sets of hooves as donkey charged off into the northern corner of the schoolyard.

Not one to suffer defeat at the hands of a little donkey, Hamza became even more determined to succeed in his quest for a donkey ride. By this time the donkey was clearly becoming agitated with the two young boys. But Hamza did not care. Pride was now at stake. It was he, a resilient young man, versus it, a stubborn jackass. Besides, Audie Murphy and the Lone Ranger would never throw in the towel that easily. With Kamal’s help they finally dragged the donkey in an enclosure next to the chain link fencing, where Hamza scaled the fence and jumped unto the back of the animal, in Zorro style. But he did not land like Zorro. He landed facing the rear of the animal. And the donkey, perhaps suspecting that his rider could not see what was ahead of him, ran towards the part of the school building that was elevated about five feet off the ground, enough for the donkey to pass under, but not with cargo on its back. The donkey ran right under the elevation and literally scraped Hamza off its back, as though he was a pesky barnacle. Unable to see the danger ahead and to take the necessary precautions, Hamza slammed back of the head first into the greenheart siding and then dropped like a stone unto his bottoms. The donkey then backed up from under the elevation, over him, and dropped a hoof unto his belly as if it was a parting shot. His forehead was already swollen from the fall from the standpipe and now with the back of his head swelling up from the hit on the wall, his head was beginning to look like a jackhammer.

Refusing to surrender to this docile animal, and racing against time, the two caballeros finally brought the beast under control. Or so they thought. Feeling emboldened by the donkey’s apparent surrender they decided to up the ante and take the donkey for a run and a jump across the four-foot drain that separated the school grounds from the cane fields. Hamza had seen movies with scenes of steeplechases and always boasted that if he ever had a horse he would make it jump high and far. The donkey was not a horse but still they figured that the donkey should be able to make it over the four-foot trench. Grabbing hold of the neck of the donkey and laying low more out of fear than for aerodynamic efficiency, he shouted for Kamal to clap lash on the donkey’s underside. Kamal did, with a rough whip fashioned from black sage, and the donkey charged, violently forward, but as it neared the trench it put the brakes on and skidded on its hind parts, it front legs digging into the grass and mud, and it catapulted its cargo into the four foot trench. Hamza was fortunate indeed that the four-foot was half full with water after a rainstorm earlier that day. He scrambled out, wet, angry, and more determined to tame the beast. But he would have to wait another day for although they were about a quarter of a mile away from home they could hear Kamal’s mother calling out his name. “Kamal, come for your breakfast and don’t make me call again,” she yelled through the sweltering humidity.

Don Quixote and his sidekick were knocked down but not out. Before mounting the bicycle they took one look back at donkey and noticed that he was looking at them, defiantly, mockingly, as if to say, “So you think you were going to get a free ride, eh? Well, not today. Not on this ass!”

As for Hamza, he had learned two important lessons about the donkey and those were: one, that donkeys are slower and less powerful than horses and have a strong sense of survival. If they deem something to be dangerous they simply will not do it. They prefer to do what is good for the donkey, which is not always what the human thinks is best, especially when it comes to getting their feet wet. And the other lesson he learned is that donkeys can gallop but only if dinner is being served.

Hamza swallowed his pride, reluctantly, and gave up the quest for a donkey ride, at least for the moment. It was donkey’s day. Tomorrow will be another day. He sprang aboard his bicycle and began to pedal away from the schoolyard, slowly at first and then as if his life depended on it. He had learned an important lesson that day: Not every donkey is an ass.
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