Horse Power

“We have skipped an important step” the man said thoughtfully, a moment after we had just arrived and after I finished introducing myself. He was seated on a sofa in the living room of a house located not too far away from the Beeston suburb of Nottingham. We had just met, and I was escorting one of my Nottingham based friends to this house to see another of his friends. In total, there were 7 older men seated on the sofas about the living room, of whom I only knew one. Our arrival just made the place even more crowded  making it necessary for them to fetch two dinning set chairs from the dinning room, just so we had somewhere to sit, which unfortunately was in front of the television, blocking out its view.

“Yes, because for America, and even Europe, horses had been an important mode of transportation that had a significant impact on the economic development of their countries.”

We had found them talking about the importance of transport to development of a country after recent reports of fuel shortages in Malawi.

“It enabled people to travel, to carry their goods to the market, to access markets further away from their farms or factories” someone else said

“They were even used by soldiers during wars” another man said. He continued “But in our countries in Africa, including Malawi, we have jumped this essential step in our development even when few of our people can afford to buy bicycles.”

“Eh komabe bicycles are of very little use in this sense. Yes they can transport people, but they can’t carry all your produce to the market, can they?” someone else asked, responding to the others. “Bicycles can only carry a few things at a time. What we need in Malawi, is for every farming family in the rural areas to have two horses and a carriage, even if they can afford a car, just in case we have problems with fuel”

“That’s  a good point madala,  we complain when we have fuel shortages, has anybody asked how countries such as the US survived before the car was invented?” another declared sarcastically “Why not encourage use of alternative transport such as horses, especially in the rural areas, then they can use their manure to fertilise their farms so that we have better crops, you can’t go wrong with that? That’s how other countries started”


Having read up on this topic several years previously, I pointed out  – after most of the men had expressed their views – that in the US, horses were so essential that the horse population in 1927 exceeded 23 million animals. Even in the UK, horses had been important to their way of life. In fact, there had been such a rapid equine population growth that in 1894 the Times of London estimated that by 1950, every street in the city of London would be buried in 9 feet of horse dung. It was much later after the railways and the automobile came along that the horse population began to sharply decline.

[Read HORSES ARE IMPORTANT TO LOCAL ECONOMY ; and From Horse Power to Horsepower , 2007, by Eric Morris ( at the time a Ph.D student studying transportation at University of California) which includes the words: “After all, the horse had been the dominant mode of transportation for thousands of years. Horses were absolutely essential for the functioning of the nineteenth century city—for personal transportation, freight haulage, and even mechanical power. Without horses, cities would quite literally starve” While there clearly were numerous challenges, it seems there was a phase when horses provided many advantages ]

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“And they can also be used for meat, so that would be a bonus” another man said.

I noted that in the US, there had recently been some complaints (Also see this titled “American West running out of room for wild horses”) regarding the size of the wild horse population.

[“Currently the Wild Horse and Bureau Program spends about $50 million a year just to feed the animals held in captivity. That’s around 70 percent of its annual budget, and horses in captivity live up to 25 years. When it comes to other grazing animals like deer, elk and bison, hunting acts as a substitute for natural predation. Source: ]

Maybe, just maybe this could be an opportunity for poorer countries in Africa. In any case, horses were imported into the US from Europe, and they in turn had been sourced from Asia and Arabia, possibly even from Libya, according to some sources. So for an African government to ask the US or other country for 20,000 horses and donkeys in aid wouldn’t be such a crazy idea after all. I thought it would  create jobs, for the huge logistical operation in transferring the animals from the US to Africa, there would be a requirement of trainers that are skilled in domestication of wild horses, workshops for creating the carriages, artisans for building the stables, training of local veterinary staff for their care, manufacturers of animals feed [who could also produce feed for cattle, goats and other animals], young unemployed men who earn a living by running bicycle taxis would suddenly have horse power to help them in their trade; it could possibly spur sporting events; in summary, besides creating employment opportunities for thousands of people, a whole new industry would emerge. All this would occur while reducing reliance of the rural population on petroleum, and while creating efficiencies in farming and agriculture which could pave way for economic development, or at least a more manageable lifestyle.

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I wondered, putting aside the medical considerations of equestrian health – which I knew made horses slightly more demanding than cattle to look after – how practical or useful horses would be to the rural farming population in Malawi? What impact would they have on transport and agriculture in the rural areas considering they were faster and more agile? Would it not improve – to an extent – the quality of lives and efficiency of farmer families? Would it not help women in rural areas, some of whom have to carry heavy loads for many miles each day? Would it not reduce the prevalence of child labour, in that instead of making children  (or women) do physically demanding work [see Struggle for Water and  Where the Water meets the Sky], the horses could now be used to go collect the water, the firewood, the crops, transport food to and from the market, for policing, transportation of sick people to hospitals (which are sparse and located  in districts, centrally and tens of miles away from some settlements ). Couldn’t horses be used to escort the children to school every morning? [Ugandan Children Walking Miles and Climbing Mountains for their Education (and Cricket!)] Surely, if you can’t afford a car or a bicycle…an alternative form of transport that does not involve fuel or maintenance expenses has got to be an attractive option?

While some people would argue that doing so would be regressive, yet considering that (i) Fuel prices are constantly on the rise in third world countries like Malawi, and most poor people in the rural areas have to walk long distances for one thing or another; and (ii) how petroleum has ‘enslaved’ the  western world, creating tensions between countries, and has been the root cause of several recent military conflicts that have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, shouldn’t finding alternative forms of transport that does not use petroleum fuels be encouraged?

In my view, less reliance on petroleum for rural area families would be tantamount to giving a community a fishing rod, instead of a fish and would be much more constructive than food handouts. Further, couldn’t it be described as an ecofriendly form of transportation, doing a lot less damage to the environment than motor vehicles? To prevent the problems described in the article by Eric Morris cited above, a licensing regime could be established and measures undertaken to ensure that certain standards are maintained and the animal populations do not grow out of control, all of which would also provide employment.

I thought all this because I knew only too well what growing up in the village had been, my mother having been born and raised in the rural parts of Rumphi,in Northern Malawi, where there was no transport, where children collected the water and the firewood, often travelling long distances to do so, and where in her case, she had to wake up at 4a.m. and spend 4 hours walking to school and back each week day, just to get an education.

As a teenager, during summer holiday seasons, I would visit my grandmother in Rumphi, where I remember spending many days out with my Aunt and cousins harvesting corn. We would go out early in the morning, on bicycles and make trips from the field, about 2 miles away, to the house, carrying bags of maize which we would empty into a thatched silos made of sticks, grass, bamboo sticks (i think) and mud.

Children from the Tarna village climb on a grain silo in southern Niger in 2010

On each trip, we would each carry one or two bags of dry maize cobs, balanced and affixed to the bicycle carrier using rubber strands.  We would then cycle the 2 miles to grandmother’s house and after we had emptied the cobs into the silos, we would return back to the field to fetch some more corn. In the summer heat and dust of Hewe, there were times when we would make 8 or 9 round trips a day, which in the end left you not only clobbered, but thirsty, hungry, sweaty, oily and extremely dusty.  In these conditions, a horse-drawn carriage would have made a world of a difference.


1. A Brief History Of Horses 

2. Horse History : A Bibliography

3. Nigeria: Why Donkeys Are Beyond the Reach of Northern Farmers

4. Khama to donate 150 cattle to Malawi

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