Now sitting in my hotel room in Delhi, writing up reports, and getting ready to travel by road to Sikar, in Rajasthan tomorrow (around 7 hours in a Tata car) with one of my favourite people, the taxi driver Sadagi. I'm going up there to run a two week harness making course for the local donkey owners, whose present harness causes massive wounds to the donkeys, not only inflicting the animals with what must be agonising pain, but also putting them in a position where they actually die, often from tetanus.
It also means that our vet in the region, Dr Aveskhan, is constantly fighting a battle to treat the same wounds over and over again. It's hoped that by improving the harness, and helping the people to understand its use and their animals better, that we can tackle the cause, not treat the symptom.
This will be the first such course I have done for the Sanctuary, though I have spent many years doing similar work for other charities and I hope that it will be the forerunner of others in all our project countries, not only training the donkey owners but, hopefully, also giving Sanctuary staff the knowledge and ability to take over my role for themselves.
I've just arrived here from Ethiopia, where I did a shorter, mostly theoretical, course for some of the Sanctuary staff, vets, assistants, education officers and the existing pack saddle makers. I went there originally in April last year to asses the situation and altered the pack saddle that was in use, adding a channel, or gullet, to allow the saddle to sit either side of the dorsal process, or back bone. This area is most prone to sores and often the donkeys cannot be rested and allowed to heal. It is literally a question of the donkey's welfare or the people, in many cases - if they don't use the donkey, they don't eat or drink.
These saddles have now been in production for some time, and are currently under trial in two sites. The first, we visited before the course, in Tedecha, is situated in the Rift Valley, about an hour from our Debra Ziet base. The people from our trial village travel on foot two and a half hours to the nearest watering point where they join hundreds of others, patiently waiting for their turn to fill up 5 gallon drums, or modified lorry inner tubes with water before trekking two and a half hours back home. The whole day is taken up with this and they do the trip every other day.
As soon as we arrived, we were mobbed by people wanting to know when they could have a saddle. It seemed that nearly everyone wanted one, but, with an estimated 1,000 owners coming to this one small site every week, there is no way we can make enough from our little workshop. We hope that very soon, once we are sure that the saddle is right, we can train the people to make their own. Of course everybody is a little wary, as we rely on donations from the public, and with the current economic situation plans have to be cautious.
Back at Debra Ziet, I was busy making preparations for the course. The participating staff arrived from other project sites around Ethiopia, some were old friends from last year, some were new faces - all were eager to get started.
Personally I will admit, I had my doubts. Harness making is essentially a practical subject. It's something you absorb into your skin with practice, experience and time. I had three and a half days to turn it into a theoretical lesson and explain it clearly through a translater. As it turned out, the course went really well. All the field team workers said that they felt far more confident now about identifying which part of the harness was responsible for which type of wound. They also felt much happier about talking to the owners about their harness. The harness makers on the course had, for the first time, been allowed out of the workshop to meet the people they were working for and see their saddles actually in use. I also got them to teach some of the practical classes, where everyone made a saddle.
I'm constantly on the move now since I joined the Sanctuary a year ago, learning and passing on information... yep, I said learning. Most of the techniques I teach I have picked up from students themselves from all over the world. I don't believe in the idea of just going to a country and giving out free European style harness or in forcing people to adopt English styles and materials. As long as the end product works, I try to find locally available, cheap or free materials and use as much of the native skills as possible.
As one of my students told me, "Chris, if you'd bought me a fish I would have eaten today, but now your charity has taught me to fish, I can feed myself" (apparently many of the Muslim proverbs are the same as ours).