Hi it's me again! I'd like to tell you a bit more about our work in the brick kilns of Egypt, but I'm not quite sure how to begin. I think I'd like to start by taking you back to my first month at the Sanctuary. I was supposed to have been going straight into Kenya, but, as you may remember, in January of last year they were in the middle of a political row that led to killings and massacres in many of the areas that we work in, and, two days before I was due to leave, the Sanctuary decided I shouldn't go.
Instead I was asked to spend some time in the office and develop some insight into the policies and programmes that had been done over the years. I also had to prepare for an International meeting of all the heads of departments in all the five countries. During the week that they were over, I had to give a presentation on harness.
Right, I'm a pretty simple country boy at heart, I found my trade, saddlery, by accident, 20 odd years ago, and drifted into teaching, through the R.D.A., and a little time teaching light leather work to additional needs kids in Walsall, and, 7 years ago, on impulse, applied to train overseas for another charity, at the same time, building up my little rural saddlery in Shropshire. None of this really prepared me to stand up in front of the 'big boys and girls' who run our overseas department!
I love three things - my family, my trade and teaching, and, since most of my experience in the last is from working overseas, I've developed a style that depends less on the spoken word than on visual, and physical demonstration. I decided that there was no reason to change that. Two things still make me smile when I think of that talk - one was having them pushing each other around in wheelbarrows, one with flat tyres, to demonstrate cargo balance, cart maintenance, etc and the other was when I asked them all for their pens. I'd been given a batch of free, very cheap and nasty biros, with flat bodies. I told them that man had been developing the writing implement for thousands of years, and that this pen was far more efficient, comfortable, and user friendly. I collected quite a range of pens off them and handed out the 'new' type, then carried on with my lecture. There were some very puzzled looks, but, being the great bunch of people they are, no one said a word. At the end of my time I was preparing to leave when a voice asked "excuse me Chris, can I have my pen back please?". "No," I replied, "can't you understand that the pen I've given you is far more suited to your needs than yours was. I've done you all a big favour here today. Use those pens, you'll thank me one day!" Of course, no one was happy, and I had to return all the pens.
By now you're all totally confused, if you've read this far, and wondering what I'm waffling on about.
Often, when we go into a community, we can immediately spot the problems - that donkey needs vitamins, this donkey has wounds caused by that part of the harness, the cart is the wrong design, etc, etc. That's the easy part. Getting people to accept that is the real crux of the matter. Going in and simply dishing out new ideas doesn't work.
I hear comments at home referring to these communities as cruel, uneducated, and unfeeling. I see far greater examples of love and caring amongst the overseas communities than I ever see at home. Uneducated, yes, in our sense. One of my students in Africa, on his first day, told me that all whites think he and his people are stupid, because he had only had a very basic schooling. I asked him two questions, how many languages could he speak, and how long he thought I'd survive if I was to go out into the bush? "Seven languages (including French and English), and, maybe two days" he replied. "OK, so here, in your world, who is the stupid one?" I asked.
So, back to the present, in Egypt, at last! I'm here, as part of the team, doing a Base Line Survey. We've been visiting brick kilns, asking questions, looking at harness, education, beliefs, necessities, etc. On top of the kilns where we are already known, we've also gone into quite a few new kilns, and communities, taking up their time, no doubt getting in the way of their work, and probably being a pain to all concerned, meetings with owners, stockmen, foremen, the boys who drive the donkeys, day after day. We've been going here for a long time now, and whilst we've made a lot of progress, and helped hundreds of donkeys, the fundamental problems still remain (they keep wanting their old pens back). This is the problem we are now trying to address. But what reaction have we met? If I had to sum it up in one word it would be 'Welcome' we know we've got a problem, what can we do?
Some of the kiln owners have already made many attempts to ease the donkeys' workloads. One man had laid out a complicated system of storage areas, and roads that ensured that all the heavy loads were pulled down hill to the kilns, even rebuilding the roads so that the donkeys had it easier. Another example was a kiln where there were lots of spare donkeys, so that, in theory at least, they worked one day on, one day off. One had tried to mechanise the system, not using donkeys at all, but it hadn't worked. Most of the owners I've met had returned to the kilns after qualifying and working in completely different trades. One man had been a submersible pump expert, working on the oil rigs, another, a teacher, educated, capable men, trying to do what they could to balance running a family business, looking after the staff, and the donkeys in whatever way they could in a harsh world, dominated by the hundreds of towering stacks, the dust, heat and wind, and the ever constant need to keep the bricks flowing. Looking for answers, but hemmed in by tradition, culture and economic pressures, but certainly not unfeeling, stupid, or cruel.