When we post about our international work to improve donkey/mule welfare, there are often people who simply can’t believe how or why the animals end up in the situations that they are in. Some people express real anger towards the owners or handlers of the animals but the reality is that the lives of the people in many areas that we work are also extremely hard as a result of poverty, economic crisis and very poor living conditions. This really hit home for me on my recent trip to Egypt where I travelled with staff from our partner project, the Egyptian Society for the Protection and Welfare of Working Animals, to some of the brick kiln sites where they are trying hard to improve conditions for the working animals.
The brick kilns are busy places, where all workers, human and animal, are under extreme pressure to reach targets of producing large number of bricks every day. The kilns are in the desert, in hot, dry, dusty conditions with black smoke billowing from the chimneys, churning clouds of pollution into the sky. The majority of the workers are children and young men, dashing to and from the kiln oven with donkey carts laden with bricks, the loads so heavy that the donkeys struggle to move at all as they are asked to start pulling. Their sad, distant eyes show you how much suffering they have already endured and how they have become so switched off to the world.
But what struck me most at one of the kilns was the tiny size of one of the young boys working there – his name was Mohammed, just 10 years old. He was busy helping with the cutting of the bricks, throwing damaged bits up onto the conveyor belt which takes the rubbish away to be remoulded into a new brick once again. His wide, bright smile was enough to melt anyone’s heart and matched that of any 10 year old child you might meet around the world. Except this boy had no chance of a real childhood, his youth stripped away as he started work at just 9 years old, carrying out 8 to 10 hour shifts in this most hostile of environments. Mohammed loved my camera – it was clear he was a cheeky little lad, still full of childish fun despite the adult world he has been thrust into. He took a couple of minutes to leave his work station and ask for his photo to be taken, then one of him with his friends, and of all the other workers too. It was so wonderful to see his great big smile as he looked at the photos we had taken that I offered him my camera to take some photos himself. He relished this chance and it was wonderful to give him that brief instant of childish fun as a momentary break from the hardship of his work. As I watched him go back to his work station I struggled to hold back the tears, wishing that he could be given back his childhood to play, learn and enjoy his young years. Despite my internal struggle, he reached his station and continued to do his work with the beautiful ear to ear grin lighting up his little face. For young boys in the kilns I am told that they feel they gain a sense of manhood – an ability to earn themselves money which makes them into a ‘bigger man’.
So yes, the donkeys have hard lives and our partners around the world are working extremely hard to improve conditions for them through training local service providers such as farriers and harness makers, providing veterinary treatments for the animals and education for brick kiln owners and workers. Their efforts are evident in the kilns were they have worked but there are many more kilns we have not yet been able to reach. Brick kilns present a complex system with multiple stakeholders; we are doing everything we can to improve conditions for the animals in the brick kilns, but please also spare a thought for the people who are faced with these challenging circumstances too.
Written by Anna Saillet, Lead-Behaviour