I was full of energy at 3 o'clock this morning, pleased to be awake, dressed and eager to observe a day’s operations and donkey work in a brick kiln in El Saf, Egypt. The slow rhythmic sound of the first call to prayer of the day filled my ears as we left the house and continued loudly inside the car from the radio. It was dark but electric light revealed occasional trails of men walking to their local mosques and groups of women setting-up market goods to sell at the side of the road. As we neared the area of kilns, the landscape changed and we were constantly overtaken by open trucks carrying gangs of labourers, some still dozing despite the wind ruffling through their hair and buffeting their faces. My triumphant feeling of being on the move before dawn subsided as I realised so many were doing this as a matter of routine.
On arrival at the El Mokhatar kiln we saw work being carried out at a terrific speed. One might have been forgiven for thinking there was an emergency, but this was the normal pace. I gathered my note book and camera and rushed to the stable where boys and young men were collecting donkeys to work with them. Most of the boys leaped athletically onto the donkeys’ backs whilst others pulled them by the mane or neck and one nervous-looking boy grabbed a stick and hit the last remaining donkey several times to urge it to leave the stable with him.
Moharam, Hamed and Dr Shaaban, members of staff at The Donkey Sanctuary funded brick kiln project in Egypt, ushered me back to the car to follow the galloping donkeys, saying: “Quickly! We have to go now if you want to see them collect the harnesses”. It was a commotion of legs, dust and metal. Looking at the photograph, you might almost think it was snowing, but the blobs are particles of dust reflecting the flashlight.
Here, older boys helped the smaller younger ones fit head collars and attach metal shafts which dragged in the dust as they rode to the brick loading area. Other boys had already loaded carts full of bricks to which single donkeys were attached using the metal shafts. With the boys driving them, the donkeys hauled their first heavy load of bricks towards the oven.
Inside it was action stations. The supervisor was marking out the space to be filled by bricks into sections, one for each team. The target for the day was thus set – each team now knew which bricks to load and where to unload them. The work for these teams would end when the target was completed, the donkeys were back in their stable and the boys back in the vehicle to take them home.
During the day I visited four kilns. The project uses a traffic light system to rate the brick kilns. The fundamental assessment is of donkey welfare supported by other factors that we have learned make a difference to the lives of donkeys in kilns such as the stabling facilities, water, food, road, harnessing, and working conditions. I was told that every kiln is different but was interested to observe some differences between kilns rated red and green. The green (best) kilns I visited were by no means easy places for people or donkeys and all were working fast and hard, however there was generally a high standard of care. For example, the stockman (who manages the donkey stable) in El Salem kiln had been allocated a small plot of land by the brick kiln owner and was growing green fodder to supplement the donkeys’ diet.
The red kilns I visited were shocking. The donkeys suffered a higher number of raw open wounds from beating and poor harnessing, and there were many hoof and eye problems. The carts were loaded with more bricks (700 compared with 500) and the wheels on some of the carts were deflated or wonky making the task for the donkeys even more arduous. During the day the stockman had the job of clearing away broken bricks and I noticed that his donkey also had beating wounds. Even after the work had finished, the donkeys did not relax as much as I had seen in better kilns. A boy who had earned less than £4 that day came to complain to our project team that the corn we observed being given as feed was only provided because we were visiting and that the donkeys were normally left hungry with only straw and dust to eat. There could have been a grain of truth in that story because whilst we were in the stable talking, one donkey consumed part of my note book and I lost many meticulous notes!