Amid clouds of flour dust, heavy sacks of flour are loaded straight onto a donkeys’ back, still hot from the mill. The workers notice the hot flour burning the donkey’s skin, but for most of them, this is taken as a par for the course. It’s a hard day’s work for everyone in this busy part of Mekelle, capital of the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia.
There are around 60 mills in the city. To carry grain from the market and flour to customers, donkeys are the most widely preferred mode of transport with seven donkeys working at each mill. According to Gereasay Woldu, Harness Officer at The Donkey Sanctuary in Ethiopia’s Tigray project, up until recently none of them used a pack saddle, which protects the back of a working equine from the weight of the load it is carrying and, in the case of flour at the mills, from the heat.
Pack saddles vary from country to country with some placing X-shaped pieces of wood on the animal’s back to take loads like water containers or to pull carts, adding padding underneath to protect the skin. In Ethiopia many donkey owners use pack saddles made from sack cloth to prevent damage from jagged cargo like firewood. Without pack saddles, there is nothing to protect the donkeys from the load rubbing against their skin.
At the mills in Mekelle, as Gereasay discovered, the lack of pack saddles was causing sores and wounds in the majority of the donkeys. When he asked the mill owners why they weren't using them the typical response was defensive and aggressive.
“They gave answers like ‘donkeys are donkeys, pack saddles are too fancy for them’, ‘that’s none of your business’, and ‘we don’t know anything about pack saddles’,” Gereasay says.
There was one exception; a mill owner called Roman.
“I know how much hot flour hurts the donkeys’ backs. It even burns our hands when we load the donkeys,” she says. “I was happy to start making pack saddles for each of the donkeys at my mill.”
Together with her employees, Roman headed to The Donkey Sanctuary in Ethiopia’s Tigray office to learn how to make a pack saddle. After the training, she headed home with seven pack saddles for her donkeys, but she didn't stop there. She met with other mill owners in the city and tried to convince them too.
To date she has managed to change the minds of over a third of the mill owners in Mekelle, including Tekeste Abreha, who owns five mills in the city. Now three quarters of all the donkeys working at the mills have pack saddles.
Roman has continued championing donkey welfare by developing a set of regulations for her own mill. The rules state new donkeys should be trained before they start work, all workers should groom the donkeys, all donkeys with health problems should get veterinary attention and, of course, all workers should load the donkeys using pack saddles.
None of the donkeys at her mill suffer from back sores - a change for the better which she hopes will one day be true of all the mills in Mekelle.