Before I first visited the Egyptian brick kilns, I imagined a fairly simple setup with obvious ‘cause-and-effect’ donkey welfare issues. While there are indeed many causes of bad welfare, the complexity of the kilns is staggering, making work to improve the donkey’s lot incredibly challenging.
The process of making bricks in Egypt just keeps on going. Mud, sand and water are mixed in giant mechanical hoppers and the resulting clay is squeezed through machines that shape the bricks and cheese-wire slice them into the right size. Young men (there are no women at the kiln sites at all) load up trailers of the wet, grey bricks before driving them to be stacked in vast fields where they are left to dry in the hot, Egyptian sunshine. After they have dried out, the grey bricks still need to be fired in the kiln to give them strength. Because of the need to efficiently store heat, the doors on the oval, loop-shaped kilns are very small and narrow so that only a donkey cart can get in, turn around and get out again. Young boys often have the job of working the donkeys. The carts can be loaded with several hundred kilos of bricks that are pulled over soft sand, occasional fragments of brick and, in some cases, a dip in the sand at the kiln entrance. The shape of the kiln is a loop with doors all around the edges so that one part of the loop can be loaded, another can be firing and a third area can be unloaded in a never-ending cycle. Neon lamps light the kiln at night so that firing can continue around the clock if needed.
The obvious causes of poor welfare in some kilns could include poor communication, poor harness and overloaded carts. However, the apparent simplicity is deceptive; more complex factors such as length and intensity of working hours, rest, living conditions and condition of the sand also play a part. Adding to the physical and environmental factors, the provision of services such as farriery, veterinary care and harnessing plays a significant role. On top of that, the economic situation of Cairo and wider Egypt affects the demand for bricks, the availability and welfare of the workers, demand/supply of donkeys and several of the other factors already mentioned. Now, multiply these factors by the thousands of kilns, all owned by different people or groups and each with their own micro-politics. In a place where the brick kiln donkeys are so inextricably and tightly woven into the growth of the capital city, removing the donkeys from thousands of kilns isn’t an option. So where do you start working to make sure their welfare is prioritised?
When I visited one of the kilns today with Moharam (the brick kiln team leader with the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt, SPWDME), I learnt more about the multidimensional factors affecting welfare as well as the amazing, multidimensional ways they tackle the problems. He told me that he sometimes sees factors that you would expect to cause bad welfare but the donkeys look great with no wounds whatsoever, no signs of lameness and a positively happy demeanour. In other kilns where SPWDME have worked for years and have a massive impact in improving the conditions, welfare can suddenly take a surprise temporary nosedive. Moharam used to be a brick kiln owner in the area so brings a huge depth of understanding to his work and this shared experience helps him to build relationships with the kiln owners. As well as working to improve the conditions, services and care for the donkeys, he and the team track and monitor the complex challenges every day in the kilns and have learnt huge amounts in the 150 kilns they have worked in so far. The impact of their dynamic, multi-faceted work is quite remarkable and it is truly inspiring to see how the constant challenges push them towards improving their work and donkey welfare every day.