After nearly 11 months without a spot of rain, the brick kilns in the desert south of Cairo are as dusty, harsh and unforgiving as ever. Today, I visited the kilns to see how young Egyptians are being trained and assessed to provide a service to the donkeys at the kilns, which will not only mean that more donkeys can be reached, but also that new donkey-related livelihoods are being built.
Donkeys are used to transport heavily laden carts of bricks from where they are dried in the sun to the oval-shaped kilns. The narrow doorways to the kilns are too tight for mechanised transport; only donkey carts have the agility to do the job. The kilns are complex places with unusual and sometimes shocking welfare issues affecting the hundreds of donkeys as well as many of the people who spend long, hard days making the bricks that build Cairo. The team from our Egyptian partners, the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt (SPWDME), has been tackling the complex welfare challenges in around 150 kilns with remarkable impact. The Donkey Sanctuary’s values of ‘creativity, collaboration and compassion’ are embodied in the work of the SPWDME team as it confronts the many challenges through harness improvements, farriery, behaviour and communication training and veterinary treatments, all involving ongoing dialogue, support and training with the kiln owners and workers. Earlier this year, SPWDME’s brick kiln team won The Donkey Sanctuary staff award for its strong collaborative approach.
As welfare improves at the 150 kilns currently targeted, SPWDME has been looking for ways to apply what they have learnt and widen their impact to new kilns. Of course, every extra kiln would mean less time at the existing kilns as so the SPWDME team has found an exciting way to sustain different parts of their work. Through the strong community links that have been built over the years, local service providers have been found, strengthened and supported to take on much of SPWDME’s routine work.
Today, I met two young men who SPWDME staff are training up to become local farriers in the kilns. Ahmed is a graduate in agricultural engineering and Ibrahim was previously a donkey dealer and was already well respected in the kilns. Both are now working throughout the kilns alongside the SPWDME team to learn farriery skills, gain knowledge about the confirmation and anatomy of the hoof and were eager to demonstrate their new skills. During Ahmed’s turn, it was wonderful to watch Ibrahim quietly but constantly talking to the donkey as he held it still and kept it impressively calm during the trimming. Shabaan (programme manager at SPWDME) and Moharam (SPWDME’s brick kiln team leader and previously a local kiln owner) were assessing the progress of the two apprentices, identifying their strengths and next steps in their training programmes. As well as basic farriery skills, the men are learning about donkey handling, general welfare assessments and are being involved in some of the more tricky cases so that they know how to describe them when calling SPWDME for back-up in the future. The kiln owner and stockman told us that because of SPWDME’s work, he now sees the benefits that farriery has for his donkeys and because of that, is willing to pay for the service.
Sustaining any improvements in the difficult environment of the brick kilns is a huge challenge but with people like Ibrahim and Ahmed dealing with routine hoof care, they will act as extra eyes and ears on the ground; many more donkeys can be being seen, future welfare issues can be raised with SPWDME more quickly and two more families will benefit from livelihoods that previously didn’t exist. By the end of the day, Ibrahim and Ahmed’s faces were glowing, not just from the hours of hard and very physical work in the kilns but also from the pride and encouragement being shown from the SPWDME team and kiln owner (and when I asked their permission to write a blog about them, they were utterly delighted!). I was glowing too – for me, today was a wonderful snapshot of creativity, collaboration and compassion in action.