I recently visited our partners working in brick kilns in 3 countries, Nepal, India and Egypt where donkeys were working to haul ‘raw’ bricks from loading stations to the ovens where they get fired dry. At the loading stations bricks are stacked to get air dried and once ready, human hands load them onto the donkeys’ backs. Human hands again were used at all the ovens I visited, here to unload them from the donkey to be restacked for baking. The hands and the way they handled the donkeys varied a lot between kilns. For example, in India I met a family of men, women and children in Ahmedabad who gently handled their established group of donkeys and described their relationship with them as “like family members”. Here, it really was a case of people and donkeys working together like a team; most donkeys knew the routes and routines and actively positioned themselves to make the loading easier. Donkeys even took the initiative to walk to and fro between loading area and the oven, even when not being accompanied by a person.
I noticed the tough reality for families in several kilns where young girls were often left holding babies for their working mothers. I saw a mother who was taking a brief moment between her work loading bricks onto donkeys, to comfort and breast-feed her crying child. In a male only kiln I was told by a father who was going to be away from his family for several months that, ‘I don’t mind burning my skin and bones for my children's better future’.
In one kiln we visited in Rajakera where only men worked, teamwork was less apparent and we witnessed exhausted donkeys with heavy loads of bricks literally collapse in front of our eyes. I saw people using violence including a guy who picked up a half brick and threw it so it hit a donkey hard on its head. I spoke to Sushil, community partnership and education officer, for Donkey Sanctuary India about his work to change people's attitudes towards donkeys as well as the way they look after them in practice. His commitment to improving the underlying relationships between people and the donkeys they work alongside was apparent when he explained with a tone of disdain in his voice that, “right now, to these guys here, the donkeys are disposable; they buy them at the start of a season and sell them at the end”.
The complex pressures on the people who rely on donkey labour and the dilemmas for The Donkey Sanctuary funded field staff to overcome were easy to see. I was encouraged by the unique and creative approach I heard about when Princess Pramada from our partner Animal Nepal made a presentation at a South Asia networking meeting. They are collaborating with other organisations with different expertise in particular kilns, to ensure both donkey welfare and child welfare improvements as well as cleaner environmental standards. Uttam, the Director, took me to a kiln where there are both programmes for donkeys and donkey owners funded by us and facilities for the children funded by a collaborator through the Brick Clean Network. The idea is to also promote the sale of bricks from these improved kilns, as ‘better bricks’ and that brick kiln owners will fund similar initiatives to improve their kilns themselves. In Nepal the demand for bricks is greater than the supply and the Brick Clean Network is determined that customers will buy 'better bricks'. The brick kiln owner I spoke to was very proud to be associated with the initiative and explained that children are a concern as well as donkeys because some of the children have come across the border from India without their parents due to shortages in both labour and donkeys in the kilns of Nepal.
The Donkey Sanctuary was the first organisation to fund work with donkeys in Nepalese brick kilns, and Animal Nepal, the organisation we fund there originated the idea of developing donkey welfare standards and initiating a cross-sector network that aims to improve standards in kilns.
Brick kilns are hot and dusty environments to work in for both donkeys and people. Now I am back in the UK my chest feels tight as I imagine it would feel if I had been a smoker. I now have even more admiration for the people working and living alongside donkeys in these harsh environments. Overall it was a heart-warming experience to spend time with field staff who dedicate their work to improve the lives of donkeys and empower others to do the same.