Monday, 17 December 2007

Fingerless in Mauritania

Our illustrious chairman, Derek Knottenbelt did a couple of training courses at our new Centre in Casablanca – what a difference the greening grass and trees that we planted in the spring makes. It was great to watch this all-consuming teacher inspire our technicians with his enthusiasm and skill. Although watching him clean an abscess in a horse’s eye, with a tiny hooked needle, sent little shivers of horror down through my stomach, it was soon time to leave the delights of a wintry Morocco, and head for our next rendez-vous, in Nouakchott, Mauritania.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Air Mauritanie (motto: ‘It’s always Ramadan with Air Mauritanie’), has gone belly up. Huge unpaid bills for aviation fuel all over the place. So, it’s back to good old Royal Air Maroc. But why do they have to fly everywhere at three o’clock in the morning ?

So after a pretty grim three or four hours we decamp into the mighty Nouakchott International Airport at four am. Not great. Plus due to a general cock-up in the planning, there is not only no-one to meet us, we have no local money, and when we finally arrive in the very picturesque taxi, there are no rooms in the hotel. Well, to cut a long story short, with a mixture of cajoling and bullying, we eventually found a few rooms spread around the town and crawled thankfully into bed.

Nouakchott is the city where we are working with the fifty thousand donkeys that get the Whatsit beaten out of them as they haul barrels of water around the town. Not easy. The youngsters that work them come from some of the poorest stratas of society on earth. But it’s not good to be a donkey worked by youngsters – who take out all their frustrations, angst and testosterone on their wretched charges.
( There’s a local proverb, the donkey says – ‘if children go to heaven, I don’t want to go there’).

So we’re running a major campaign to try and change things – we’ve done a harness course to make thousands of cheap head collars and reins – so the drivers don’t have to beat them round the head to steer them – and a bit of ‘PR’ in the form of a TV sketch, where the kids play football and compare it to their work ,and (hopefully) football stars tell them it isn’t cool to knock seven bells out of your animals. Oh, plus the usual stuff of competitions and prizes for best donk, prettiest animal, best team etc. Nothing like a bit of bribery.

But sometimes you wonder if those donkeys know whose side we’re on. We’re out at one of the water points with the mobile clinic, treating wounds, trimming feet, fitting the (free!) comfy head collars, when Whammo ! One of the little so-and-sos bites off the tip of our vet’s finger.

Understandably a bit ashen-faced, he’s helped into the Landrover.

‘Did anyone pick up my finger ?’ he asks plaintively.

I didn’t like to tell him I think the donk ate it.


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