Monday, 2 November 2009

The centre of Tunisia is a whole world away from the Tunisia where tourists flock to the beaches and posh hotels.

Poor soils, dry and barren, the people struggle to make a meagre living off the land. It’s got very little going for it.

The north has more rain, better soil, forests with wood and game – the south, albeit desert, has oases packed with date palms (yielding over £200 per tree in a good year), as well as flocks of tourists streaming forth for their one-day ‘desert experience’ dressed up as Lawrence of Arabia, but with baseball cap and trainers.

But the middle? Nothing.

So, ideal territory for SPANA.

We were at the souk in Sbeitla on Wednesday – with the team from Kasserine. Still hundreds of animals, bringing people and their goods to and from the market. We treat forty-nine cases in the morning – from the usual sores and wounds, to one with a touch of pneumonia, and several ‘old soldiers’ needing their teeth rasped. Sadly, there is no injection you can give to cure old age. (I know that only too well, after I’ve spent a few hours holding up legs for the farrier).

But the biggest problem for a lot of these animals is not old age – but youth.
That is to say, not their own youth, but the youth of the stockmen put in charge of them. And to call them stockmen, is to insult that noble calling.

I stood and watched, all morning, as sad, ill-educated, brutal and frustrated teenage boys took out all their bitterness on the poor wretched donkeys and mules in their charge.

Whipping them with steel reinforcing rods, or rubber tubing – it was a great pleasure to stand at the exit from the souk with the SPANA team and confiscate all the whips, one by one.

Was I being overly-sentimental if I thought I saw a wry smile on the faces of their donkeys and mules as they trotted past?