Last week we were in Syria – we’ve had a SPANA project there for fifteen years now. Slightly strange place, difficult, tough government, yet the people are some of the nicest in the Middle East. They are, because of the politics, very cut off from the west, so when Diana (our Education Director) gives a Teacher Training Course (we have just produced the standard curriculum text-book on animal welfare and the environment), everyone is aching to hear and try out the latest methods.
This time we were talking with Kindergarten Teachers and of course visited several schools. Everyone sits in little desks in rows, or around the walls and the teachers shout at them, and the children have to shout the answers back.
So, when Diana sat on a chair in the middle of the room, and quietly brought them all to sit cross-legged on the floor in front of them – then made them colour-in and cut out animals themselves, - wow, caused a sensation. After two or three days of that – at a town called Raka, on the banks of the Euphrates, we headed back to Hama, across the steppe.
This was indeed the cradle of civilisation – you can still see wild ‘wheat’ and ‘barley’ growing at the side of the road – the discovery of which gave birth to farming and the ability to live in towns and do things other than look for food.
There was a Syrian Wild Ass (Onager) until the last century, and archaeologists have been digging up ancient Royal Tombs recently with donkey skeletons buried next to Princesses. I’d forgotten that donkeys were domesticated before horses and were of course very much revered then. Apparently these are onager/donkey hybrids, called ‘kungas’ that were used to pull war-chariots and carriages with images of the Gods.
But crossing the steppe, you see the Bedouin with their flocks of Awassi fat-tailed sheep (for milking), and the flock leader is always a donkey. They wander slowly across the usually parched landscape, shepherds trailing behind. Not much change there in the last five thousand years.
Then at last we get a chance to get out and about – with the mobile clinics going round the farms and villages, treating donkeys, mules and horses. After good winter rains, the countryside looks stunning – everywhere is dazzling green, but with wildflowers filling the verges and cornfields. And something I’d never seen before, a donkey mare with twins !
So, after a horrific trip home – late night drive to Amman in Jordan, 3am flight to Frankfurt before changing for London – it’s on to the main, terrifying, business of the week.
Three of us, wearing seventeen kilogram donkey-model outfits are doing the London Marathon, this Sunday, 26th April. Twenty six miles ! (42 kilometres) I must be mad, at my age. But the story is, I’m representing all the poor old, worn-out donkeys of Africa that have to work like that every day.
And quite spooky really. I had a much-loved uncle who was killed in the First World War, near Ypres in 1915. He was a keen runner, and I have a silver cup awarded to him for winning a marathon race.
I feel he is looking down at me, shaking his head sadly, as he watches my pathetic efforts.
He was killed in action on April 26th.