El Gee - a Tale of a Moroccan Donkey

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A picture of two donkeys on the beach in Morocco


In days of yore, before the car, one travelled on the back.

Of donkey, horse or camel, and occasionally a yak.

The journeys could be tedious, and many hours would pass,

So saddlers hit the jackpot, taking pain out of the ass.

Part II - Saddlery for Beginners

El Gee having settled in and rather taken over our lives, my first
task was to make our new baby some form of rope halter. The standard
method of tethering donkeys in Morocco is to tie a piece of
polypropylene rope round one of their front legs. This soon wears a
festering sore, and in a short time cuts right down to the cannon
bone. It is beyond me why there are not more three-legged donkeys

It's either that or 'hobble' them - also with polyprop rope - and
there are few things more pathetic than watching a Moroccan donkey
trying to mimic a kangaroo. I was not having either for El-Gee and
thus set about researching a new skill.

Being totally ignorant on the subject of tack, the first step was to
scour the Internet and find if there was anything remotely relevant.
As ever, Google turned up trumps and I downloaded a nice, neat PDF
file with all the necessary pictures, as well as diagrams of how to
tie the knots for everything from a miniature donkey to a shire horse.
All I needed to do was to tie all the knots in the right place along a
3m length of suitably sized rope – almost anything other than
polypropylene, which, apart from cutting the donkey, is almost
impossible to tie any form of knot that stays tied for longer than
five minutes. I hate the stuff.

Once again, I found myself thanking Tara for her 'collecting'. Amongst
all her rubbish there was a skein of stout cotton tape – the sort used
by upholsterers for edging binding. The real surprise was that it was
there at all, as there are several members of the tribe who do
actually work and generally that work is upholstery. Somehow, this
little lot had got overlooked and proved perfect for what I needed, so
I purloined it before anyone else did. The red and white tape was
about 25mm wide and with a suitably Islamic pattern woven into it. It
proved easy to tie, without the knots binding, and comfortable for the
donkey to wear. All I then had to do was practice tying knots.

I confess that this took a little longer than it should have done. I
am totally ignorant of the art, never having been in the Scouts, Navy
or the Sealed Knot Society. When I used to sail competitively, my helm
was constantly yelling at me because of my inability in this, very
necessary, aspect of seamanship. I argued that if you insist on
calling a piece of string 'a sheet', what could you expect, which did
nothing to cement our relationship.

After studying the diagrams, I found that I had to practice only two,
quite simple knots called an 'overhand' and a 'double overhand', until
I could tie them without looking and then start all over again so that
I could tie them in the right place. The dimensions between are
somewhat critical, if you want the halter to fit.

Typical me – I then completely redesigned the entire contraption so
that the tails end up under the donkey's chin - where you attach the
lead rope or tether - rather than behind the ears - where you don't.
This involved adding an extra loop, in front of the ears, so that it
can be made in one continuous length.

After a morning's practice, I could – just about - make a halter with
my eyes shut, having converted all the dimensions into hand, finger
and thumb lengths. I then made one further 'modification' to the
design by making the knot under the chin (the throat latch) as a
slipknot, to which the tether or lead rein can be attached.

For starters, this made it much easier to put the halter on the
donkey's head, as you could loosen the part that goes over its ears
and then tighten it. Maybe, I was being too soft, but donkeys have
very different shaped heads from horses' - like an exaggerated cartoon –
and MUCH bigger ears, and I didn't want to pull El Gee's off at my
first attempt at dressing him. The other thing is that if the donkey
pulls, it just tightens everything, without strangling the animal, but
cannot come loose on its own.

All of this was watched in silence and with the deepest suspicion by
everyone who came to the house. Once again, I was aware of the,
slightly pitying, knowing looks and mutterings that seemed to say,
'just as I thought – Hamid's finally flipped'.

Not unsurprisingly, El Gee also looked at me suspiciously and took
great affront to having his nice, new halter fitted and adjusted. But
El Gee's a good little chap and considering that he hardly knew me and
had - most certainly – never had such a thing done to him before, he
calmed down and let me do as I needed remarkably quickly. The
suspicion was a short lived reaction and he seemed to realise, very
quickly, that the new contraption was a lot more comfortable than
being hobbled or tethered by one leg. He started to wear his halter
with a look of pride on his face, as much as to say; 'Now I'm quite
the smartest donkey in the village'.

When Tara arrived home in the evening and saw El-Gee tethered with a
nice new halter, she was furious and has demanded one for her donkey
IMMEDIATELY. Of course – that went without saying, but I began to
suspect that I would end up having to make them for all the donkeys in
the village - anywhere between 20 and 50.

The next day, Tara was well pleased when I presented her with a nice,
new halter for her donkey. However what was really funny was when I
went to fit it. Tara's donkey was a sullen brute of an animal at the
best of times and her disapproving gaze always reminded me of one of
my maiden great-aunts. She appeared to loathe me, from the moment that
she first set eyes on me, and usually turned her back towards me ready
to take a well-aimed kick, if I was stupid enough to stray anywhere
too close. The feelings were mutual.

Well, all I can deduce is that donkeys must get jealous. She had
watched me putting on and taking off El Gee's halter for a couple of
days, and it was, by now, something he accepted perfectly happily.
When I went towards her with the new – and different coloured –
halter, she didn't move a muscle or even turn her head away and
allowed me to put it over her head without even flinching, let alone
trying to bite me. All that was required was a minor adjustment to the
'throat latch' and she then held her head up as much as to say – 'NOW
who's the smartest donkey in Benshasha?'

Thus the halter making proved to be a great success, and very
satisfying for me. It is also a far better (kinder) way of tethering
donkeys, whatever the locals say and it has been gratifying that both
animals seemed to appreciate the thoughtfulness on my part.

It was certainly a strange new discipline to learn at my age - but
immensely fulfilling. However, it didn't leave me with an overwhelming
urge to rush off and join the Benshasha macramé club.

The next job was to try and make some sort of a saddle. This was
actually far easier as there was nothing new to learn in terms of
skills. I can nail three or four bits of wood together along with the
best of them.

What I made was not a 'riding' saddle, although to use it as such, all
that you have to do is put a cushion over the wooden frame. What I
made was a crude base to hold panniers or water containers, and later
the shafts of the trap - when I get round to making that. Such saddles
can be found in just about all third world countries, and are – by
definition - simple and idiot-proof. Essentially they comprise of
little more than four pieces of wood fixed together to form two 'V's,
connected together with a couple of other bits of wood. This sits on
the back of the animal, is strapped underneath and then anything and
everything is piled on top or slung from the sides.

Again, the contraption that I made was an adaptation of this basic
African donkey saddle. I adapted it so as to make it:

  • a) more comfortable for the donkey - as the 'paddles' can move to
    fit the beast's back properly, and

  • b) that it will fit virtually any donkey, although this required
    four small hinges and four, 150mm square pieces of plywood and
    therefore way too 'hi-tec' for Benshasha.

In true Benshasha fashion, it was all made with what I could find
lying about. One of the first rules here is that you don't buy
ANYTHING until you have exhausted every possible avenue, and for a
large proportion of the community, larceny comes near the top of the

Wood for the frame came from the mould that I had made eight years
previously for the arched window heads of our house and when – also to
the alarm and astonishment of the locals - I used mud rather than
concrete. Prior to this, the wood had served the best part of fifty
years service as the framework to – what was – Rachid's house. Eight
years of 'weathering' in our garden didn't seem to have done it any
harm at all and the only surprise was that it was still there.

The plywood came from the remains of a cargo pallet, washed up on the
beach and the main source of building timber in the village. The good
thing about these pallets is that the plywood is 'marine' quality and
everything that arrives in Benshasha has been through the ultimate
test of having been soaked in the sea for several weeks at the very
least. If it has managed to survive that, a few years sitting on a
donkey's back should be well within its capabilities.

Finding suitable hinges presented no problem and were readily
salvageable from the broken windows and doors that abound. Finding
four remotely similar ones also proved to be easier than anticipated
as they all seem to be 'standard'. Cleaning them and making them work
took twice as long as finding them, but that is about par for the
course. There was, of course, a 'Benshasha' alternative and that would
have been to use a piece of leather and there is plenty of that
available as slaughtering sheep is a fairly regular family occupation
here and the skins are never thrown away – in fact, I am writing this
sitting on all that remains of Sunday lunch at Eid Al Kibir.

As I had brought with me, from Casablanca, my basic tool-kit and a
large box of assorted screws, actually making the saddle was
remarkably simple. Amongst my tools is an incredible mitre saw of
Chinese origins. Like all Chinese made things, there are two
standards, brilliant or crap and, rather to my surprise when I got it,
this saw falls into the former category. Not only is the saw sharp,
but the rather complicated guides are made out of stainless steel that
really is stainless and the base and clamps are out of cast aluminium.
Of course, when the time comes to replace the blade, the whole lot
might as well be thrown away because such a thing will be quite
impossible to find. However, it still works wonderfully now and
cutting the wood to size took no time at all.

However, the saddle making came to a grinding standstill by
mid-morning as Mehedi (the one-legged shopkeeper opposite, known as
'J'dir', or Moroccan for 'stump') had borrowed my jigsaw and drill
then disappeared 'somewhere' and I needed both tools to finish what I
was doing.

I also needed to find some webbing to make the straps. I hadn't been
able to come up with anything remotely suitable until Tara suggested
'seat belts' and guaranteed to obtain some. Quite whether this will
mean that some poor motorist in Plage David suddenly finds himself
unable to get strapped in, is not something I dared ask. But she also
came up with a sheet of high density foam plastic, which proved
perfect for sticking on the underside of the paddles as cushions
against the donkey's back.

As soon as we managed to track down Mehdi, the job was completed
within an afternoon. All I then had to do was wait for El Gee to come
home from his grazing to give him a 'fitting'. He showed absolutely no
objection to having it put on his back as he had resigned himself to
the fact that I did strange things. Little did he realise that his
nice, new, lightweight saddle was done for one purpose and one purpose
only – so that El Gee could earn his keep. The mock-up fitted
perfectly but - once again - I realised that I would probably have to
make at least two as Tara would demand one as well.

Until then, Tara had used a weird collection of bags, filled with
God-knows-what and all tied together with string, so that her donkey
has about 50kg on its back before it starts off in the morning. My
saddle weighs little more than 2.5kg.

In a perfect world, it would have been be less than difficult to get
the frame padded and upholstered, preferably in leather. Azziz -
Fatima's half-brother – is a tappissiére and such a task would be well
within his capabilities. Unfortunately the family 'problems' mean that
he is on less than speaking terms with Fatima so asking him to do
anything at all is out of the question.

I decided that - If or when I ever have any money again, I would take
the framework to Casa as our flat there is on top of Casablanca's
largest upholstery souk and getting this little job done will cost
very little.

The next task was to design and build some form of a trap. This is far
more complicated and required both some planning and resources.
Actually most of the planning was already done as I had sketched out
something when I was building the house eight years previously. I
therefore already had my eye on the front wheels of two of my nephew's
mopeds, which would be ideal for my purposes, but when I suggested
this to Fatima she replied with the Moroccan equivalent of 'don't be
silly dear'.

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