El Gee - a Tale of a Moroccan Donkey

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Donkey Death

Time ends for all life – even that of an ass,

Does anybody mourn – don't be so crass,

A useless life – some thirty years

Is over – past – no words, no tears,

Just one more chore for cruel man,

Get rid of me, as best you can,

Too much to put me in the ground,

An easier way has to be found,

So drag what's left of my poor body,

And dump it in the nearest wadi,

There the village dogs can feast,

Someone's glad of me at least.

Part IV - Death in the Family

As already mentioned, Benshasha lacks any form of normal medical or Veterinary facilities and relies almost entirely on traditional cures for all forms of ailment, human and animal alike. These are not always entirely successful, and after eight years here I had come to the firm conclusion that one was marginally better off entrusting one's life to the known and tried products of the pharmaceutical companies.

The most stunning example of this was the treatment of one of Tara's previous donkeys, Chaifoor (a name, which I later realised was Moroccanised 'chauffer', or 'Bus-driver'), eight years previously. This unfortunate brute had, it appeared, managed to impale its penis on a cactus prickle and was, as a result, suffering somewhat. This was as a direct result of its over enthusiastic advances towards one of the female donkeys nearby who happened to be 'in season' and serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who might have amorous inclinations anywhere in the vicinity of these plants. It also underlined the drawback of owning male donkeys.

The result of the injury was the animal being completely unable to urinate; with the consequence that it swelled up like a balloon. It was, as you might imagine, 'uncomfortable' and made old Eeyor look positively chirpy.

Much discussion went within the neighbourhood on as to the best remedy. This ranged to 'it serves it bloody well right' from the owner of the rape victim, to amputation with the family axe. Neither of these was likely to have been any more successful than the ultimate remedy, which was 'to give it some medicine', the recipe for which had, once again, been handed down by 'Arfidah'. Whether the old lady had possessed the same dislike of donkeys as Betsy Trotwood or whether, over the years, the exact recipe had changed, I am not sure. The results were, to say the least, dramatic.

Fatima and Tara spent an afternoon gathering all the necessary ingredients from the wadi, highways and byways whilst a cauldron was placed on the fire to boil. They did not actually recite 'boil, boil, toil and trouble...' as they set about their cooking but they certainly looked like a couple of would-be actresses auditioning for a part in Macbeth. One would have been forgiven for looking around for the bissums, black cats and other familiars. An evil smelling noxious concoction resulted from their efforts, which was allowed to cool before it was decreed that I was to be the one to administer the mixture to the poor beast.

Now donkeys are not necessarily very big animals, and terminally ill ones not unduly strong. Neither, for that matter, is my veterinary knowledge or skill. This particular animal must have known a little more about what was about to happen to it than did I, for it kept its mouth firmly closed and no amount of prizing would get it to open it.

Eventually, and with the help of about eight people, we managed to hold the poor brute's head up and pour the stuff down its throat between its teeth, which remained as if welded together.

Exhausted by our efforts we stood back to watch the effect with which the donkey lay down and died!

After that, I flatly refused to imbibe anything which either of these two ladies brewed for medicinal purposes. None of this makes the job of cooking any easier. 'Labels' on anything at all are non-existent for the simple reason that not one of the women in Benshasha can read anything at all.

So – I could not claim complete ignorance of what to expect when Tara's present donkey became ill. There seemed nothing wrong with it at all, other than it was constipated and flatly refused to eat or drink anything and Google, this time, was of no help whatsoever.

Tara was distraught, but as ever, this was combined with an equal amount of fury at the inconvenience that it caused her. It is odd how worry and concern can so easily turn to rage.

After a long, heated debate between the ladies of the tribe, it was agreed that, as the donkey was totally constipated, it had probably eaten a plastic bag and was just 'blocked up'. In the absence of any better or more scientific diagnosis and having had my rather lame suggestion that 'maybe she's just old', rubbished, I accepted the judgement. Also in my ignorance, I thought that a good dose of castor oil or liquid paraffin wouldn't do it any harm and might actually do it some good, so 'no harm in trying'.

Castor oil or liquid paraffin were both out of the question as that cost money and spending money on donkeys was too big a step in changing Benshasha society to contemplate just then. In any case, it would have taken far too long and Fatima's knowledge of the local flora, as far as emetics, laxatives and diuretics was concerned, was pretty good (despite Chaifoor).

Fatima disappeared for a day and came home with all the necessary ingredients, which she boiled up into an evil-smelling mixture. This was carefully bottled and left to stand.

When it came to administering the medicine, I could not really refuse to help. With the memory of Chaifoor still very much etched on my memory, I felt nervous about the battle, but, in the event, it was awkward but much easier than on the previous occasion.

I think this was as much to do with the fact that the donkey knew me and trusted me – a little. She didn't want to open her mouth any more than I would have, but she didn't struggle at all and allowed me to lift her head up almost vertical and Fatima was able to get the neck of the bottle between the back teeth and tip the contents down her throat. I held her head up for a few moments – to make sure that it all went down – and after the donkey had gulped, I released her. She did not immediately lie down and die, so I felt quite relieved.

I had to go into Casa, and when I spoke to Fatima in the evening, she told me that the donkey looked a little better, had had some water but still refused to eat anything. When I returned, we administered the same treatment every morning for the next few days.

There did seem to be some improvement and I began to feel cautiously hopeful. After three days she was decidedly better and we took her out to graze. She still didn't eat much and she had still not defecated but she would at least walk – slowly. I hoped that in time, she would recover.

This was not to be so. One morning, Fatima came in , having taken El Gee out to graze and announced 'Tara donkey SICK – she die now.' There was not much to say to this. I went out to see for myself and indeed, the animal did look awful. I felt awful and totally helpless. I patted her on the head and there was no response, no reaction at all, so I came back into the house, feeling wretched and curiously guilty – I suppose at being unable to ring up a vet and get something done about the poor animal.

Two hours later she lay down and died – right outside our front door, but that didn't matter, although it might have been enough to cause the local Access Auditor mild apoplexy.

It was strange, and in an odd sort of way, a sadder occasion than when Milouda (Tara's sister) died last October. Admittedly the donkey was a lot more use than Milouda and certainly hadn't upset and/or offended anything like as many people, but it was a strange example of the way humans get attached to animals.

Tara's grief was short-lived though and quickly turned to a 'what the hell did you go and do that for' sort of anger.

I was more upset than I ever dreamt that I could be about someone else's donkey. I suppose that, in my feeble attempts to help the poor animal, I had become quite fond of her. I was, I think, also upset as she had appeared to be getting a lot better and then she just lay down and died.

Disposal of the corpse was the next problem and one that I did not want to have to confront on my own. I am afraid that I took the cowardly route out of the problem and claimed – not entirely inaccurately – that I had been 'sick' and was still not fit enough to start manhandling dead donkeys on my own.

In the event, I needn't have worried as our front door is not exactly secluded and nobody with any sense would have wanted a rotting donkey corpse just there. The local lads and our nephew Alla took control of matters and I was left to do nothing.

The burial ceremony for donkeys is only marginally less formal or considerate than the disposal of human remains. The cadaver was hauled onto a neighbour's donkey cart and trundled off towards the beach where the body then was tipped, unceremoniously, into the wadi and that's where the village dogs will take up residence for the next few days as they dispose of her. This is not a place to live if you are of the sentimental or squeamish bent.

Fatima was more distraught than anyone, not just for the loss of the animal but also the deprivation that it caused her mother and the problem of a replacement and that occupied the conversation for a large part of the afternoon and evening.

El Gee was already well big enough to carry both Tara - who weighs little more than a large sparrow - and what little she 'collects' these days. In addition it would solve the problem of feeding him in the summer when there is bugger-all, even for a donkey, around the village. Tara goes off to Plage David – about five kilometres along the beach – where there are plenty of well-watered lawns and verges where a donkey can graze to its heart's content (or its belly's content – depending on the pronunciation and which way you look at it). And also, it was about time the little chap had the saddle put on his back and did some work before he became too lazy.

But the problem was solved in a surprising way. A couple of mornings later, Soukainah, some sort of young cousin (but in a family where in the space of one year four babies were born to four different generations – she might well be the same generation as I, despite 45 years' difference) arrived at the front door on the back of an elderly but fit little jenny and announced 'Him for Tara.'

Despite the generally held opinion that the inhabitants of 'bidonvilles' are self-centred, uneducated idiots and probably criminal to boot, they can be extraordinarily kind. The news of Tara's loss had, not unnaturally, taken about a nanosecond to spread throughout the entire village. Someone – I know not who, other than that he is unrelated, had heard the news and sent one of his donkeys for 'Tara to use until she gets a new one'.

Of course the cynical view would be that he was just being pragmatic and, with summer approaching, realised that if Tara had the use of the beast, it stood a chance of getting fed when there was nothing around the village. As there is little else to be hopeful about in Benshasha, I prefer to keep the belief that he was just being kind.

El Gee looked pleased to have a new friend to spent the nights with and also may be wise that he has had a reprieve – for the moment – from being put to work.

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