Christmas Appeal: Blacksmiths put donkeys to work to revive fortunes

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Bushara Saleh knows what it is to lose everything. A year ago, he awoke to the sound of gunfire outside the workshop he shared with a dozen other blacksmiths. Within an hour, the Janjaweed Arab militia and Sudanese armed forces had reduced the workshop in their village of Kebkabiya in rural Darfur to a smoking ruin.

The soldiers and militiamen escaped with what it had taken Bushara and his fellow blacksmiths four years to produce and acquire: two tons of millet, five donkey carts, four beds, thousands of handtools and some 220,000 Sudanese dinars, about £550. Even the corrugated metal roofing on the workshop was taken.

Bushara, 26, whose skinny frame seems ill-fitted to his trade, said: "The workshop had allowed us to improve our trade. But then it was all gone in one morning. We had to move and leave everything behind."

The conflict has already claimed 30,000 lives and left nearly four million people reliant on humanitarian aid.

Today, Bushara is to be found in Souq al-Mawshi, the livestock market in El Fashir, a market town that is the headquarters for an African Union peacekeeping force trying to maintain a fragile ceasefire.

Some 12 months after he and his family fled their home, Bushara's business is once more thriving. Its revival is due in large part to stacks of identical strange-looking contraptions fashioned from black steel rods and what looks like an inverted shovel. They are donkey ploughs and, together with a new line in agricultural implements, they are responsible for resurrecting the fortunes of the Kebkabiya blacksmiths.

The ploughs have been developed with the support of the Red Cross and Practical Action - the British-based aid organisation that uses simple technology to improve living standards of marginalised people - which is one of the three charities being supported by this year's Christmas Appeal.

As the end users - small-scale farmers - have been able to discuss their needs with the smiths, their tools work better for local needs. In front of the smiths' workshop are laid out their other wares - knives, agricultural tools, oil lamps, animal harnesses and the ploughs.

Experts from Practical Action said that with a relatively modest investment of £15 for a donkey plough, and £30 and £45 for horse and camel ploughs, yields from Darfur's arid land can be dramatically increased.

Abdullah Arabi, 47, the unofficial representative for the 30 blacksmiths of Souq al-Mowshi, said: "The donkey is a common animal here but people do not think of it as a farming animal. Now that has changed."

Mohamed Fidiel, Practical Action's director in Sudan, said: "The plough brings a great improvement to the levels of production. The furrow holds water in the soil and reduces erosion. A farmer can grow five times as much crops compared to using hand tools."

While the surroundings and the products may seem rudimentary, they are in fact part of an integrated system dominated by modern principles, from recycling to customer-led design.

Mr Arabi and his colleagues use a recycling system that would put any developed country to shame. The blacksmiths used to get their raw material from Khartoum but the war has closed the road to the capital and instead they make their products by cutting steel panels from the bodywork of old lorries and melting the metal insides.

Practical Action has also been involved with the construction of sluices in traditional dams used to trap water during the rainy season. The improved dams have increased the area of cultivated land by as much as 11-fold and doubled the number of families that can be fed in a region where barely 10 per cent of the population has a secure food supply. Improved irrigation has also seen the introduction of more lucrative crops, such as watermelons, which sell for more than five times the value of traditional crops such as tobacco.

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