Milk, meat and power: in Somalia, “the camel is king”

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A camel, belonging to Ali Abdi Elmi’s herd, stands on the outskirts of the town of Hargeisa, Somaliland, September 18, 2021. AFP

HARGEISA, Somalia – The nomad was thirsty and the trip to the Somali desert would be long and trying.

Turning to one of his beloved camels, Ali Abdi Elmi squeezed fresh milk into a wooden urn and drank a deep glass.

“I have five children and we all depend on camel’s milk to survive,” said Elmi, passing the pot to one of her sons, who took a sip of the rich beer.

For many Somalis, the camel is a gift from the gods: a source of milk and meat, a beast of burden in the desert and – as climate change causes extreme weather in the Horn of Africa – insurance. in times of crisis.

An animal with a haughty and cantankerous reputation, in Somalia the camel is celebrated in songs and folklore, a symbol of status and prosperity, and traded at weddings or to settle quarrels.

In this predominantly rural society of 15 million people, herding camels and other animals is the basis of an economy devastated by war and natural disasters that ranks among the poorest in the world.

The livestock industry is the main contributor to economic growth in Somalia and, in normal times, accounts for 80 percent of exports, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Camels outnumber sheep and goats, which roam Hargeisa in northern Somalia with their owners’ phone numbers scribbled on the side, if they get lost and have to return.

But at seven million head, there are more camels in Somalia than almost anywhere else, and they don’t just bestow respect on their owners – they fetch much higher prices.

“We don’t have crude oil in this country. Camels are our crude oil, ”said Abdi Rashid, a trader dressed in aviator sunglasses and a beige safari suit at the largest cattle market in Hargeisa.

Cultural icon

An impressive specimen can cost $ 1,000 (860 euros), said Khosar Abdi Hussein, who oversees the market where camel milk is sold fresh and even camel urine – believed to have health benefits – is put in a bottle.

A sale is made by enclosing the hands under the checkered shawls worn by the shepherds.

The number of fingers typed and fingers grasped determines the price – a tradition to ensure that negotiations remain private.

The transaction is completed with a mobile money transfer, a modern twist to an old way of doing business.

“Camels are important to Somali culture because one is always considered rich, or can rise in social status, by the number of camels they have,” said Hussein, who pointed out that he had nine.

But in Somalia, where nearly seven in ten live in poverty according to the World Bank, few can afford a camel, let alone many.

Elmi is one of the two-thirds of Somalis who depend on cattle, and although he doesn’t do a lucrative business at the town market, his camels are a boon in other ways.

Camels still produce milk during drought, satiating nomads who can spend a month in the dry lands consuming nothing else.

“Milk is good for us because camels graze on trees with medicinal properties that help fight disease,” said Elmi, a nervous 40-year-old with skin leathery in the sun.

During the lean season, he can still buy essentials for his family by selling milk to vendors in Hargeisa, where fresh bottles are available on the streets every day.

Strictly speaking, a camel can be slaughtered and its meat sold in town, where it is a local specialty.

Hard life

Pastoral life is difficult, especially as rainfall is increasingly erratic in the Horn of Africa, an area that American scientists say is drying faster than at any time in the past 2,000. years.

Nomads are forced to travel greater distances to find water and pasture for their precious beasts, whose reputation as “desert ships” is being strained by climate change.

Thousands of camels and other animals drowned when Cyclone Gati – the strongest tropical storm to ever make landfall in Somalia – turned deserts into seas at the end of 2020.

Two years earlier, a prolonged drought had reduced herds by 60 percent in parts of the country, according to the FAO.

The loss of livestock invariably causes famine in Somalia, and destitute herders have fled to the cities by the millions in recent years as life on the land has become unsustainable.

In northern Somaliland, local authorities want to resettle people along the Gulf of Aden coast – an unthinkable prospect for some hardy desert dwellers.

“I don’t see our way of life changing anytime soon,” said Khosar Farrah, a 68-year-old grizzled man who has been raising camels for half a century.

Hussein, too, did not imagine the nomads to start fishing in a hurry: “Here, the camel is king”, he says, laughing.

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