It wasn't necessarily an easy transition, and there are still some hitches. The women, responsible for milking and caring for the animals, are frightened by the large, sometimes unpredictable creatures, prone to fits of bucking, kicking or spitting when they're stressed out. Other nearby communities accustomed to cow milk are reluctant at first to try or buy camel milk.
We visited a Maasai community in northern Tanzania in the rainy season, in April of last spring, when trees were lush with leaves that Heifer camels nibbled on happily throughout the day. Yet at the sandaled feet of the young men who led the animals to graze was a deep sand left in the wake of a terrible, persistent drought that continues to change the lives and parts of the culture of this community forever.
It's hard to imagine enough grass ever grew here to sustain the large cattle herds the Maasai traditionally raised in this area for centuries. From the mid-1990s to about 2007, the land shriveled and baked in the hot sun, with no relief. Grasses and water sources dried up, as did the Maasai primary income from cattle. They began selling their gaunt animals for as little as $5 each. Those not sold perished.
It is part of the Maasai culture that meat is only eaten on rare occasions: When a baby is born to give the mother strength, to honor a special guest, to help heal the very ill or for ceremonial reasons. They got protein from the milk or from a milk/blood mixture. So many animals were left where they fell to return to the earth.
As the drought stretched on, almost every cow in herds of hundreds died. "When their cows died they went back to square one, to poverty," said Peter Mwakabwale, then Heifer Tanzania's country director. A small amount of grains from government assistance is all they had to eat for much of the year.
Their women's group sought help from Heifer, and the community received 31 Dromedary camels in 2008, which were much more adaptable to the new climate reality in Eastern Africa. They provide not only a sweet, nutritious milk, even in times of drought, but also help with transportation of water and firewood.
However, the camels also brought many welcome changes to the Maasai culture. Because of the size of the animals, the men help out more and accompany women to gather firewood and water. They produce milk even during the dry season, getting enough water and nutrition from trees and bushes well out of the reach of traditional cattle.
To me as a visitor to the culture and the country, the picture is a beautiful one. I never saw the area before the drought, but today the community is thriving with life and celebration. Athletic young men and women in bright blues, reds and purples mingle among the camels, with views of distant mountains set against a clear, blue sky. The children make happy slurping noises and giggle as they tip back their milk mugs for every last drop. As an editor for Heifer's World Ark magazine, I'm amazed more with every visit by the careful planning and attention to culture, climate and sustainability our organization invests in each project.
Read more about Heifer's camel projects in Tanzania and stay tuned for an insider's look in a coming World Ark at how Heifer participants and country staff help choose appropriate animals for each community served. Click here to order a camel or share of a camel to continue to help participants in Eastern Africa adapt to the extended drought.