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By Donna Stokes, World Ark managing editor
Photos by Dave Anderson
In Tanzania, Heifer camels step in to provide sweet nutritious milk, transportation and income as climate change and extreme drought challenge a community's traditional way of life.
KETUMBEINE VILLAGE, TANZANIA—Thirty camels emerged towering and muscular from the African bush with hardly a sound. Fleet-footed Maasai men gracefully darted through the scrubby brush and sand-hued flanks, herding the animals with shouts toward a pen near their settlement in northern Tanzania. Four calves, protected from predators with a thick briar fence, bawled loudly for their mothers and breakfast.
Less than 20 years ago, the Maasai were herding and milking cattle, not camels. But a catastrophic drought brought on by climate change wiped out their grass-dependent livestock herds, leaving once-thriving families desperate.
"It was bad when the cows died," said Maria Paulo, Heifer project participant and secretary of the Nanyor Women's Camel group. Adorned in layers of white-beaded necklaces and dangling earrings, Maria Paulo spoke in the Maasai language, which was translated to English. "We were in a very bad situation," she said, with little to eat. There was no milk for their children. They had nothing to sell to buy food or other necessities. The government provided some staples such as rice and corn meal, but it was not enough.
For the first time in memory, they faced an uncertain future. The Maasai, nomadic cattle herders for thousands of years, need look no further than the barren, thick sand at their sandaled feet in northern Tanzania for a reminder of today's persistent drought. Each year, from July to November, it comes.
These families, with Heifer Tanzania's guidance, learned they must adapt to survive.
In the mid-1990s, the dry season across Tanzania turned disastrous. Weeks passed with no rain. Then months. Almost every cow, in herds of hundreds, died. Year after year the rains failed to come; the final blows for this settlement came between 2007 and 2009. Grasses and water sources necessary to support their primary income from cattle dried up. They began selling their gaunt cattle for as little as $5; those not sold perished.
|Camel milk is full of nutrients to help children grow strong and healthy. It has roughly three times the vitamin C of cow milk.|
Heifer Tanzania, formed in 1973, wanted to help. Heifer was part of the first effort to bring camels to Tanzania from neighboring Kenya in the 1990s to offer an alternative to the local cattle. Dromedary camels, distinguishable by their single hump, can go for days or weeks with little or no food. They need to drink water only once every two weeks or so and can guzzle up to 30 gallons at a time.
Historically, Maasai wealth and their way of life came directly from cattle, and God. The Maasai believe their god, Engai, who dwells above Mount Kilimanjaro, divinely bequeathed all cattle to the Maasai. Their diet, particularly that of the male warriors, was restricted to milk, blood and meat.
So Heifer had some convincing to do to when it suggested camels as a way to weather the drought. The Maasai preferred cattle milk and were taken aback by the large size and strange ways of the camels. Adult camels stand up to 12 feet tall and can weigh from 550 to 1,500 pounds. They live up to 50 years and can sometimes behave unpredictably.
"Why should the Maasai accept camels? It's not their culture," Mwakabwale said. "So we tried to explain to them the benefit they can get from camels. Meat, milk, draft power—you can use them to carry water and other things. When I sit down with them they accepted it."
|The camels have adapted well to this drought-parched area of northern Tanzania. They graze on surrounding trees and need much less water than cattle to survive.|
The promised benefits quickly materialized. The large, lumpy ruminants with beefy eyebrows and bemused expressions quickly made themselves right at home with the Maasai in Ketumbeine. Acacia and other native trees, washed green amid this rainy season, provide all the feed the camels need. The stately new members of the community, heads held high, melded beautifully into the vibrant setting rich in colors and culture. As young Maasai warriors leaped athletically to amazing heights and women bobbed and chanted in broad, beaded collars in a traditional dance, the camels offered their own contribution: a reason to celebrate.
The Heifer camels continue to produce milk throughout the dry season, up to two or even three gallons a day for each camel, said Paulo Ole Sadida, Maria Paulo's husband and group adviser for the women's camel project. That's several times more than the local cattle produced even in good years.
"Before, when cows and goats quit producing milk or get sick or die we would have nothing," he said. "Yet with the camels we always have something. Now we've got something sustainable whether the drought is here or not."
Soon after the camels ambled into their pen, the women got right to work drawing the sweet, nutritious milk for their families' breakfast. Two or three women worked on either side of each camel, a calf nudging in to get his share as the buckets quickly filled. The sun rapidly heated the open pen, and short exchanges of murmured conversation between the women punctuated the sounds of calves suckling and milk splashing against the sides of the plastic containers.
|The Maasai enjoy the sweet taste of camel milk, especially with tea. They also sell the milk for income to buy other necessities.|
Milking the camels is just a small part of their workday. Maasai women shoulder primary responsibility for most of the other day-to-day labor in their villages, a timeworn tradition that continues to thrive. They build the manyattas, round huts crafted from animal dung, mud and acacia twigs and topped with thatch and encircled with rings of briars to ward off predators. During the rainy season, regular repairs are required to patch the walls of their homes and roof material washed away in the storms.
The women also gather firewood and haul water for drinking and washing. They raise the children, cook the meals, boil the tea, and water and care for the animals.
After the cattle died, the women tried selling their beautiful beadwork in town, but the income from that was not dependable. So they asked for help. They received 31 camels in 2008 from Heifer Tanzania and its partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. They were pleasantly surprised at how much help the camels could provide beyond the milk.
"When the camels came we were told that if you train a camel to help carry water and firewood, the camel can do that," Maria Paulo said. "So the camel gives you milk, helps you to bring water for your family, water for young calves, water for our goats."
|Nai Paulo strains tea leaves from camel milk as she prepares breakfast for the village children, who drain every last drop from their cups.|
The camels have lightened the women's workload considerably, with the unexpected benefit of improved gender equity in this male-dominated culture. Previously, hauling water and firewood was women's work alone, but now the men assist with these chores, leading the camel and helping to load it. While the women milked the camels, several men huddled around a limping animal in the pen, working to pull out a thorn.
Nembris Paulo, Paulo Ole Sadida's first wife, said the women were still getting used to the camels and appreciated the men's help. "They are new animals to us," she said. "They are huge and a little scary when they move quickly."
More training is still needed, Nembris and Maria Paulo both said. Only one camel is trained to kneel and carry loads; it would be helpful if they all could. "It would also be useful to have help learning to market the camel milk," Nembris Paulo said. "Many people, like us at first, don't know about camel milk and say they don't like it," even if they haven't tried it.
For the men, not much else has changed in their primary role of taking the animals to graze and protecting them from predators. In fact, the camels are simpler to care for than the cattle, said Paulo Ole Sadida.
"It's easier to handle the camels because when you train them to stay in a certain area, they stay," he said. "With the cows, sometimes you need to walk a very long distance to find grass they can eat. But you can graze the camels here today and you move a shorter distance."
The group adviser, who earlier had leaped on the bare back of a kneeling camel to demonstrate how to ride one, also praised the many benefits of the animals. "We live in a hard place," he said. "There is no transportation. We have to go far for water and firewood. The camels are most useful for the transportation."
And, he added, if you ride one to the top of a hill, you can see a very long way.
After the morning milking, another member of the camel group, Nai Paulo, her silver jewelry arrayed across her forehead, nose and angular cheekbones, hurried back to the boma, or grouping of huts, to make tea and porridge for the children over a small fire surrounded by rocks. A dozen or so children gathered under a nearby tree, their large brown eyes on the blackened pot as the milk mixed with water began to boil.
|Members of the Heifer camel project relax in the shade.|
Because there weren't enough cups for everyone, the children stepped up one by one for their helpings, tipping the vessels nearly vertical to get every last drop. The cups were then washed and refilled again until everyone had his fill.
Nai Paulo next prepared the porridge, made from corn flour, water and milk, and served it in the same cups. Meanwhile, much like the giraffes that roam freely in their front yard, the camels nibbled choice leaves that provide them with nutrients that are also transferred to their milk. For instance, camel milk has roughly three times more vitamin C than cow milk. Just yards from the families' huts, a few camels chewed delicately on broad acacia trees, batting their long eyelashes to keep out the dust. One pair went for the same leaves, bumping lips in a clumsy kiss.
Nearby, dozens of bleating goats, the bells around their necks clanging, ran past the children at their breakfast as men herded them into the shade of a nearby tree. The herdsmen pulled up low, hand-carved stools made of acacia wood and reclined to watch the women work.
"Our nutrition is much better now," Paulo Ole Sadida said, smiling as he watched the children drink, thick porridge dripping down their faces.
Life in this settlement is still quite traditional. Families live in round huts of the same type displayed for tourists in the Maasai Cultural Museum in the bustling city of Arusha. Their food comes from milk and livestock, though they also buy grains, honey, sugar and tea with income from the animals. They do not farm here. With no refrigeration or electricity, they still store milk in a hollow calabash treated with smoke from the oloirien (wild olive) tree, as their ancestors have for centuries, perhaps even millennia. The technique preserves milk or porridge for up to a week.
|Paulo Ole Sadida, group adviser for the women's camel project, says, "We've come to see that camels can do the best of all the animals where we live, in the conditions we have now."|
"We like all the animals and find them all useful, but we've come to see that camels can do the best of all the animals where we live, in the conditions we have now," Paulo Ole Sadida said.
Country Director Mwakabwale said Heifer now has many requests for camels from other Maasai communities that it doesn't yet have the money to support. Just one camel costs up to $750 before transportation and training costs, he said.
"We can see the changes of the culture," Mwakabwale said. "It is a very rigid society. Elders punish any variation. To see them changing, to drink camel milk and accept that change, that is something."
The culture will still be here, Paulo Ole Sadida said. "It's possible to keep our culture and also have progress. We're trying to get rid of some things that mean nothing to make room for new ideas."
One word in the Maasai language best describes the Heifer Tanzania camel project for his family and settlement, he said. It's dupoto, or "success." No longer is he as concerned that the Maasai, and his family, will be left behind by the world. Income from the camels is already helping him send his eight children to school.
|Maasai women help each other prepare for a traditional dance. Talented artists, the women craft the colorful beadwork to both wear and sell.|
When they finish their secondary education, the children will come back to the village to teach the adults how to live a better life, Paulo Ole Sadida said. "We feel we are secured in that way" for the years to come.
At day's end, the camels were rounded up once again for milking and safe harbor in the briar pen. Women from the camel group, some carrying dozing babies, walked in groups quietly toward their homes. The men followed, singly. Paulo Ole Sadida looked back briefly to the camels settling in for the night, his fears for the future—for now—also at rest.
Editor's note: Translator Simon Sandilen, Heifer Tanzania's senior logistics officer, is Maasai and grew up in a community not far from Ketumbeine near the Kenya border. He ran away from home at age 10 to attend school, which was not then accepted for Maasai children. He has worked with Heifer for 24 years.