How Do You Like Your Camel Meat?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
Sept. 6 2013 8:28 AM

How Do You Like Your Camel Meat?

The struggling nation of Somaliland is betting these beasts of burden will be on the menu far and wide.

Somaliland farmers Ismael Hassan (L) and Abdi Noor Husein count money they got on October 29,2012 selling their camel at Sayladah market in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
Somaliland farmers sell their camels at the Hargeisa Camel Market, one of dozens of sites across the country where nomads, locals, and traders converge daily to buy and sell thousands of live animals

Photo by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.

HARGEISA, Somaliland—From early in the morning until midday, the streets of southern Hargeisa, Somaliland periodically shut down as hundreds of camels trundle along the narrow city streets. Taxi drivers give way, milling on the side of the road, wiping their cars clean of the dust and mud kicked up by the procession. Ultimately, the beasts file through the gates of the Hargeisa Camel Market.

No one really runs the market. It’s just one of dozens of sites across the country where nomads, locals, and traders converge daily to buy and sell thousands of live animals, some for the neighborhood butcher’s block, others for export. And to most folks in Hargeisa, it’s just a fact of life—a reflection that, despite the boom in the city’s population and the development of modern, multistory office buildings, Somaliland is still a largely pastoral economy.

But downtown, in the knot of government offices near the presidential palace, the ministers are eyeing this market with new ambitions. They have analyzed the country’s resources, crunched the numbers, and decided that these nomads may offer the safest and quickest passage for taking this fragile economy from relative poverty to a more thorough modernity.

Actually, it’s not as if Somaliland has many options. A self-declared but officially unrecognized nation, Somaliland is a little smaller than Idaho, with twice the population, but less than 5 percent of the annual budget. The de facto nation is rich in natural resources beyond livestock, but its infrastructure—potholed roads and no central electrical grid or water system to speak of—can’t get the goods to market. If that doesn’t deter intrepid investors, the place’s legacy of violence and piracy probably does.

Advertisement

With a paltry national budget—a finance ministry official estimated that it stands at $125 million—the government lacks the means to do much about it. What aid money they receive is mostly earmarked by donors for pet projects. There is no banking industry, and insurance companies are nonexistent. “There is no way on Earth a country can develop without financial institutions in place,” laments Sa’ad Ali Shire, the Minister of National Planning and Development . “You cannot have investment and you cannot move forward.”

The country may lack roads, cash, and skilled workers, but it does have one important source of manpower: nomads. It’s hard to say how many there are, as there’s been no census since the civil war in the early 1990s, but some estimate that up to 70 percent of Somaliland’s population is nomadic.

The modern nomad isn’t the lone ranger he once was, says Shire. “A hundred years ago, the nomad was self-sufficient. He was disconnected from the urban center. That has totally changed.  The rural household more or less consumes what the urban household consumes.”

The nomads have created trade routes and depots across terrain that cars can’t easily navigate, but camels can. The Hargeisa Camel Market is just one point in a nation-wide network of markets. Wandering among the flocks dotted across the sale grounds, I see a line of rams, roped together neck-to-neck, purchased at roughly $80 a head. (Camels can sell for anywhere from $300 to $1,000 per head, depending on their size.) An agent, a robust man in a cowboy hat who’s been culling the choicest animals from the nomads’ small herds for butchery or export, will come by later to haul them away.

But before the agent leaves, he must pass a dozy government official sitting by the gate. He will pay around $1 in tax per sheep or goat, and up to $5 per camel. If he takes the animals to the port of Berbera for export, he’ll pay another tax as well. It’s a minuscule fee compared to what he paid for the animals—and the profits he stands to make as the middle-man—but for a small government strapped for cash, it’s a good chunk of income. And the government, after running the numbers for its new National Development Plan, believes the nomads could become a much larger, more lucrative market.

Dhamac Barud, one of the most prosperous merchants in Hargeisa, looks for potential camels to buy on October 29,2012 at Sayladah market in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
Dhamac Barud, one of the most prosperous merchants in Hargeisa, looks for potential camels to buy

Photo by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

“[Livestock] is a sector none of the other countries in the region have a focus on,” says Jamal Hassan, former CEO of Citi Bank in Tanzania, and the current presidential candidate for the Somaliland Justice and Welfare Party. “I think in the future … that’s a sector that can create a competitive advantage for Somaliland, that can create jobs that center on export.”

The export markets Hassan has in mind are the Persian Gulf cities like Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi. But the potential for livestock goes beyond acting as the Red Sea’s Texas ranchland. There’s a growing, universal market for camels, the favored herd animal of Somaliland’s nomads.

Somalia houses more than 6 million camels, the largest population in the world. (Somalis have some 46 words for camels; nomads have composed and handed down hundreds of poems that extol the animal’s role in Somali culture.) Mainly beasts of burden, vehicles for war, and sources of milk, they also served until very recently as the only acceptable unit of payment for blood money in clan disputes. Yet Somalis typically do not raise more camels (or other livestock) than they need. The size of herds has rarely exceeded demand.   

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

So, Apple Is Not Shuttering Beats, but the Streaming Service Will Probably Be Folded Into iTunes

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 22 2014 4:06 PM No, Women’s Soccer Does Not Have a Domestic Violence Problem Or, why it is very, very stupid to compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice.
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 5:45 PM The University of California Corrects “Injustice” by Making Its Rich Chancellors Even Richer
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.