Nouakchott, MAURITANIA—El Hacen Ould Taleb keeps cows, sheep, and goats, but he is a camel farmer first. The animals have a special place in his heart. “A camel gives its meat and its milk, and it is best companion for a long trip,” he said.
It was not a long trip to Taleb’s village, though, which is only a couple hours away from Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, in northwestern Africa. After traveling across the duotone landscape of sand, grass, and acacia trees, I found Taleb sitting with some neighbors in his tent, which was white on the outside, to reflect the sun, but covered in a multicolored zigzag design on the inside.
Taleb welcomed me in from the dust and heat, inviting me to rest on the maze of red, purple, and green carpets that covered the ground or on one of the low-slung cane settees. I was given a wooden bowl of fresh, bright-white camel’s milk, which tasted similar to cow’s milk but saltier, with a hint of gaminess.
Swathed in a voluminous white boubou embellished with golden embroidery, Taleb worked his prayer beads as he spoke about camel husbandry. “What I am going to tell you is something that only real camel farmers could know,” he said on several occasions, prefacing a lengthy discussion of camel teeth, the benefits of drinking fresh camel’s milk every day, and how to choose a good female camel at the market. We conversed in French, which Taleb speaks perfectly, although he shouts it in a forceful staccato rhythm more in keeping with his native Hassaniya, the Arabic dialect spoken here.
Some of these bits of knowledge come from a nomad called Deyloul, whom Taleb calls “the best Mauritanian pastoralist to have ever lived.” Just when did Deyloul live? Taleb says he thinks Deyloul must have lived during the seventh century, although some folklorists think he was from the 1700s. But the question of when doesn’t matter, because, as Taleb said, “what Deyloul said continues to be true today.”
Taleb, who is in his 70s, grew up here in Trarza, which is a province in southwest Mauritania. But for centuries it was an emirate, and camel caravans from Trarza, loaded down with grain, gum arabic, and salt, linked the great fortified cities of the Sahara to the humid lands to the south. The people—seminomadic Arab-Berber warriors, aristocrats and religious leaders, their vassals and their slaves—also moved. They still do.
“Pastoralists are the sons of the clouds,” said Taleb. “Wherever the rain falls, that’s where they will go.”
Over the years, though, many things have changed: weather patterns, national boundaries, and infrastructure such as roads, boreholes, and cell phone networks. In the old days, a herder would ride ahead to identify the most promising pastures for the people who stayed behind. Rain is always fickle in the Sahel, so the search for pasture is a herder’s lot in life. Now all the herders have cell phones and can share information right away.
The World Bank estimates that there are more than 50 million pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa. They drive their livestock to regional markets, sometimes crossing numerous international borders, and in doing so, provide meat and milk for millions of people on the continent and beyond. Yet this crucial population of farmers and herders is often buffeted by the winds of a changing climate and a changing world.
Taleb, who is the president of the National Group of Pastoral Associations (GNAP), knows the lessons of the past—but he is also trying to figure out how farmers and herders might adapt to what the future holds for Mauritania’s cows, sheep, goats, and of course, camels.
The future of camel farming might be far from Deyloul’s pastoral ideal. Instead, it might look like the areas around Nouakchott, where, in October, I saw camels graze on the last of the rainy-season grasses without seeming to mind pesky things like roads or cars.
Bernard Faye, who has spent his career studying camels around the world with the French agricultural research institute CIRAD, said that he was struck by the changes he saw in the camel farming system in Mauritania earlier this year compared with his first trip here about 10 years ago. “I was surprised when I came in January and February to see so many herders around Nouakchott and completely sedentary,” said Faye.
Mauritania had always been a country of nomads—in 1965, a census estimated that 77 percent of the population was nomadic—so much so that the word for “tent” in Hassaniya is also the word for “family.” But a drought across the Sahel that lasted from the late 1960s until the 1980s, which resulted in both a creeping famine and a devastating number of livestock deaths, pushed people out of the desert and the savanna and into the cities. The population of Nouakchott, for example, exploded from about 12,000 inhabitants in 1965 to nearly 1 million today—this in a country with only about 4 million people.
Even as the people of the Sahel and the Sahara suffered—along with most of their livestock—the camel thrived in the harsh environments of Niger, Somalia, and the Sudan. In Mauritania, the drought decimated cattle, but the camel population went from just over half a million heads in the 1960s to 1.5 million today, according to estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization. Local experts think there are at least 3 million camels in Mauritania.
Faye said that many of Mauritania’s camel herders settled in Nouakchott to sell milk to the growing population of urban customers with rural roots. Services and opportunities were centralized in the capital and other cities, so people settled there because they had no choice—not if they wanted to save themselves. Instead of following the clouds, they had to follow the money. Instead of herding animals, they got jobs in offices, markets, and factories. Instead of drinking fresh milk every morning straight from the camel or cow, they bought imported milk from Europe.
It was in this context that an innovative dairy called Tiviski launched in 1987, with the idea of bringing local camel’s milk to the Mauritanian market and thus helping camel farmers support themselves and their animals. While Africa is home to nearly 80 percent of the world’s camels, Tiviski was the continent’s first camel dairy. Director Maryam Abeiderrahmane said that the vision for the dairy is simple. “Milk is a renewable raw material and one that is untapped,” she said. “So our idea is to use it.”
Tiviski was the brainchild of Maryam’s mother, Nancy Abeiderrahmane, a British engineer who moved to the country with her Mauritanian husband. Tiviski started to collect, pasteurize, and package camel’s milk from hundreds of individual farmers—first in the areas around Nouakchott and then in the interior. It was not easy at first. “Traditionally, camel farmers did not sell camel milk,” said Maryam Abeiderrahmane. “They thought it would bring them bad luck.”
In the early days of the dairy, Mohamed Tate only had a handful of camels, but he decided to tempt fate. He is not, like Taleb, a hereditary camel farmer. His family had some camels and other animals, sure, but he never aspired to livestock husbandry as a way of life and instead went to Senegal to work as a merchant. But in 1989, a conflict between farmers and herders on the border of the two countries sparked a larger crisis: In Mauritania, the government expelled thousands of black Mauritanians to Senegal and Mali; in Senegal, violence against Arab-Berber merchants like Tate forced them to flee. “I arrived here in 1989, but everything that I had was lost,” he said.
At the time Tiviski had just started, and Tate saw it as an opportunity. “People would say, ‘Sell milk? That’s ugly and shameful,’ ” he said. He would respond, “It’s better to sell milk than have to rely on charity.”
With nearly 100 milk camels, Tate is still selling milk year-round and at 63, shows no sign of slowing down. By all accounts, he is doing well. On a late September afternoon, he was just getting back into his work routine after a month away in Mecca on his fourth Hajj.
Over the years, attitudes among camel farmers have shifted completely. Sidi Ould Knine is a seminomadic camel farmer who says he now sells his milk—sometimes to Tiviski and sometimes to one of Tiviski’s competitors. “I started to understand that if we do not sell milk, we can’t cope with the herd’s expenses,” he said, expenses such as animal health care and feed for the periods when there is not enough pasture in the area.
Most of the year, Knine sells milk in Rosso, a town on the Senegal River in southwestern Mauritania, where the dairies have collection centers. During the rainy season, he takes the camels a bit farther from the town and sells milk on the side of the road. The herd can eat the grass and leaves for free, and the price he gets from passersby is two or three times what he would get at the factories.
The herders in Nouakchott year-round are not so lucky, according to Bernard Faye.
“Every day, the camels are going into the fields around the town, but the pasture is partly destroyed, especially if there’s no rain.” he said. “It’s very difficult to feed the camels now due to this concentration.”
In the mornings, Tate’s camels go out to graze on the outskirts of the city, where buildings begin to thin out and the horizon opens up into an unbroken expanse, save for the occasional tent, tree, or dune. The animals find what they can out there, but there’s a lot of competition, so Tate has to buy bags of peanut cake, wheat, or corn to supplement their diet. The herds are also susceptible to the parasitic mites that cause mange, which he has to buy medicine to treat. With those costs and the salaries of the eight workers who take care of the animals to cover, he wants to get the best price possible for his milk. Most of the time, that means selling directly to consumers and small-scale distributors and not from the dairies, like Tiviski, that have built up a whole industry to process and sell the milk.
At dusk, Tate’s workers milk the camels in teams of two, one person working the camel’s udder while the other uses a calabash to collect the ultra-white liquid that soon develops a fluffy froth on top. Almost as soon as the milk comes out of the camel’s body, it gets sold to a few distributors, who pour it into half-liter bottles or small plastic bags to sell at neighborhood shops around Nouakchott where would-be buyers queue at the door, waiting for their daily milk. Many people prefer it raw and unpasteurized anyway.
That is good for camel farmers but not so good for the industry. “There is less and less camel milk coming in,” said Abeiderrahmane. The factories get more in periods of lower consumer demand, when the roadside sellers find that they just can’t sell their milk. But if they can’t sell it, neither can Tiviski.
Tiviski expanded its operations to include cow’s milk years ago, and it now comprises about 75 percent of the dairy’s production. But Tiviski’s cow’s milk still has to compete with imported cow’s milk that is often sold at a lower price. “The problems,” Abeiderrahmane said, “they just don’t stop,” and the solutions don’t come easily.
But Tiviski is not giving up on camel’s milk, which is at the heart of the company as its original product. The dairy still believes that this renewable raw material can be harnessed. Abeiderrahmane said that Tiviski is trying to work around the supply problem by opening a new collection center for camel’s milk in the Tiris Zemmour region. The remote area is in extreme north of the country, along the borders with Mali, Algeria, and Western Sahara, and is known for its enormous herds of camels. El Hacen Ould Taleb says it is one of the healthiest zones for the animals. “Deyloul called it ‘the earth without a sky,’ because it does not rain much but it has good pastures,” he said.
In the past, it was not feasible for Tiviski to set up in a region at least 400 miles away from its Nouakchott processing facility and lacking in critical infrastructure such as electricity and water. But with new solar power technology, some isothermal tanks, and financing from the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group’s lending arm, Abeiderrahmane thinks Tiviski can make it can work. This camel’s milk will be destined not for pasteurization but for desiccation; it will be sold as powdered milk, a new product for Tiviski, which has a longer shelf life and a more flexible market. It would help the dairy buy more milk from the producers without worrying about being able to sell it right away. Abeiderrahmane is optimistic about the experiment. “We are hopeful,” she said. “We have put everything into this, so we don’t have a choice but to continue on.”
On Friday afternoon after Jumu’ah, or Friday prayer, Nouakchott starts to empty out. Many people go into the desert with a tent to spend the weekend. El Hacen Ould Taleb goes to his village, El Harth, about 85 miles southwest of the capital, to breathe the fresh air, he says, and to watch the green grass grow. He goes to see his camels too, or at least some of them.
The people in Taleb’s village have started to settle down permanently with their cows, sheep, goats, donkeys, and camels. “But some of them still continue to take advantage of the big pasturelands,” living as sons of the clouds. After all, Taleb says, roaming is best for the environment in this dry, fragile place, and he insists it is best for the animals too. His own camels are doing just that: In the early fall, half of the herd had wandered a couple hundred miles to the east, and half had crossed over the river and into Senegal’s pastoral zone.
Every year his organization, GNAP, collects information from its nationwide network of herders about the state of the pasturelands at the end of the rainy season to help prepare the pastoralists for the year to come. If there’s been no rain that year, for example, they’ll know not to stay too long in the north but to instead head east or south. If it has been an especially bad year or a drought, they know that herders will need supplemental feed. “But even if the year was extremely good here, they move,” Taleb said. “The fact of moving, of migrating, it’s a condition of survival in this part of the globe.” By moving, the camels still bring goods to other markets, as they did in the days of the caravans—only now it’s their own milk, meat, wool, and leather.
Taleb expounded on the NGO projects targeting pastoralists as he lounged on his carpets, and on the Mauritanian government’s new initiative to improve the genetic stock of Mauritania’s camels. The goal is to increase their milk production. “The camel farmers are interested in anything that will improve their revenues and as long as it will be able to adapt to the climate,” he said. He has no interest in repeating the horror stories of imported European cows that ate too much and then died when the hot and dry harmattan winds started to blow. Having lived through a half lifetime of development projects, he only puts stock in projects that seem able to deliver sustainable, reliable results.
Faye told me that over the last 20 years he had seen farmers south of the traditional camel zone start to invest in the animals in places like northern Nigeria and Burkina Faso. “It is for safeguarding the farming system, because with cattle, people know they have lost a lot of animals during the different droughts, and they prefer to keep the camel now, even if they are not originally camel herders,” he said. So in a way, the camel—an animal so often associated with legend and tradition—has also become the animal of the future in the Sahel.
Taleb said the world needs more research on camels and camel husbandry. There are many things that camel farmers know, the knowledge passed down from before the time of Deyloul, that scientists are only just now learning. Maybe collecting and building on this savoir faire could help camel farmers not only continue to survive but to thrive.
In the morning, Taleb’s camels left the camp after they were milked—or rather, the hired shepherd, Mohammed Zein, let them go. The night before, he tied their front legs together so they could not wander off. For a couple of them, he went even further, bending a front leg so that the animal could not put its foot on the ground. That’s for the skittish ones—and for the leader. “If she leaves, the others will be agitated,” Zein said. “She’s the one they follow when they go into the bush.”
Sure enough, in the morning, as soon as Zein unhooked the leader, all the camels took off, stretching their legs and showing off their speed. They raced down the hill with something like purpose, across a sparse flat and into a grassland dotted with thorny acacia trees—searching for someplace only they seemed to know.
Zein let them go—for the time being. He knew how to find them.