Camels for the Maasai: The Ripple Effect

Recently, I read an article about how Heifer International had introduced camels to the Maasai people of Tanzania. Recurrent severe drought and desertification had decimated the Maasai herds of grass-dependent cattle. Instead of their traditional diet of milk, blood, and meat, the Maasi subsisted on rice and corn meal from the government.

Accepting camels as an alternative to cattle was difficult for the Maasai, despite the advantages. Camels can not only survive and flourish under severe conditions, but they can be trained as draft animals. They live for up to 50 years and, unlike cattle, continue to produce milk through the dry season. The milk is sweet and contains three times the vitamin C of cow’s milk. Reading this, I wondered about not only the ecological ramifications but unintended social changes as well.

Among the Maasai, milking livestock was solely women’s work, along with building huts, gathering firewood, and hauling water for washing and drinking. Camels can be trained to carry water and firewood, thus lightening the work load of the women. The camels, however, were too large and unpredictable for the women to handle on their own. Traditionally, the care and management of livestock has been men’s work, so it fell to them to lead the camels and eventually to help load and unload them. Work once seen as exclusively the responsibility of women was now shared. Quite unintentionally, the camels brought improved “gender equity” to a male-dominated culture.

One of the principles of the Heifer projects is the requirement to “pass on the gift,” that is to donate an offspring of a gift animal to another member of the community. For camels, reproduction is not a speedy process because gestation lasts 13 months and the calf is not ready to leave its mother for another several years. The Maasai, normally nomadic, agreed to remain in the area until they could complete their commitment. This meant, among other things, that their children stayed in one place long enough to go to school. Income from the sale of camel’s milk made it possible to pay school fees, as well as the construction of more permanent dwellings.

Traditionally, the Maasai are hunters and herders. Even with the initial gift of camels, they have so far resisted farming. However, camels can be trained to pull a plough…

As a writer, I find these “what if…and then something unexpected happens” scenarios fascinating. I can readily envision another reality, in which the camels give the Maasai more mobility, instead of less. Or perhaps one in which the women do not enlist the help of the men, but become empowered and even dominant as a result of their control over the camels. Can you imagine Pern with camels instead of dragons? What comes to your mind?

Here’s the whole article.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her recent publications include Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Jaydium, available in serialized chapters and ebook here on Book View Cafe.

Find my new and out-of-print books at Powell’s online. Read my essays on the writing life and how to survive reviews in Brewing Fine Fiction.

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Camels for the Maasai: The Ripple Effect — 5 Comments

  1. I’m not a camel geek but I remember tales of camel races and nomadic tribes of camel herders, so it’s possible for them to return to their lifestyle if they so choose. But what we’re seeing here may be the same as at the dawn of civilization–women want homes. My what if becomes…what if the women decide they’re not traveling anymore? Gender equality offers a freedom that wasn’t there before. Human progress is all about change, what happens if we have it and what happens if we don’t.

    This would be a fascinating story to follow.

  2. There’s an entire section of our culture where one of the spouses is gone for long periods of time, while the other holds together the home life. Usually the woman is holding things together, but not always. So far it seems to be very much an individual couples thing — some do it very well, others not so well.

    Giving them a camel reminds me of how I write SF — change one thing, and then try to follow it through to its conclusion. Thanks, Deborah, this is interesting.

  3. Brenda, I think camels are not nearly as destructive as cattle. The article points out, too, that camels do not tend to roam or need large acreage the way cattle do. This lowers the labor cost of herding and presents different land-management issues.