Once upon a time, I was at a dinner in rural Turkmenistan. I’d been invited home by a local health official, after an award ceremony for the visiting health nurses in the district who did the best job of educating parents of young children about diarrhea. The meal was huge, and multi-course, in keeping with Turkmen tradition. Towards the end, as we were all starting to list a bit on our floor pillows, the official began to talk about camels.
You see them everywhere in Turkmenistan, camels. They’re as common as cows in American farm country. You get used to them quickly. Once I’d gotten over the novelty, I hadn’t thought twice about camels until that dinner. The official had grown up in the rural district which he now served as head doctor. As a young boy, he’d been in charge of his family’s camels. They had 15, which he swore were easier to care for than just two cows. He spent a good 30 minutes telling us about the special and wonderful characteristics of camels.
Once I started learning about camels, though, I realized I should have been paying attention all along. Camels can handle changes in body temperature and levels of dehydration that would kill any other mammal. Camel milk has better nutritional value than cow’s milk – more milk and more fat. It makes fabulous yogurt. Camel meat is flavorful and lean, if a bit tough.(1) Contrary to commonly-held beliefs, camels are patient, good-tempered, and placid by nature.(2) They’re intelligent enough to be trained like horses, and can carry up to 990 pounds.
During the 1984-85 African drought, cows, sheep, and goats died but the camels made it through. Their owners, in turn, were more likely to live through the famine. Camels are good livestock. They’re hardy, long-lived, cheap to feed and easy to care for. They are the kind of livestock that can lift a family out of poverty.
(1) I’ve never tried camel dairy, but I’ve eaten camel meat. It’s chewy and spicy.
(2) Though I have been told they are puppy killers.
(no photo credit – I took this one with my own hands)