The Camel Carers

A touring photographic exhibition of Somali herders and community-based animal health in the Horn of Africa

This exhibition shows how animals, particularly camels, feature in the lives of Somali herders in the Horn of Africa.

The photographs also show how strong, traditional livestock rearing skills are supported by community-based animal health programmes.

All the photographs were shot in Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia where people rely on their animals for food, income and cultural well-being. As the Somalis say, “If our animals are healthy, we are healthy”.

The photographs were taken between 1993 and 1997 during assignments with the British agencies ActionAid, VetAid and Save the Children UK. The exhibition was made possible by a grant from Save the Children UK to Vetwork UK.

Somali pastoralism

The Somali people occupy a huge part of the Horn of Africa stretching from northern Kenya, upwards through Somalia and eastern Ethiopia to Djibouti. They are a Hamitic people with a common language and ancestry dating back to AD 620 and Abu Ta’alib, the uncle of the prophet Mohamed. Somali society is organised into six clan families called the Dir, Isaaq, Darod, Hawiye, Digil and Rahanweyne. Each clan family is further divided into smaller groups such as clans and sub-clans which are highly organised social units.

The typical Somali landscape is one of harsh semi-desert with sparse vegetation and to a western eye, few signs of life. Annual rainfall can be below 300mm and when rain comes, it falls mainly in a short rainy season called gu from March to May. On the Somali rangelands the keys to survival are livestock and mobility. Animals such as camels, cattle, sheep and goats are able to convert dryland plants which are inedible to humans, into highly nutritious foodstuffs for people such as milk and meat.

The importance of camels

Although Somalis keep different types of animals, it is the camel that is most favoured.  Somalia alone has around 7 million camels which is more than any other country in the world. The popularity of the camel relates to its ability to produce milk when at times of the year when water is scarce. Although all livestock provide milk during the main gu rains when pasture and browse are lush, as the long jilaal dry season progresses the cows, sheep and goats become less productive.

At this time, teenage boys and young men take camels to remote browsing areas where water holes are few. The camel herders rely almost totally on camels' milk for food during these dry months and supplement their diet with wild fruits or occasional meat from an animal that has died. When other livestock are suffering from lack of water a single camel will continue to produce around 6 litres of milk a day - two camels will meet the daily calorie needs of three active people. Camel milk is also rich in group B vitamins and contains three times the vitamin C content as cows' milk.

More about camels...

Milking camels in particular are social, gentle animals treated with much affection by their keepers. The Somali love of camels is reflected in their culture, customs and perception of wealth. Camels often feature in song and poetry, and camel milk is strongly associated with good times and peace. Good milking she-camels are highly prized and are a source of pride and prestige for their owners.

The affection for camels is also shown in the way that they are cared for and the numerous traditional health and husbandry practices which have evolved over hundreds of years. Somalis have a rich vocabulary to describe different types of camels, camel diseases, camel parasites, types of milk and methods of milking. They also use a wide range of local plants as medicines to treat camel ailments, and these medicines are usually administered with Koranic prayers and verse.  

"To the Somali pastoralist the camel is the most valuable animal of all, and a large herd is a sign of strength, power and prestige. As a form of property the camel is strongly associated with patrilineal kinship, which is a major structural principle in Somali society and culture..........camels are not primarily disposable income. Their value lies in the material and social survival capacity that they offer the families that keep them. The camel, which in Somali culture represents the image of continuity and reproduction, is a source of security in case of drought and misfortune. In being able to sustain long periods of drought, a recurrent phenomenon in the area, camels have a great potential for survival"

At night camels are penned in thorn bush enclosures to prevent them from straying and protect them from predators such as hyenas. Occasionally, animals that are prone to wander are hobbled during the night with rope. This practice does not prevent the animals from moving or lying down.

Female camels that are due to give birth are allowed to find a secluded place in the bush. However, a wooden bell around the neck of the camel helps the herder to keep track of her movements and locate her if necessary. In this picture, Ahmed Aden Mohammed of ActionAid checks up on a newborn calf and her mother.

In the jilaal dry season wells are dug into dry riverbeds and circular troughs are constructed from mud. Each herding unit tends to maintain its own troughs in order to prevent disease spread between groups of camels. The dry season and drought periods are divided into three periods called kalhoraad (early dry season), kaldhexaad (middle dry season) and kaldambeed (late dry season). In the late dry season the watering interval can be 13 days or more and mature bull camels can consume up to 100 litres during a single drinking session.

Qat Chewing

When the work of livestock herding is over, a common form of relaxation in Somali areas is to chew the leaves of a plant called “qat” (Catha edulis) and drink sweet tea. In some ways, qat chewing is similar to the social drinking of alcohol in western countries. The plant contains a mild amphetamine which loosens the tongue and encourages people to talk. Also like alcohol, qat is addictive.

Camels are not the only livestock kept by Somali pastoralists. They also rear cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys. The Somali black-headed sheep are a type of fat-tailed sheep that are very adapted to dry areas. There are of course many stories explaining why the head of these sheep is black and the body white, though nobody seems to know the real reason.

Children and livestock herding

Children form an important part of the labour force and they have particular responsibility for herding small ruminants such as sheep and goats. The use of children to look after animals has both pros and cons. While animals are essential for a family’s food and income and children need to learn livestock skills they need later in life, herding duties can sometimes prevent children attending school.

In many Somali pastoralist areas there are traditional, mobile schools called duksis that follow the livestock herds and provide lessons to children in the early morning or evening. These schools are based on koranic teaching and traditional teachers are paid in livestock for their services.

Western-style schooling based on fixed schools can cause many problems for pastoralists and organisations such as Save the Children are looking at alternative to use both traditional and western systems.

Alternative approaches to providing veterinary services

After the recent civil war in Somalia, a number of non governmental organisations (NGOs) began working with Somali communities to provide relief aid and begin rehabilitation efforts. Increasingly, the provision of effective aid has involved looking at long-term solutions and enabling communities to take more responsibility for identifying and solving problems. Due to importance of livestock in Somali areas, people often said that poor animal health services was one of their most important problems.

During the Somali civil war and Ogaden war, government veterinary facilities such as clinics and laboratories were destroyed. Even before the war, these services did not usually extend into pastoralist areas.

One solution to the animal health problem was for communities to select people for training as community –based animal health workers(CAHWs) and agree on pricing for veterinary medicines and payment for the CAHWs.

More about community-based animal health workers

Training o CAHWs was provided by the NGOs and the new animal health workers were supplied with a basic kit of veterinary drugs and equipment. The best CAHWs are those people who own animals themselves, who are respected locally for their livestock knowledge and who move with herds in search of grazing and water.

The main advantages of community-based approaches to animal health in Somali areas are that CAHWs are willing to travel long distances on foot in order to collect veterinary drugs, and they are able to penetrate deep into remote grazing areas. A well such as that shown here can only be accessed on foot and is approximately 40km form the nearest urban center.

Involving local people

As Somali herders already know a great deal about livestock health and management, CAHW training is often straightforward and people are very willing to participate. When people begin to pay for CAHW services at commercial rates, the whole system can become independent of outside help from aid agencies.

The first stage of a community-based animal health project involves listening to local people and learning about the diseases they consider to be important. Just as westerners do not often understand much about the lives of people in other countries, so do professional people such as veterinarians often misunderstand the needs of livestock owners in their own country

The following two pictures were taken after Somali veterinarians had been trained in community participation skills. Here, a Somali veterinarian interviews a woman in Jare, eastern Ethiopia.

Learning about community participation includes ways of interviewing people, learning about their problems and working together to come up with solutions. Sometimes, people are encouraged to make diagrams or use other methods in order to explain what they know about animal health.

In this picture a woman uses a scoring exercise to describe how parasites affect the health of her animals. She’s placing stones next to pictures of different parasites according to the importance and seasonal occurrence of the parasites.

One advantage of participatory work with communities is that it can be conducted anywhere and doesn’t require special equipment. In the picture above a group of herders near a remote well in Somaliland try to decide which disease affecting their livestock are the most important.

Training community-based animal health workers

Once local animal health problems are fully understood, project vets can begin to work with herders to decide how people for training as community animal health workers (CAHWs) should be selected. Ideally, the community should have a big say in who is selected for training because in the long term, the worker will be responsible to the community. She or he will also receive some financial benefits because people will be expected to pay for the service.


The project vets also need to think about the training course for the CAHWs and make sure that important local problems are included in the lessons. These training courses are based on methods called “Participative Training” which build on the existing knowledge of the trainees by using techniques such as brainstorming and practical exercises.

More on training

In Somali areas, the training of CAHWs is usually very straightforward because herders already know a lot about animal diseases. They have their own names for diseases, know about the signs of disease and also know the times of year when disease is most likely to occur. Livestock parasites also have specific names and are associated with specific diseases. The common diseases affecting Somali livestock are worms called caal, tick infestation called shilin, pneumonia called sambab and a form of sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis) in camels called dhukaan or gendhi.

CAHW training really comes alive when people start to handle animals and practice new techniques. As always, the first challenge is ‘catch your patient’

Using traditional knowledge

The training of CAHWs does not only focus on modern veterinary treatments, but also provides a forum for discussion on traditional remedies for livestock diseases. More than 100 local plants are used by Somali pastoralists to treat livestock ailments. Each plant has a Somali name and ‘recipe’ for preparing the medicine.

This flowers of this plant, called ugaab tahays (Caralluma somalensis) are used to treat foot wounds on livestock.