James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

One Can Live on Camel Milk Alone

One Can Live on Camel Milk Alone

Camelcinos in Nairobi

Camel milk is becoming trendy among health-conscious Westerners, but in many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, it is nothing new. While not averse to the seemingly miraculous health benefits of camel milk, I partook of this elixir for reasons that were more, well, political.

In the wake of every terror attack, Kenyans react predictably. We freeze, we thaw, we boil, we grieve, we point, we rage, we forget. Until the next time. After the Garissa attack this past Easter—during which 147 people were massacred at a university by Somalia-based Al-Shabaab militants—I struggled with feelings of despair but was determined not to succumb to hate. Wandering the deserted Nairobi streets that cheerless Easter weekend, I recalled a Somali café whose menu promised such dromedary delights as Camelcinos, Camel Lattes, and Camel Mochas, but hesitated. By patronizing a Somali establishment, might I inadvertently be funding terror? Would staring deeply into an aromatic Camelcino yield the answers I sought?

Weeks passed. The tragedy was slowly fading from our collective consciousness but was never far away from my mind, even as normalcy returned. I still wished to sample this elixir of the desert. Food, after all, does more than simply fuel: it unites and comforts.

For the Somali, camel milk has been a staple since the beginning of time. The camel is a prized possession of nomadic tribes due to its remarkable resilience in the hostile conditions of the desert. The Somali will tell you that they were the first to domesticate this redoubtable beast and that their lands possess the largest camel herds on the planet. Camels can live for up to fifty years. Spend that amount of time with an animal, even a temperamental one, and the feelings of attachment are understandable. Nuruddin Farah, Somalia’s foremost novelist, was described by reviewer Derek Wright as standing guard over Somalian liberty like “the camel owner of an anonymous traditional song”:

One of my she-camels falls on the road
And I protect its meat
At night I cannot sleep
And in the daytime I can find no shade.

In his book The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life, the polarizing Pole Ryszard Kapuscinski, who claims he “witnessed 27 coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times,” recalls trekking with Somali nomads and their camels across the hostile desert of the Horn. He tells of nomads dying of thirst that were rescued and sent to relief camps. He says that the Somali, being consummate entrepreneurs, keep their share of relief food and amass stockpiles which they then trade, saving up enough money to buy another camel and, with the restlessness of nomads, go into the desert once more. He tells of nomads who refuse to be rescued altogether, preferring to die by their camel’s side, out there on the scorching sand.

Last year, I visited the northern Kenyan town of Marsabit. My host was a young Rendille man who, in addition to being a moran—a warrior—works as a coffee-fueled computer programmer for the county government. He told me that as a young boy, he would spend days, even months, roaming the parched terrain to the northwest, tending the family camel herds and subsisting entirely on their milk. Duly diligent, I investigated the possibility of boy living by camel milk alone and discovered that, indeed, camel milk has higher amounts of vitamin C and iron than cow or goat milk, and plenty of protein, calcium, and fat, too.

This morning at Hamdi’s, I drank a Camelcino, and thought of the warriors and entrepreneurs who have taught me to broaden my vision of our land.

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