Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Nomad's Gift


The description of “Pets and People” includes the experiences that humans share with domesticated animals. We are most familiar with our household pets that become part of our family and serve as faithful companions.  In certain cultures, animals can be cherished in different ways.  In the following true story, my experience with a nomadic family taught me about a culture that revered their animals for the shelter they provide, the sustenance they furnish and the status they bestow.

In several previous articles I described a journey I took from North to South Africa in a VW Campmobile with two other vehicles, transversing the Sahara desert and the jungles of Central Africa. The goal of this journey was to observe undomesticated animals in their natural environment and to learn more about the relationship that man shares with different kinds of domesticated animals.

On the southern fringes of the Sahara desert there is a geographic area called the Savanna. This is a place where the first signs of vegetation exist and is the area where nomadic peoples move to and fro with their cattle.  In an area that appears to be barren, there exists the largest density of various tribes in all of Africa.

At the end of an exhausting day of driving over corrugated sand trails, the group of two other vehicles in our “caravan” set up camp in what appeared to be a barren area of sparse vegetation.  Within forty-five minutes, three young girls appeared, each representing different sects of tribal people.  Dressed in various attire, some wore magnificent jewelry handcrafted for them.  We began to sense how little we understood about the mysterious cultures in this part of the world. These young girls stood shyly on the perimeter of our camp area and simply observed us from a distance.

One of our group had brought hospital scrub tops and gave them to the girls as gifts.  Overjoyed, they departed, to be joined shortly by tribal elders who appeared from the brush surrounding us. One of these men was dressed in a loincloth covered by a woven tunic, and had a hair style that included bangs and hair to his shoulders.  It was as if we were experiencing man as he may have appeared in prehistoric times. The other adult male wore blue robes and white headwear that covered his face. He was a Taureg, the fierce fighters of the Sahara known as “Blue Arabs” because of the indigo color of his dress.

In return for our gift to his daughter, the man in the tunic brought a vessel made from cattle skin filled with milk and offered us a drink. As a military public health officer in the Air Force, the idea of drinking unpasteurized milk was somewhat repulsive, however, rejecting this offer of good will was unimaginable.

The purpose of my journey was to experience life to the fullest, and I must admit that after having children of my own, I probably would not have accepted his sign language invitation to follow him into the bush. My traveling companions expressed anxiety and disapproval at my decision to follow him into the bush, however, for me this was a risk worth taking.

I trailed behind him as he swiftly blazed a trail over dunes and into brush.  I lost sight of my encampment and it was as if I was in a dream, following a prehistoric ancestor rather than a complete stranger. Eventually, we reached his homestead.  In a clearing stood several large tents made from the hides of his treasury of animals. He apparently had several wives and was wealthy based on the number of cattle he maintained.

He invited me, again through sign language, to eat with his family of wives and children and to spend the night.  I could only imagine what a night with this nomadic family would bring. One of my greatest regrets was not accepting that invitation. As my mind returned to the companion who shared my VW Van with me, concern for the anxiety my overnight absence would create forced me to accept the fact that staying would be unfair to her and the other members of my party of adventurers.

Dusk had arrived and the stars were beginning to appear.  Looking into the eyes of my nomadic friend, I pointed to the night sky and to my eyes, signaling my inability to find my way back to my camp. He understood and communicated his desire to guide me back to his wives.  At this time they became agitated that he would go back into the bush at night.  Perhaps there was a danger that I did not know about.  However, guide me back he did.   A perfect stranger was risking his well being for me.

I had come to learn about the relationship between man and animal, and to my great benefit I had learned about the potential for relationships between all men. This was the nomad’s gift.

Post Script:  I was later to learn that this was the beginning of one of the worst draughts in the recorded history of the sub-Sahara.  In several years time, most nomadic peoples lost their animals and perished and those who survived had to seek shelter and aid in more urban populated areas south of the Sahara.

The Nomad with a walking stick and his daughter who received a green scrub from our party.  The other men represent different tribes, one of which is called a “Blue Arab” because of the color of his dress (right).


A documentary DVD has been produced using the film I took on this trek through Africa.  I would be happy to share it with any interested groups. This is the final article on that journey.  Previous articles can be found on my website: manchestervet.com

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