Burden Camels in Somaliland: Disappearing Skilled Practices and Material Heritage

By Raphael Schwere, Ahmed M. Musa, and Saeed Hussein | 10 November 2020

In Somaliland, the camel is the iconic animal. It is bred and kept as economic capital, used for social transactions, its milk and meat are highly valued, and it is exported for foreign currency. Moreover, strong male camels are used as beasts of burden to transport goods, household effects, and the elements of the traditional Somali hut. Burden camels, however, with their loads fixed to the crossed wooden poles before and after the hump, have become a rare sight in the region.

Today, the practice of using burden camels is disappearing rapidly and the manifold factors accelerating this process are intricately interwoven with the local and regional social and environmental transformations. The intensified and commercialized camel economy, sedentarisation and adapted livelihoods strategies, unprecedented rural-urban migration, newly developed infrastructures, such as roads, and the climatic and ecological changes are transforming human-camel relations profoundly. For example, whereas pastoral families lived nomadic lives in close proximity with their animals, today only a few herdsmen with minimal baggage drive the camels from pasture to pasture.

The project aims to document this defining aspect of Somali pastoral heritage that is in danger of disappearing. Through cooperative research on and documentation of material knowledge and practices, artefact collection, exhibition and discussion of the material knowledge system and the process of disappearance in the only museum in Somaliland, we seek to make a reflected contribution to the current renegotiation and revaluation of the Somali cultural heritage and post-conflict identity.

In the context of social, economic and ecological dynamics and transformations in Somaliland, burden camels are disappearing. What is disappearing are the material equipment, the gear, used to fix cargo onto camels and–this is often overlooked–the indispensable knowledge (e.g. selection and training of suitable, castrated he-camels) and skills (making and mending the equipment, lashing, weight balancing, etc.) to be performed in the course of migrating with, loading and offloading the burden camel, and, not least, the immaterial culture that surrounds the practice, such as songs that accompany the work or poems that describe and laud it. Thus, at the present moment, the opportunity must be seized to preserve this material knowledge as long as there are still people who use burden camels in their daily lives.

Accordingly, this project has three main goals:

  • Create an in-depth, holistic and medially rich documentation of the contemporary disappearing material culture, skilled practices and the associated oral cultural expressions, the songs and poems that embody the respective knowledge.
  • In the preparatory phase of the project, knowledge about existing museum collections (in museums in the Horn of Africa and Europe) related to the phenomenon, shall be increased.
  • Findings of the project and the documentation shall be shared with the local community in Somaliland who are in need of a safeguarded cultural heritage (cf. Sada Mire 2017 “The role of cultural heritage in the basic needs of East African pastoralists”), and with the international community who needs to get to know Somalia and Somaliland from a more positive perspective, beyond the one-sided current reports of the popular media about the region (terror, piracy, droughts, etc.).

Raphael Schwere, MA, Ethnographic Museum/Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, University of Zurich
Ahmed M. Musa, Dr, Rako Research and Communication Centre

Saeed Hussein, Director, Saryan Museum

Location of Research:
Republic of Somaliland

Host Institution:
Ethnographic Museum at the University of Zurich