Somewhere around 5 am I heard the call to prayer from the local mosque. The songs reach deeply into the surrounding communities, where man and animal sleep alike. The morning air is full of bird calls, cawing and calling and mosquito-seeking. At Researcher’s Rest, a lovely guesthouse where I’m staying one more night, the two Rhodesian Ridgebacks (well, sort of, Lokti is a mix) have been released into our big treed yard.
Cool air seeps into my bedroom window. As the slightly overcast day dawns, the sound of motorbikes pierce the morning air. In about half an hour my breakfast will be ready in the main room. Today I am off to ride my favorite camel, Dominique, near Mount Meru, here in Arusha, Tanzania. At least I hope so.
The Mkuru Camel Camp was the idea of an Italian NGO. The notion was that the camels would provide much-needed additional income for the Maasai population. Maasai people’s lives center around their cattle, sheep and goats. Wealth and prestige are largely measured in terms of the number of animals a man has.
Before I came into contact with the camel camp five years ago, the NGO had set the outfit up with a Maasai manager. That manager simply walked off the job one day, never to return. They then hired a Meru man, from a different tribe, who had experience working at the local airport. While these people received training in how to keep camels, they were woefully unprepared.
Not only did they simply not understand that camels — like all animals — must have water, they starved them for it because they were told that these creatures could exist without it for a good while. Yes, but not forever. The first ride I took with them, all three of our animals were irritable and angry until we reached the first stream. They immediately calmed down once they had their fill. The Meru man was mystified, until I explained to him that he couldn’t keep dehydrating his animals until they expired.
Nothing is obvious to the uninformed. Even then, that doesn’t guarantee a change of behavior.
The other unfortunate truth- at least to me as an animal lover- is that the Maasai beat their camels. While we hiked our three day trip to Moshe, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the men whacked our creatures on their long legs with thick wooden sticks. I finally complained enough so that they at least didn’t strike my mount, Dominique. They thought me soft, silly, and ridiculous.
The Maasai don’t believe that animals have a soul, have emotions, or even feel pain. This is a fundamental mindset, and nothing that any Westerner can say or do will change it. At least for my camel, Dominique, while I was on the two trips we had together, he was spared.
When I first rode Dominique, I would take him big bunches of his favorite food. It didn’t take long before he rubbed his huge, regal head against my shins, and rewarded me with a big camel kiss on the cheek. When I went back three years later, he tried to bite me every time I came close. At the end of seven days, some of that had relaxed. But the sweet-tempered Dom that I had ridden back in 2013 was gone forever. That’s what happens when you keep beating an animal.
The camel experiment is a perfect example of how little Westerners understand Africa. No matter how well-meaning, no matter how good an idea seems in concept, the belief seems to be that if it’s our way, it’s better than what already exists. People will embrace it, flock to it, and make changes. It’s a fatally flawed set of assumptions.
This is true no matter who’s doing the intruding. (Witness China’s wholesale invasion of Africa, Southeast Asia, anywhere some strapped government is willing to trade a strategic port for a bridge. For the next 99 years. They want to make the world China. We’ll see how well that all works, but I won’t be around to enjoy it. There’s already pushback https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/2167265/unbuckling-chinas-belt-and-road-plan-will-not-be-easy-western). England tried to make the world England, and that didn’t work very well either. America does its best to make the world as Mickey D’s, Coke and KFC friendly as possible, with horrendous effect. We all seem to suffer from a superiority complex.
But back to Mkuru Camp.
Whether or not the Maasai agree with my notions about animals or women or education makes no difference. What is important is whether I learn something from all this. Here’s what did happen.
Ben, my safari manager, had fought long and hard for this for this day. I also paid a small fortune for a full day of riding (that to me means at least four or five hours in the saddle).
What was to be a full day of camel riding was a truncated experience of barely over an hour. I was fed a cheap white hot dog bun with peanut butter and jam. Someone forgot the key to the tack room, which cost us another hour. Then we rode a short while out to see a local Masai meeting place. We were done by noon. The lunch was a lot better, but after being asked to provide me with lots of fruit, I got one orange and a lot of rice. I don’t eat rice.
I can’t speak for anyone else but when you drop several hundred dollars (which is a fortune in the local currency) you kinda want more than a lousy hot dog bun with peanut butter and jam. However this is how they view value for the money.
I got to wander in and out of the herd during the long wait for the tack room key. There were nine camels. No Dominique.
The place was in a shambles. Entire cabins had collapsed and were now in-habited by dik-diks, a tiny antelope. Many more people had moved into the area so most of the wild animals had left. The well no longer produced water. The roads in and out were so badly washed out that it took us twice as long just to arrive. The Italian NGO is pulling up stakes and leaving.
Perhaps saddest of all, the camel herd went wandering in the bush a while back. Dominique got too close to a local village, where a young Masai boy speared him. He died shortly thereafter, a victim of disregard, poor management and benign neglect.
I saw Maasai friends today with whom I have history. That was delightful. What wasn’t was to see the state of disrepair Mkuru was in, how badly they were handling it, and to learn of Dominique’s entirely unnecessary death.
In many ways, I have much the same attitude about NGOs as I do about missionaries. I’m no fan. They are intrusive, often unwanted, they all too often don’t take the time to understand the culture and respect people’s ways of being before forcing some construct on them that those people neither want nor understand. Then those very people are blamed when a faith or an enterprise fails. The Maasai are not natural managers unless its of their flocks. This enterprise doesn’t interest them, nor does all the hard, expensive work of marketing, relationship development and the business side of creating traffic.
Over our long lunch, I heard the current manager speak of his plans. He has no clue whatsoever what to do, how to do it and what it will cost. That’s not his fault. He has no business training. No schooling. No natural bent for this kind of thing.
He was hoping against hope that I might be interested or offer some cash. Not on your life. Mkuru Camel Camp is a failed concern. It’s a Western business venture foisted on a pastoral people.
As much as I’d like to see my Maasai friends again I won’t be back. If I ride camels in the future it won’t be here. Many folks, including my friend Ben, have worked long and hard to collaborate with them, open doors to new markets and do their best to provide advice and guidance. Nothing has worked. It’s not a fit for their culture.
It’s been five years. This is about the time when most enterprises fail for lack of skill, capital, or any combination of reasons. It’s time to shut this down completely and move on. For the remainder of this herd, that’s a lot better than a spear in the heart just because you’re hungry, when your owners don’t bother to water and feed you.
The Italian NGO owes it to that herd of camels to move them where they will flourish. Perhaps even know affection. Love.
For my part this is an object lesson in what happens when one culture imposes a set of values and expectations on another. But then, that’s just me. There are projects in Africa and elsewhere which work well, in part because people have done the hard work of asking and researching first. However, as we are seeing in bas relief in Afghanistan and elsewhere, just because Westerners provide training (whatever that training may be, be it management or military, or who provides it, East or West), that doesn’t mean anyone has learned. Nor does it make them wrong.
It just means that they’re different.
Sometimes different needs to stay different. That’s part of what makes the world so inviting.
Recently I watched the Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds. We have a fascination with the idea of alien invasions, and how we’re gonna kick ’em right out.
Funny how we simply cannot see how we do precisely the same thing to one another, right here on our own blue marble. It’s okay if our guys do it, but if it happens to us…..
But that’s just my observation. What the hell do I know?
I love camels.