Pastoralism, the movement of households following seasonal grazing patterns, has been practised among Somalis for centuries. The movements of pastoralists and their livestock are directed by the seasons and by the availability of grass and water. In Somalia there are two rainy seasons (gu’ and dayr) and two dry seasons (haggaa and jilaal). Pastoralists move between rainy season grassland with seasonal water supplies, and permanent water sources which they concentrate around during the dry season.

The main diet of the pastoralists depends heavily on animal products and is composed principally of milk from all livestock, and ghee and meat. Cereals are bought with cash from the sale of livestock. Since the commercialisation of livestock in the 1970s and 1980s pastoral communities have shifted towards urban-style food and clothes.

The pastoral economy depends on families herding a variety of species for production and for sale. Sheep and goats are herded as domestic stock, while camels are the family’s main asset, valued both for their resistance to drought, for their market and social value, and for their varied uses in transport and as food. Camels represent the most important gifts – such as the bridewealth (yarad) given by a prospective husband’s family to the family of his wife-to-be. The yarad will consist of one male and several more valuable female camels and sometimes a gun and a horse.

If a murder or wounding occurs, of all the livestock the perpetrator’s family can give to the victim’s family in compensation the camel will be the most important. The exact number of camels and livestock to be handed over will be carefully calculated to match the ‘value’ of the dead or wounded person and the impact of the damage caused. Livestock are the pastoralists’ currency and the camel is the highest denomination. Up to 100 camels could be given (or their equivalent in sheep and goats) in the most serious cases of male homicide.

Female animals usually constitute the majority of a productive herd, while male herds are used for commercial purposes, being exchanged for town commodities such as grain, sugar, clothes and shoes. They are also kept for slaughtering for feasts, funerals and other social events. A family needs both male and female camels but will keep more females than males. The female camel is the most valued as an exchange asset and because it is the source of milk.

Male camels are important as stud and burden-bearing animals. Only male camels are used for transportation. Specially selected before they reach seven years old, the males chosen for transport camels (gaadiid) will be first castrated. Camels are extremely strong and to castrate one needs several strong men. Once castrated they will be broken in by the ‘camel boys’ (teenagers who may be sons or cousins of the family) and then trained by the men. Camels are not docile animals by nature; training takes up to a year. The camel is trained to sit for a long period whilst its back is loaded, to walk with a load for a long period of time, to wear a saddle and halter, to be led and to stand still, to obey commands. Somali pastoralists do not use camels as riding animals: only the very young, very old or sick are carried on the camel’s back. It is to carry the family’s house and household equipment that the camel is trained.

Once trained each transport camel can carry one house (aqal). Until they are sufficiently experienced the newly trained transport camels (qaalin or gaadiid) will be entrusted with carrying unbreak­ables only. An obedient and reliable transport camel is a highly valued asset. The older, most experienced transport camels, hayin, will be trusted to carry children and young livestock on the long journeys to find a new place to settle. Hayin are patient and obedient; the less experienced qaalin will be tied to and led along by the hayin to prevent them running away and destroying their burdens.

While female and castrated male camels spend much time in distant grazing areas with the camel-boys, transport camels will always be kept near to the household, and are thus available when needed by women to bring water from a distant water source, or to transport milk to be exchanged in town. When the time comes for the whole household to move on, the women work out how everything will be transported, which camels will carry what and how many camels will be needed. A family will only have a certain number of transport camels of their own (relating to the number of aqals in the household), but families will lend each other their transport camels if necessary, known as gaadiid qaad.

In very difficult times the household may be forced to sell some of its camels or may lose them through sickness or prolonged drought. But a family would never sell its transport camels while it still had options available. Without its transport camels the pastoral family is unable to survive; such a family is in a state of complete poverty.

The uncastrated male camels (baarqab), which are not selected for breeding or training as transport animals will be sold or slaughtered for meat. A household with 100 head of camels will keep just one or two stud camels for breeding. Although they graze with the herd for the rest of the year, during the breeding season stud camels are kept close to the family home, needing strong and experienced men to look after them. Breeding is carefully planned; to avoid interbreed­ing within the herd stud camels may be temporarily exchanged between families. There are stories of stud camels being given herbal medicines with aphrodisiac properties to improve their performance, or sometimes to calm them down.