SAKABAL, Niger — In a part of the world where the worth of a man is measured by his animals, Tuareg nomad Soumaila Wantala has come to this market to do the unthinkable: Sell his last camel.
He crouches in the shade of a thorn tree as traders haggle over the 4-year-old male animal, Yedi. When the sale is complete, Yedi rears his enormous neck and lets out a cry, like the deep, subterranean call of a whale. It takes three men to drag the camel out of the arena, as if he understands the fate that has just befallen his master.
In markets all over Niger, hungry people are selling hungry animals for half their normal value, giving up on the milk and money of tomorrow so that their children can eat today. Their plight is a sign of how far the economy of the desert has broken down, leaving its people unable to feed themselves in drought after drought.
This is a community so tied to its animals that children play with miniature camels or cows cut from rock. It’s in livestock that a man settles disputes, pays the dowry for his future bride and leaves an inheritance to his sons.
So to see a nomad sell his last camel is like watching someone sell their house and car, liquidate their 401(k) and empty their bank account all at once, just to buy groceries.
Such fire sales are now happening with frightening regularity in cattle markets like this one, poised on the edge of the massive grasslands that run like a ribbon across the neck of Africa.
In a normal year, an adult camel like Yedi could sell for as much as $1,600. After spending all day under the thorn tree, Wantala, a 35-year-old who looks like a human stick, was forced to accept half that price. Across the plains, his wife and six children were waiting for him under an animal-skin tent, their bag of grain nearly empty.
“It’s a deep shock. It’s like I’ve fallen into a hole,” said Wantala. “But right now, I’m hungry. And I need first of all to remove the hunger.”
Animals in the Sahel act as a buffer, a cushion against hunger. In times of need, a cow or camel provides milk, and is also an asset that can be traded for food.
Eighty percent of people in this landlocked nation, and virtually all in its rural areas, depend on livestock for some part of their income, according to Niger’s breeders’ association.
In a time of drought, the animals lose weight, and nomads literally see their assets shrink. At the same time, the cost of grain goes up. The price of millet, a local staple, is now at record levels.
In March of last year, a goat could be traded at a market in Niger’s Tahoua region for 394 pounds of millet, according to the FAO. By March this year, it took two goats to fetch the same amount of cereal.
“For the herders, it’s a double whammy,” says Paul Sitnam, West Africa director for humanitarian emergency affairs for World Vision, which works in Niger’s pastoral region. “The animal represents their capital. Their savings.”
Animals can feed children over time. UNICEF estimates 1 million children in the Sahel face life-threatening malnutrition this year because of the drought, more than a third of them in Niger. The all-too-familiar period without rain in this former French colony of 16 million is so painful it is called the “soudure” — French for “soldering” lips shut.
Aid groups have saved lives by trucking in food and setting up feeding centers. It’s an expensive fix, though, that does not mend a broken food chain. During the Sahel drought of 2005, it cost donors $80 a day to save the life of a severely malnourished child, according to United Nations figures. Preventing malnutrition would have cost just $1 a day.
But it’s a tough sell to get donors to save the goats which could prevent a child’s hunger.
“Pictures of starving goats do not attract aid in the same way as images of dying children,” says Maiga Ibrahim Soumaila, a representative of the United Nations Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
For generations, nomads like Wantala have lived in a precarious equilibrium with the sky above them.
When the first rains come, they head north toward the Sahara desert, where the grass is said to be saltier, packed with minerals. They time their movements according to the clouds, waiting for the second major downpour before making a U-turn back to the greener south.
Herders keep both camels and goats. If a camel is an investment account like a 401(k), a goat is petty cash, traded during the lean season for bags of millet.
Wantala’s troubles began three years ago, when the rains abruptly stopped during the drought of 2010. He found himself stuck between two watering holes, dozens of miles from the nearest market. And while a camel can last 10 days without water under the blasting sun, goats and sheep will only live for two to three days, experts say.
By the time he reached the auction block, the ones that had survived were so thin they sold for almost nothing.
Out of goats by the end of 2010, Wantala was forced to begin selling his five camels. His only female camel became weak from the drought and died, robbing his family of their milk supply.
So last month, Wantala saddled Yedi one last time and rode to Sakabal, where nomads in varying degrees of despair were selling several dozen other camels. Each precious camel wore a leather pouch around its neck with a strip of paper, printed with recitations from the Quran, to protect it from the evil eye.
Despite their attempts, the nomads have not found an amulet to protect the camels from drought.
Niger is no stranger to famine, and the worst droughts are remembered with special names. There was the one known as “the wind that carried away our children.” In 1968, herders lost between 50 and 100 percent of their animals. Then, between 1972 to 1973, more than 6 million of Niger’s animals died, or half the national herd, according to historian and author Thurston Clarke.
Between those droughts, though, the rains returned, allowing people to rebuild their depleted herds. British charity Oxfam estimates it takes three years to rebuild a herd of goats or sheep, and up to eight for cows and camels.
In recent years, herders have had no time to recover, hit by the relentless hammer of bad rains in 2005, in 2010 and again this year.
At the camel market this spring in Agadez, one of the northernmost points on the caravan route traced every year by herders, a skinny black-and-white goat with a mangy coat dropped down dead. Its owner immediately slit its throat, hoping a belated attempt to satisfy the Muslim ritual of bleeding the animal to death would allow him to sell the meat.
“He wasn’t sick,” the man babbled at a gathering audience. “He just didn’t have enough food.”
An adolescent camel also fell awkwardly, weak from hunger. It broke a foreleg, condemning it to the butcher’s lot. A tear trickled from the young animal’s eye as it was carted away.