Camel Craving in Somaliland

Escape to Somaliland to explore Ancient Caves, savor Smooth Chai & meet the Somali Teens Who are Reshaping the Future of East Africa.

Somaliland stamp
Armchair Adventure inside
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somali market
Zig-zagging my way beneath the colorful tarps of the bustling Hargeisa market, I scrambled to keep up with Bedri.

My loyal guide for the past five days, Bedri had taken me blazing across deserts in our Land Rover, beachcombing along the Gulf o
back of envelope
Market in Somaliland
Zig-zagging my way beneath the colorful tarps of the bustling Hargeisa market, I scrambled to keep up with Bedri.

My loyal guide for the past five days, Bedri had taken me blazing across deserts in our Land Rover, beachcombing along the Gulf of Aden, scaling the crags of Las Geel’s ancient caves, and showing me all Somaliland had to offer a tourist on a whirlwind, four-day spree. Now, navigating the massive tangle of clothes, textiles, housewares, and gadgets— hurdling over piles of sneakers, blue jeans, and ropes— my Somaliland adventure had become an American Ninja Warrior challenge.

Bedri was determined to introduce me to Somaliland’s most notable delicacy— camel meat.

Bedri had also spent a better part of the morning chewing his way through an entire branch of khat. While some find khat an appetite suppressant, Bedri had a serious case of the munchies and was now on a bleary-eyed tear through the Hargeisa market looking for a café that could soothe his craving.
And Somalis love their camels. Used for transportation, fibers, tools, milk, meat, or even poetic inspiration, Somalia is the best place on earth to have your camel and eat it too. With more of these leggy beasts than any other place on the planet, you’d think finding one for lunch would be a snap. But since it’s mainly considered a delicacy reserved for special occasions, the few restaurants that did serve camel often ran out by mid-day.

At half-past noon, our chances were slim.

Secretly, this was fine by me. Eating camel wasn’t on my bucket-list, but neither was getting lost in a crowded Somali market and missing my flight out. So I stayed close behind.

Suddenly Bedri disappeared into a small café where outside a giant sieve full of glistening sambusas was being hoisted from a cauldron of bubbling oil.

Ohhh, man.

Like the more worldly cousin of the Midwestern potpie, sambusas are pastry shells stuffed with spiced potatoes, savory onions, peas, and minced lamb.  They’re the most popular snack on the Arabian Peninsula,  the Mediterranean, the Indian subcontinent, and the entire Northeast of Africa for that matter. Next to Minnesota State Fair cheese curds, they’re hands-down the greatest fried food on the planet.

But before I could even suggest the “Sambusa Plan B,” Bedri blasted back out the door. “All out!” he shouted, bolting back into the crowd, nearly toppling a table of shampoo and hair products.

“HOW ABOUT SAMBUSA!!?!” I shouted.

“MUST……BE….CAMELLLLLLL!” came Bedri’s breathless wail from up ahead.

Wow, I shook my head. Never underestimate the power of a khat-induced craving.
Fruit market in Hargeisa
Keeping my eyes glued to Bedri, I leapt over piles of plastic sandals, narrowly dodged a rolling cart of mangoes, stopped ever so briefly to admire a selection of gold jewelry— ooh, pretty— and caught back up just in time to notice him disappearing into another small café.

I watched longingly as waiters carried enormous platters of sizzling goat kebabs and cardamom-clove-spiced rice to a table of diners as, once again, Bedri barreled wide-eyed out the door, back on the hunt. With only one option left, he stopped into another nearby cafe where a bunch of old guys with white skull caps sat around a table forking huge chunks of meat onto their plates.

And there is was.
The elusive camel.

At first glance? Eh. Hardly worth the hype, I thought. Maybe if it included some veggies or a bun or something it would look more appetizing.

But either way, to Bedri’s chagrin the old guys had gobbled up the last of the daily camel supply. Empty-handed, his khat-buzz worn off, Bedri slumped into a chair a defeated man. I tried to console him— promising him that if I ever had the chance to eat camel I would definitely give it a try. It was an easy promise to make, as opportunities to fulfill it were unlikely in my corner of the world.
selling camel burgers
But as fate would have it, later that summer grazing my way through the Minnesota State Fair I stumbled across the latest culinary curiosity to make its Midwestern debut: camel sliders. Seriously. With spiced camel meat, American cheese, tomato, and caramelized onions on a sesame seed bun, it was a cross-cultural, bucket-list burger that even Bedri would approve of.

No khat included.
Mother walking with son
Busy mom on the move
Melon stand
Melon market
Somali girls
Gorgeous girls
Man holding goat
Friendly faces
Convenience store
Colorful convenience store
Girl drinking smoothie
Mmmmmm mango smoothie
Family in rural community
Awesome nomadic family
Hotel in Somaliland
Al fresco dining at Hotel Mansoor
Dina shopping
Shopping paradise
Baby eating
Sugar and spice
Store in Somaliland
Roadside pop-up store
Smartphone
Khat, Pot
& the Wavering
War on Weeds
Growing khat
Khat, a leafy green plant cultivated in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, is an herbal stimulant that’s been part of the Somali social scene for centuries. Although occasionally used for medicinal purposes (believed to remedy everything from depression, fatigue, and obesity to stomach ulcers and male infertility) chewing khat is most popular as a recreational euphoriant and convenient alternative to coffee... continue reading
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Osho and followers
Chewing releases chemicals similar to amphetamines, giving the chewer a mild high somewhere between a shot of espresso and a snort of cocaine.

To many Somalis, gathering with friends for a relaxing evening of tea, conversation, and khat is never time wasted (see what I did there?). But– as with so many fun things in life– there’s always a buzzkill lurking nearby. A confluence of medical, cultural, and economic factors have led to khat being banned in countries across the world.

And conflicting reports have left many dazed and confused.

Medically, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed khat as a “drug of abuse” in 1980. According to WebMD, side effects range from alertness and excessive chattiness to loss of energy and concentration, rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, insomnia, and the munchies. While scientific research isn’t cut and dry, khat is not considered to be seriously addictive. Rather, it produces a mild to moderate “psychological dependence” (reportedly less than tobacco, alcohol, or social media) that can lead to unproductivity.

Researchers still weed through the data.

Culturally, many Muslim communities debate whether khat is halal (permissible and lawful) or haram (prohibited by Islamic law). High Times Magazine, the go-to guru for cannabis connoisseurs, noticed an interesting irony between Somalia’s and Somaliland’s views on khat. More culturally conservative Somalia (which is still influenced by Al Shabaab Islamists) castigates khat, while secular and more modern Somaliland is quite tolerant of it.

Economically, where khat production, transportation, processing, and sales are major sources of employment, farmers have more secure livelihoods. (Unlike coffee, cotton and cocoa, khat prices have shown only modest fluctuations.) Large khat farming communities in Kenya and Ethiopia rely on exports, so farmers take a hit wherever bans take effect. In 2016, when the Somali government imposed a ban on khat imports, a sharp outcry of protest from angry cultivators in neighboring Kenya pushed them to quickly lift the ban and turn over a new leaf as trading partners.

Ironically, in the US, the topic of legalizing marijuana has all the states buzzing. While the federal government still officially classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug– extremely addictive and possessing no medical uses– thirty-three states have already legalized pot for medical purposes, including ten for recreational use as well.

Access is at an all-time high.

But as researchers continue to hash out the data, some worry that pot proponents are just blowing smoke. Many medical doctors maintain that the harmful physical effects of weed are far worse than a White Castle hangover after a late-night munchie binge.

Culturally speaking, liberal states like California and Colorado were the first of ten to declare it was high time to legalize recreational marijuana, while conservative states like Idaho and Nebraska still have no legislation in the works.

Financially speaking, there’s no question weed sales have lit up state economies like few other industries before it. In 2018, California alone raked in over $2.75 billion. (Yep, that’s BILLION.)

As more and more state governments discover marijuana as a massive new source of revenue, will theories about its evils eventually go up in smoke?

Will the rest of America decide the grass is greener where the economy is better?

Could cannabis capitalism throw American moral culture out of joint?

Are these all merely loaded questions, or just ideas to chew on?
Camel characterization
Camel Commercialization
Growing khat
With bragging rights for having the largest number of camels in the world (an estimated 6 million!), Somalia’s camels have been domesticated for more than 2,000 years.

Pastoral Somalis have depended on camels to survive the harsh conditions of the arid land, claiming it’s possible to survive on literally nothing but camel milk for weeks due to its healing and medicinal properties... continue reading
Growing khat
It’s true. Milk from these four-legged pharmacies have higher protein and lactose levels than regular cow milk. And with its richness in minerals and vitamins, and high levels of lanolin, regular consumption of camel milk is claimed to help everything from managing diabetes to controlling high blood pressure.

But wait— there’s more!

Would you believe camel milk is even believed to slow down the effects of aging by smoothing the skin? Yep— camel milk is known to be a potent, anti-oxident cell regenerator. That’s right! A glass a day keeps the wrinkles away, So, get your milk-mustache on with a warm, frothy mug today!

For more info on how to brighten and tighten your skin, check out these sites:
Benefits of camel milk for skin, hair, and nails

Camel milk for soft skin
When the cold, dry winds compound your hunger and hardship
And there is the slightly fermented milk from your favorite camel,
Whoever gets a taste, knows whence the hunger was quenched
When you drink it, you break in sweat, defying the cold winds,
To those who tend to sheep, “Realize: It’s camels that are worth rearing!”

-Somali poet Omar Hagi Hussein
Where is Somaliland?
satellite image of Somaliland
Located in the northwest corner of the Horn of Africa, Somaliland is a former British protectorate that gained independence in 1960. It voluntarily joined Somalia to form the Somali Republic, but broke away in 1991 after the collapse of Somalia from civil war. Despite lack of international recognition, Somaliland boasts a democratically elected government, military, police force, and even currency.
"Trust iN Allah
(but tie your camel)."
-Old Muslim Proverb
World map
Meditation
Laas Geel Caves
Growing khat
Just fifty kilometers away in the rural outskirts of Hargeisa is one of the most awe-inspiring-yet-still-mostly-unheard-of-world-treasures: the Laas Geel cave paintings. Dated between 6,000 and 10,000 years old, this Neolithic art exhibit is considered the most vivid, well preserved examples of cave art in the entire continent of Africa.... continue reading
Far more than gratuitous graffiti, cave art reveals clues to what ancient societies were like, including revered cultural objects and social activities. Interestingly, Las Geel’s cave images feature gigantic, long-horned cattle decked out in ceremonial robes (embellished with plates of armor and bovine bling), semi-psychedelic shapes, and a few four-legged fornicators. While much remains a mystery about these ancient images, one thing seems clear. Stone Age diva cattle knew how to party.

In fact, Laas Geel seems to be the site of such epic shenanigans that famed animal art “Dogs Playing Poker” suddenly seems tame in comparison.
Cattle paintingdogs playing poker
Thanks to the dry climate, the natural shelter provided by the caves’ granite overhangs, and its lack of easy access, the site is remarkably well-preserved– having withstood not only thousands of years in the elements, but also potential civil war destruction.

A lack of marauding bands of tourists probably didn’t hurt either.

See, while Laas Geel has been known to area inhabitants for centuries, it only recently came to international awareness in 2002 after a French research team stumbled upon it during an archaeological survey. Since then, it has been discussed as a potential UNESCO World Heritage site. However until Somaliland gains formal state recognition, the caves will likely remain a well-kept secret, for the most part. But for explorers, historians, and art enthusiasts looking to experience a remarkable piece of world history– without crowds, tour buses, or tacky Hawaiian shirts running amuck– Laas Geel is definitely a trip worth taking.

To learn more, check out Somaliland Travel
Cattle paintingCattle painting
Food for thought: if things we valued today were drawn on the walls of a cave, what sort of images might people in the year 12,000 find?
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Old cave painting of cattle
7,000 year old cattle party
Somali girl
Desert beauty
Goat on top of hill
King of the hill
Rocks
Geology Rocks!!
Family living in the desert
Nomadic family
Cave painting of man
Make Somaliland Great Again
Tour guide
Somaliland tour guide
Camels grazing
Desert grazing
Cave art
Semi-psychedelic cave art
Brush in the desert
Thorny brush
Climbing down hill
Climbing down Las Geel
Smartphone
Spices
Food Fusion: The Dynamic Evolution of Somali Cuisine
Vegetable sambusa
From Spaghettios to Frappuccinos to the McVeggie Aloo Tikka (remember our visit to McDonald’s in India?), “food fusion” is the creative, cultural appropriation we can always count on– for better or worse. Yep, while Americans’ love of grocery store sushi may horrify Japanese food purists, it’s an easy way for us to embrace the larger world as we multi-task our way through a busy lunch hour. And as new cultures continue to come in contact, their edible influences expand minds and palates– while adapting to..... continue reading
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Map of Middle Eastern trade
And as new cultures continue to come in contact, their edible influences expand minds and palates– while adapting to cultural tastes and lifestyles along the way.

Throughout world history, possibly the most dynamic purveyors of food fusion are the Somalis. From nomadism to mass migration, commerce to colonization, Somali cuisine is a culinary evolution of geographic, economic, and even geopolitical influences that have been revealing their dynamic story of cultural identity for centuries.

For thousands of years, nomadic Somalis have moved across the Horn of Africa herding cattle, goats, and camels, and adapting their cuisine and cooking techniques to regional resources along the way. For example, Somalis in Kenya and Tanzania began to follow the Swahili custom of grating fresh coconuts in their dishes.

At the crossroads of eastern trade and commerce, Arab, Turkish, and Persian traders introduced Somalia to rice, garlic, coriander, chili, cumin, and cloves. Indian traders brought naan and samosa, expanding the savory and spicy flavors of Somali food even further.

By the late 19th/early 20th centuries when Italian, British, and French colonizers arrived on the scene, pasta, English pudding, and croissants began blending into Somali dishes– but all with the signature Somali spices and flair.

Then, in 1991, when the Somali civil war sent Somalis migrating worldwide, their recipes came along with them– introducing their unique dishes to almost every corner of the world. From the Arabian peninsula to Europe, North America, and Australia, once again Somalis have incorporated the available elements in their new communities with traditional techniques.
Camel burger on the menu
In Australia, local olive oil fills in for traditional Somali ghee. In Canada, self-rising flour is used to make the canjeero pancake. And in Minnesota– which has the largest Somali population outside of Somalia– camel burgers are on the fast food menu at Safari Express restaurant. Served with a toasted bun, pineapple, cheese, and a side of fries, it’s just more evidence that if there is one constant in Somali food, it’s change.

Last year, after realizing how quickly traditions morph in a culture on the move, an industrious group of Somali-American teens set out to preserve their culinary legacy by creating a Somali cookbook. With the help of the Minnesota Historical Society Press, the nine young authors (who found their way to Minnesota via Syria, Ethiopia, South Africa, Kenya, and Somalia) tracked their moms around the kitchen and interviewed countless community elders until they compiled “Soo Fariista (Come Sit Down): A Somali American Cookbook”. From cinnamon-spiced lamb to pineapple upside down cake (using Betty Crocker cake mix), it’s a cross-cultural pot luck of recipes that incorporates the nostalgia of East Africa with the unapologetic adjustments of American convenience.
Somali cookbook
As Somali food continues to evolve, adapt, and flourish, it’s clearly much more than a cultural amalgamation of cuisine. It’s a dynamic reflection of their resiliency that continues to tell their story– wherever they may call home.
Hungry to learn more? Take a cooking class from the “fusion foodies” at The Somali Kitchen– a Somali husband and wife team in Australia who are bringing people and cultures together through food!
Somali Kitchen
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Mahatma Gandhi once said, “One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals. Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world.”

In 2015, Americans consumed more than 24 billion pounds of beef and spent over $60 billion dollars on their pets, including purchases of live animals, food, supplies, vet services, Halloween costumes, and the always-endearing family portrait.

Something to chew on: considering the perspective of American cultural values, how do you think we rank against Gandhi’s statement in the treatment of animals?
Cat in lounge chairFamily photo with dogCat in lounge chair
Somali textile
"Food is a tool to touch history aNd ideNtity"
-OsmaN Mohamed Ali
Smartphone
The music used in this video was produced by Sahra Halgan— an emblematic musical artist, political refugee, and symbol of the indomitable spirit of Somaliland. Check out http://www.sahra-halgan.com/
"If people come together, they caN eveN meNd a crack iN the sky."
-Somali Proverb
Beach
Beach
Somali boys
Boys of Berbera
Woman walking
Entrepreneurial spirit
Mosque
Mosque
Plastic bottles
Lack of infrastructure
Gult of Aden
Gulf of Aden
Fish market
Fish market
Fishing nets
Fisherman's nets
Somali girls
Giggling girls
Garbage in plants
The price of convenience
Girl eating sambusa
Savory sambusa
Cattle
Cattle call
Somali family
Family time
Listen to the GSD Podcast
Re-thinking how we "help" poor countries.
East African textile
"THE BEST BED A MAN CAN SLEEP ON IS PEACE."
-SOMALI PROVERB
Dina with Guatemalan kids
Ready to explore the vibrant & ancient culture of the Mayans?

Next stop... Guatemala!
Photo credits
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(image of market): By Clay Gilliland (Flickr: Street Market hargeisa, somaliland) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/26781577@N07/29322262370

(image of man with camels): By Clay Gilliland (Flickr: Camel Market Hargeisa Somaliland) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/26781577@N07/29508486222

(image of fruit market): Charles Roffey [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c0/Hargeisa_fruit_market.jpg

(image of khat): By CIAT (Flickr: 2DU Kenya21) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciat/5366725069

(image of khat seller): World66 - Burao Photo Gallery [CC BY-SA 1.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/Burao_qat_seller.jpg

(image of spices): judepics [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spices_in_an_Indian_market.jpg

(image of Soo Fariista): provided by Minnesota Historical Society - http://www.mnhs.org/mnhspress/books/soo-fariista-come-sit-down(image of Safari Camel Burger): Safari Express menu - http://safaritogo.net/

(image of Sambusa): Vegetable Samosa [CC BY-SA 4.0 international (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.en)] - https://so.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vegetable_Samosa.jpg

(image of brown textile): Brooklyn Museum [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brooklyn_Museum_1989.11.5_Raffia_Cloth_Panel_Marked_D51.jpg
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