Over the course of the 20th century, and particularly in its last decades, the traditionally nomadic, livestock-rearing populations who inhabit the vast area comprising Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania have had to face upheavals that have threatened the survival of their cultures. Increasingly limited and difficult access to land, as well as changing environmental and climactic conditions have at times forced East Africa’s nomadic herders to emigrate to other regions, where they often end up in conflict with other groups over control of the little available grazing land. Many have had to abandon their ancestral customs and adopt a semi-sedentary or permanently settled lifestyle.
This is the case with Ethiopia’s Karrayu herders, considered to be among the guardians of authentic Oromo culture. For centuries they have been living in the area between Mount Fantalle and the Awash River, 200 kilometers east of Addis Ababa. In just a few decades, the Karrayu have lost almost two-thirds of the land where they used to graze their herds and access to the Awash River, which they consider sacred. The traditional annual cycle of transhumance, whose three seasonal migrations used to mark out the rhythm of the herders’ lives, has been interrupted. Tenaciously, the Karrayu people are still trying to preserve their ancient culture, including through the promotion of their emblematic product, camel’s milk.
Camels are the most important animals for the Karrayu. Docile and hardy, even during periods of drought they still produce milk, the staple of the Karrayu diet. Its elevated iron and vitamin B3, B6 and C content, high nutritional value and flavorful and aromatic taste make camel’s milk a high-quality food. Medicinal properties are generally attributed to camel’s milk in the countries where it is commonly consumed, in the Horn of Africa, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as China, Mongolia, India and Russia.
In 2010, 25 young Karrayu herders set up a cooperative, collecting fresh camel’s milk and transporting it to the city, where primarily the Somali community buys it. With the support of Slow Food, the cooperative has grown, and now has double the number of members; in 2012 a Presidium was launched for the camel’s milk to support the local community and give visibility to its most representative product, as well as to improve the milk’s quality through targeted training.
In 2009, the pursuit of similar objectives led to the founding of a Presidium involving another tribe of herders, the Pokot in Western Kenya. Once nomads too, in recent times they have gradually become more sedentary, loosening ties with their former primary activity (livestock rearing) and their customs, including food-related traditions. One of the most important staples of the traditional Pokot diet is lolon chomi suton, a yogurt made from raw cow’s milk (consumed by the men) or goat’s milk (reserved for the women and children). The distinctive feature of lolon chomi suton is that when it is ready to eat, it is mixed with the ash of a local tree called cromwo, which acts as a disinfectant and improves the flavor, adding an aromatic note.
Though only made by a small number of families for their own consumption, the ash yogurt is a food that helps define the identity of the Pokot community. The Presidium is working to promote this product and reawaken an awareness of the value of the local culture. The training organized by Slow Food, aimed primarily at improving production hygiene, want to provide the herders with the tools to allow them to open in the near future a sales point for the yogurt and an agricultural and veterinary shop, strengthening the community and guaranteeing financial self-sufficiency for its members. For the Pokot and the Karrayu herders, investing in tradition has proved a successful move from an economic, social and cultural perspective.
This article was written by Maurizio Busca and originally published in the 2013 Slow Food Almanac
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