Somalian Woman Makes Her Mark in the Camel Trade

Somalia is often viewed through a Western lens as war torn and ravaged. The country experienced a protracted and bloody civil war between the government and Islamist insurgents beginning in 1986 with an estimated death toll up to 1 million people.

But, this is an incomplete view of the nation. In 2012, the successful campaigns to curtail the insurgents led to the establishment of the Federation of Somalia. As part of the aftermath of the civil war, the economy was restructured to focus on livestock. Livestock and currency remittances from the Somali diaspora have since emerged as two of the biggest sectors of the nation’s economy. The return of democracy has also led to the return of Somalis living abroad. One such returnee, Zamzam Yusuf is not only reshaping the livestock industry, but the role of women in the society.

Zamzam has defied economic and social norms since her return to Somalia after living in London for 10 years, where she worked as a caretaker. She returned to Somalia in 2016. Once there, she began to look for opportunities and quickly identified a niche in the livestock industry: raising and trading camels.

Camels are big business in Somalia. With more than 7 million camels in the country, Somalia has by far the world’s largest population. Camel exports tripled between 2010 and 2013 to more than $670 million dollars, according to the Borgen Project. The countries in the Middle East serve as Somalia’s primary customer.

In addition to the animal itself, camel milk is also in demand and Somalia is the world’s largest producer of camel milk. Known as “white gold,” one liter can sell for $1. Zamzam’s camel herd can produce at least 400 liters per day (105.7 gallons), according to Al Jazeera.

The government has also invested in infrastructure to support the livestock industry. In particular, Somali officials have partnered with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization to complete projects such as expanding the capacity of port facilities to ship camels, goats, and cattle. The country’s main port is in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, but the northern ports of Bosaso and Berbera also contribute to this trade.

The choice to trade camels seems logical given the terrain and economic needs of the country. More than 65 percent of the country is involved in the livestock business. Thus, the business is vital to the country. However, there remains a significant challenge in overcoming traditional gender constraints within the industry.

Raising camels has previously been the purview of men. Zamzam is working to change this perception even as many women view her involvement in the industry as strange. She sees it as logical and as a good choice for women who want to exercise more control over their lives. She is setting an example for her peers while also demonstrating that women can make a difference in the industry.

Zamzam began her camel business with 30 camels. It has expanded to 145 camels and is still growing. Her ultimate goal is 1,000 camels. Zamzam currently employs 10 people and, in order to expand her business, has partnered with two male traders. She prefers to partner with women but expresses dismay at the gender constraints.

“I wish more women could join me but that is very difficult. Most women here think it’s a job for men,” Zamzam told Al Jazeera.

To address the dearth of women as camel traders, Zamzam spends her spare time visiting schools and workshops to encourage women to join the profession. Some women have warmed to the message. Khadra Abdullahi, a 32-year woman in Kismayo, heard Zamzam’s message and told Al Jazeera:

“If men can do it we can do it, too. We are strong, too. Some people have the wrong mindset and it is up to us to prove them wrong.”

Although men continue to be dismissive of women’s role as traders, Zamzam persists. She points to the opportunities that camel trading provides and explains that she is doing it for her grandchildren. She wants to demonstrate the opportunities in Somalia so they do not have to endure the same hardships she endured in Europe. Zamzam wants them to be able to return to Somalia and have a good life. Thus, she has no plans to stop trading, regardless of what the men say.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.