By Moses Nampala
Somewhere deep, in Kakalia village in Amudat district, Karamoja region, loud unusual groans break out almost simultaneously.
A stranger to this part of the country will instinctively react like an alarmed rabbit, turning around with searching interest, only to discover that the unfamiliar noise is from a kraal of camels.
As I walk hesitantly towards the expansive kraal, a yard away, with an expressions of bewilderment on my face, my host, Francis Kiyong, the former Pokot Member of Parliament, bursts into hearty laughter.
“My herd has considerably reduced to 30 camels because I have sold some of them,” he says. He once had 60 camels in his kraal. It is exciting to watch such a big herd of animals that are considered alien by many Ugandans.
“The incessant groans you heard them making are a signal to their minders that they want to be milked,” explains my host, before quickly turning back and calling for someone in the homestead to come and milk the animals. I wait with bated breath to watch a camel being milked.
In a moment, a woman with a baby strapped on her back, appears with a small kettle. As she starts milking, a boy joins her on the other side of the giant animal.
Margaret Lokeris milking a camel. Camel milk is said to be very nutritious
There is a sharp distinction between milking a camel and cow. Unlike the position of a cow’s udder that will force a person milking it to squat, the camel’s towering stature enables whoever is milking it to do the job while standing. You will also notice that camels are a lot calmer than cows when they are walking.
“A camel can allow to be milked by more than one person, irrespective of whether you are a stranger or a familiar person. It does not kick about or fuss,” explains Margaret Lokeris, the woman milking the camels.
The calf, like its mother, knows what it is expected to do. Prior to the milking exercise, it briefly suckles for about five minutes, then restrains itself and stands aside to wait patiently.
“A calf will never scramble for its mother’s teats, even when it is very hungry. It will wait until its mother has been milked,” says Kenneth Lusanjo, the little boy helping. A camel is a graceful towering animal standing at around 13-15 feet high.
According to Kiyong, the towering animal, at maturity, weighs between 350 and 600kg. Camels are rare elsewhere in Uganda, but in this part of the country, many households rear them. Some have herds constituting of 30 to 50 camels.
Nobody knows how the animals became common in this part of the countryside, but Kiyong says they have always bought them from the neighbouring ethnic community, the Turkana, in north western Kenya.
It is interesting watching them graze in the vast dry plains of Karamoja. You will notice that they are fond of short thorny trees, though they also graze on grass and leaves.
The facial features of a camel appear no different from those of a goat, particularly the nostril and mouth. But perhaps the main distinctive facial feature is the protruding set of eyes. Camels stare in space, in a contemplative mood as they chew cud.
It is fascinating watching them: A camel opens its mouth unusually wide, but in the process of chewing, its long jaws hang stuck, as if the muscles in one side have grown taut, unable to stretch. Yet at another moment, it is as if the poor animal is choking, this time opening its mouth even wider, almost exposing the depth of its throat. But even with such seemingly uncomfortable movements, it keeps on chewing.
Camels are valuable animals. A calf costs between sh200,000 and sh300,000, while a mature female camel costs between sh1m and sh1.5m.
Camel meat is more tasty than goat meat. The meat is both for home consumption and for sale. A female camel reaches reproductive age when it turns one year. Kiyong says a camel’s gestation period is twelve months and a female can bear up to 30 young ones in its life time. The former legislator says unlike cattle, camels are almost never haunted by any ailment.
“They have a stronger immune system than any of the familiar domestic animals. I must confess that I do not remember spending even a penny on treating them,” explains Kiyong.
According to him, a camel drinks between 20 to 40 litres of water at once, but will go a week or two without another drink. Compared to cows, which cannot be milked when they have just conceived, camels can be milked throughout their life time. They are milked six times a day and can offer between 15 to 20 litres of milk a day.
PRECIOUS CAMEL MILK
“Besides being nutritious, camel milk is medicinal in nature, an antidote to almost all the common ailments that haunt children at infancy,” explains Lokeris. He says camel milk has properties to fight measles, TB and whooping cough.
Dr. Amos Basembera, a veterinary doctor in private practice in Iganga concurs with Lokeris: “Camel milk is very rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins, among other food values essential for everybody, but more so in children as young as a day old.” He says among the crucial food values in camel milk are the minerals of potassium and iron.
“The curative ingredient in the camel milk stems from its diet that usually consists of a variety of rare thorny wild plants that can only grow in the desert,” explains Dr. Basembera.
A paediatrician at Mulago Hospital, Dr. Ismail Balisanyuka, explains that camel milk is light in nature as compared to cow milk. “It has considerably low levels of cholesterol. Additionally, almost three quarters of camel milk is automatically absorbed by the body, making good use of its multiple nutrients,” explains Balisanyuka.
BEWARE THE MALE
However, while camels are naturally calm animals, the males can be very violent and hostile. You would presume that with their calm appearance, they are easily vulnerable in the cattle rustling prone area, but it is not the case.
“For years, cattle rustlers have learned to live with these animals. When camels detect trouble, their humility and calm translates into resilience,” explains Kiyong.
James Olekipor, also a camel keeper, says by instinct, camels hate being harassed. One would be lucky to herd them for a distance without them proving their stubborn side.
“On the few occasions rustlers have attempted to drive the camel alongside their loot of cattle, they have suffered a rude jolt,” explains Olekipor. “The camels feign tiredness and resort to sitting down. In extreme desperation, an angry rustler simply shoots them dead,” he says.