The Arabian Camel—Africa’s All-Purpose Vehicle
By Awake! correspondent in Chad
SEEING a camel for the first time as it lopes along on its gangling legs, its nose in the air and its hump swaying from side to side, one is truly amazed. Some even get the impression that the camel is made of spare parts that were left over from creation!
Why the strange hump, the long neck, the spindly legs, and the huge round feet, not to mention those long, curly eyelashes? As ungainly as it may seem, the Arabian camel has been greatly valued over the centuries.
A Useful Creature Then . . .
Already in Abraham’s time, the dromedary, or Arabian camel (one hump), seems to have been used extensively. Abraham himself acquired a number of them during his stay in Egypt. (Genesis 12:16) In fact, he may even have made his famous trek from Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan astride a camel.
Job was a camel owner. His herd was some 3,000 strong and contributed to his being one of the richest men in his part of the world. (Job 1:3) So camels have been appreciated by man in Egypt and elsewhere for at least 4,000 years.
They were introduced to the rest of North Africa by the second century C.E. This enabled their owners to develop a nomadic way of life in the Sahara Desert, which would have been impossible without the camel.
Eventually, these nomads developed routes across the desert and started a slave trade. They acquired slaves in sub-Saharan Africa and put them to work in isolated oases from which they could never escape on foot.
Long camel trains carried salt across the desert to places where this commodity was rare and therefore in great demand. Although its role in the slave trade has stopped, and its role in the salt trade has greatly diminished, the Arabian camel is still far from obsolete.
. . . and Now
Camel trains are still common in the Sahel-Sahara region of Africa—a mode of transportation unchanged since Abraham’s time. The nomadic tribes depend greatly on their camels, still every bit as vital to their life-style as during the previous millenniums.
Being nomads, their first necessity is transportation—of themselves, of water, of foodstuffs, and of whatever household items are needed. They also milk the camel and carefully save its hair in order to make cloth, blankets, and tents. The hide is used for leather, and its flesh for meat.
Caravans average about 25 miles [40 km] a day. But in an emergency some camels can cover 100 miles [160 km] in one day. This is an important consideration when water sources can be many miles [many kilometers] apart.
Their use is not limited to the far-flung areas of the desert either. The camel is still a common sight, and its groaning, moaning, and gurgling are still common sounds in many markets here in the Sahel. Camels are used to carry people and merchandise from the countryside to the market, often transporting loads of 400 pounds [200 kg] or more.
Raising camels for meat is being encouraged as a practical alternative to beef as cattle raising becomes more difficult because of the advancing deserts. About 1,300 camels were consumed in N’Djamena, the capital city of Chad, in 1990, plus an unknown number in the rural areas. More than one inexperienced Westerner has been surprised to learn that the inexpensive “beef” that he found in the market was actually camel meat.
In this same city, it is not unusual to meet one or more of the beasts plying the streets, carrying huge sacks of grain plus a driver. The driver may be making home deliveries or perhaps simply looking for prospective customers.
Some villages in the drier areas of the country use camels to draw up water from very deep wells. A huge bucket or waterskin is attached to the end of a long rope and lowered into the well. The other end of the rope is placed over a pulley a yard or so [a meter or so] above the mouth of the well and is then tied to the camel. A boy on the camel’s back gives the command to pull, and the bucket with its precious liquid comes up and out of the well.
A brief study of the camel shows that its different parts were obviously designed in such a way as to enable it to adapt to a hot, arid climate. These parts are not mere accidents of nature. They give the camel a distinct advantage in this difficult part of the world.
Why such a long neck? This gives the camel an advantage similar to that of the giraffe, enabling it to eat from trees. Like the giraffe, it often feeds on the thorny, acacia-type trees that are common in the Sahel. Most of the year, it does not rain, so there is often not much vegetation available on the ground; the trees survive because of their long roots and become the obvious food for camels.
Why the long legs and the strange feet? As well as contributing to the camel’s height advantage for feeding, its long legs give it the added benefit of speed. From a distance the Arabian camel seems to be sauntering along at a leisurely pace, but pedestrians who try to keep up with one soon realize that each step of the camel covers a lot of ground.
The large, roundish feet are quite soft and seem to spread out as the camel steps down, giving it the advantage of being able to walk easily on sand. The small, hard hoof of a cow or a horse tends to sink into sand, but the camel stays on top. The bottom of the foot is covered with a thick callus from birth, and these prevent burns from the hot desert sand.
Camels find it difficult to walk in mud, though; hence, their disappearance from the southern Sahel during the rainy season. Their masters take them into the desert so that they will not slip and possibly break a leg or otherwise injure themselves.
And the famous hump? Some will tell you that it is for storing water, but it is actually composed mainly of fat and is really for food storage. An underfed camel often has a diminished hump, which sometimes even sags or flops over, but after a few weeks of good feeding, the hump is eventually restored.
Incidentally, the Bactrian, or two-humped, camel, which is better suited to the colder deserts of central Asia, is quite easily interbred with the one-humped camel. This indicates that the two types are simply variations of the same “kind.”—Genesis 1:24; see also Awake! of December 8, 1988, page 25.
And those long curly eyelashes? Long before modern fashion invented long, false eyelashes, camels had the real thing, and not simply for beauty. They protect the eyes from the blowing sand, thus enabling the camel to continue on the move where other animals would be blinded and have to stop. The long, slit-shaped nostrils complement the eyes by filtering out sand when the camel inhales and by limiting water loss by extracting moisture when it exhales.
This, as well as other characteristics, gives the camel its renowned ability to go several days without drinking. Without difficulty it can survive a water loss of up to a third of its body weight. But when it does drink, be prepared. Camels have been known to consume up to 35 gallons [135 L] of water in ten minutes to replace the water they have lost. So Rebecca volunteered for quite an assignment when she offered to water ten camels!—Genesis 24:10, 19.
Thus, although it may seem unusual to the uninitiated, the camel is no accident or afterthought of creation. It is no strange amalgam of leftover parts that other animals could not use. It may not be as sleek as the horse or as colorful as the peacock, but the inhabitants of northern Africa fully appreciate the Arabian camel as a blessing from God, proof of an intelligent Creator.—Revelation 4:11.
[Pictures on page 23]
With its long neck, humped back, padded feet, and long eyelashes, the camel is well suited for life in the desert