Camels may be the perfect product for export. Like oranges and bananas, they are thick-skinned, weather-resistant, heat-resistant, and long-lived. Even better, they can walk themselves to market.
Every year, more than 200,000 camels do just that, trekking from Sudanese pasturelands into Egypt along the Darb al-Arba’in: the 40 Days Road. They’ve been doing it since at least the 14th century, when medieval historian Ibn Khaldun first recorded merchant caravans 12,000-camels long. The animals walk for a month until they reach the Egyptian city of Aswan, where they are packed into trucks and driven to auction at Birqash camel market, 35 kilometers northwest of Cairo. An adult camel typically attracts bids of about LE11,000 (US$1,800), and buyers are given eight days to pay, during which time they will slaughter the camel, sell the meat, and return to Birqash with the cash.
In Egypt’s capital, camel meat retails for LE55 ($9) a kilogram, but many camels never make it as far as the butcher’s block. Passage across the Libyan Desert can be deadly; a 1946 survey described the route as “one mile wide marked with white camel bones.” Emaciated after the long trip, humps of fat nearly flat to their backs, a few camels topple lifeless from the truck-beds on arrival in Birqash. Today, in a country where one in five Egyptians do not have enough to eat, a single camel carcass could provide 200 kilograms of meat, but fallen animals are left to spoil under the flies and sun, instead.
Worldwide, 1.2 billion tonnes of edible food are thrown away every year. In the West, most food is wasted at home, withering uneaten in consumers’ refrigerators and cupboards, but in the developing world, food is lost well before it ever reaches a kitchen. Bad shipping and storage conditions mean that 40 percent of India’s fresh fruit and vegetables rot before they are sold, while in sub-Saharan Africa, an annual $4 billion-worth of grain is lost to rats and insects – enough to feed 48 million people for a year. Overall, developing nations lose one-third of the food they produce just taking it to market.
Along the Darb al-Arba’in trade route, a camel caravan’s khabir (leader) must find oases to water his US$50,000 worth of livestock. He earns twice the pay of the other herders – roughly $600 a journey.
The youngest herder cooks for the others, following Sudanese tradition. Dinner is millet porridge with powdered okra and tomatoes, sweet tea and, once in a while, fresh camel meat.
A lagging camel will only slow the caravan, so traders slaughter those that are too tired to continue. Mutter bismillah (“in the name of God”) and cut the long throat at its base.
In Egypt, the camels will be loaded into trucks for the final journey to Birqash market. The khabir will go with them. The remaining four herders must find their own way home.