Bells: Connecting Animals, People, and Land: Africa
Until the last 40 years, the people on the Horn of Africa lived in reciprocal balance for 5,000 years with the land and animals of the area.
5,000 Years Ago to 1970s
From 5,000 years ago when the first animals were domesticated until very recent times (1970s), the culture in the pastoral regions of the Horn of Africa has changed very little. Due to the aridity of the area, the pastoral people were essentially left alone for centuries. Thus, it was one of the last examples of people, animals, and the land existing as a cultural unit with minimal modern technology.
WWII to 1980s
After WWII, especially during the Cold War, the Horn of Africa became the object of political interest. Aid money flowed into the region, but it was often tied to the strategic location rather than the need of the people. Remnants of the aid projects from the Soviet Union, The United States, and other European countries changed the desert culture. An increase in human population, life expectancy, and technology, without economic development, led to social unrest and a break in the people-animal-land system that had existed for centuries.
Currently, Somalia is a failed state. The people-animal-land system that stood in place for more than 5,000 years is wekened because the shifting transhumance, or shifting nomadism, practiced for millennia is broken. Families and herds that once moved seasonally between Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia (Greater Somalia) cannot safely cross country boundaries. Much of the area has reverted to clan territory. For instance, Somaliland, the northern portion of Greater Somalia, is an example of democracy while the rest of the area is in chaos.
"All camel people have bells. Most are made from hardwood, usually acacia, and carved from one piece of wood. Bells range from 3" by 4" by 2" to the larger bells something like 5" by 5" by 3". Carvers rough out a bell from a chunk of wood. Then they carve the outside to the shape that they want. And then, they literally chisel and dig out the inner circle to get the sides of the bell down to just a few millimeters with the bottom a little thicker. Then inside of that they put clappers of hardwood about 3" long, attached by a string. Each bell is an individual that has a different tone. Herders hear belled animals grazing and know the difference in the tone of these bells. They know that’s old Alma, or whatever the camel’s name is, without having to look for them." —Thad Box
Carbon Dating... Tree Rings... Animal Bells?
Animal bells on the Horn of Africa help to identify some of the earliest livestock husbandry in the world.
Kor is the Somali word for camel bell. It's also the same name in Rendelli (a tribe in Ethiopia and Kenya) and other pastoral tribes around the Horn of Africa.
British linguist Roger Blench suggests that this word, and others like it, comes from the ancient root language proto-Sam which no longer exists. He theorizes that because the root language is older than any language in northeastern Africa, these people were practicing animal husbandry, particularly camel husbandry, maybe as many as 5,000 years ago. (Thad Box)
5,000 Year Run!
For more than 5,000 years until very recently, animal husbandry skills and landscapes on the Horn of Africa were very similar. Nomadic people herded camels, goats, and sheep across enormous arid deserts and dry tropical habitat where water holes were scarce. This wandering lifestyle, without regard to Europe-imposed political borders, allowed pastoral clans to manage grazing lands, access watering holes, and interact with a wide network of other clans. The land, animal, and human exchange was essential for cultural, biological, and physical survival.
Documenting without a Camera? Try Word Pictures.
Morning Prayer in Boranaland
Circles of women
clap their hands
fill the African sky
songs of praise
glory to Waka
blessed the Borana
with fat cattle
heard more clearly
than voices from
Five Millennia Changed in Two Decades
Since WWII, foreign interests in this arid yet militarily strategic region has produced rapid change. Foreign aid and westernized education coupled with rising religious, political, and national fervor have replaced the traditional nomadic lifestyle as the dominant culture. Pastoralism still exists in remote areas and may be the cultural ideal, but population growth, technology, and the influence of donor nations has produced conflicting ideals and factions.
Road to El Dere
dew shines on
a red ribbon
muddy basins where
and women wash their clothes
by wet road
drown the intruder
made in England
driven by foreigners
who have not cattle
sheep or goats
Ahmed Elmi & the Multi-Purpose Camel
Traditional livestock production systems in Somalia involve camels as a source of food, prestige, and security against environmental disasters. Born and raised a camel herder, Ahmed Elmi came to Utah State University to further his studies in range management. His desire was to return to Somalia to apply innovative range science research and skills to support Somalia's longtime successful pastoral livelihood. He is now a community leader in Somaliland.
Where are the Bell Makers?
Making camel bells was never an industrial operation in northeastern Africa. Carving bells was a craft learned around a campfire while discussing how the rain last night would cause forage to be available fifty miles away. A new bell came about from the interaction of people thinking and talking about the land.
Somalia is now a lawless state. True pastoralists are a minority. Outside sources provide military arms and food aid. No real livelihood to support a sustainable lifestyle exists. Those who once carved, utilized, and repaired animal bells are dying off, unable to share the people-animal-land connection that was once passed on around acacia wood fires for thousands of years.
Today, the once stron human, land, animal ecology on the Horn of Africa is broken. Lost are the cultural systems and traditions that kept the balance alive (such as bell making and use) and in its place is a culture of disconnect from place and power.