Sunday, April 8, 2012

Watering camels

Excerpt from The Names of Things:

He met Abudo at the Maikona wells, where he’d gone to watch the activity, meet people, make contact. It was early days of field work. Abudo was watering the family’s camels, had come down off the plains the night before.

During the dry season, which is all but a few weeks out of the year, nomads must drive livestock to wells to drink. According to an elaborate schedule, each camp waters its goats and sheep every five days and camels every twelve. Since wells serve a wide area, dozens of different camps visit daily with thousands of animals. And since there are only about thirty wells at Maikona, scattered like craters across a dusty expanse the size of a few football fields, the herds are held back and watered in turns. As each group is released, the bone-thirsty animals run madly to drink what they’ve been able to smell, but not taste, for hours.

Nomads move around. They’re hard to track down. If you want to meet one it’s best to find out when his or her camp is watering stock. So in addition to the herds and their keepers at the wells, there were visitors: livestock buyers, friends, family, people arranging marriages, others collecting debts, fathers catching up with sons, mothers with daughters, idlers from the settlement nearby to watch the action. All that activity kicked up a storm of dust, and what with the wind, the area was soon shrouded in a gritty yellowish fog.

He was standing, watching beside one of the wells, when a man who’d been drawing water with a plastic bucket, the bottom of an old jerry can, climbed out of the well and handed him the bucket with a big smile on his face. They’d read each other’s mind. Lifting water out of a well, pouring it into a trough, bending, splashing, getting wet, and being useful were exactly what he wanted. It was 110 degrees. Getting wet was the best part.

So he joined the bucket brigade. There were three inside the well. The man he replaced stood outside where he could watch. He mimed what the newcomer was supposed to do, which the newcomer sort of knew already from watching. What he showed that the other didn’t know was how to pace his effort to keep up with the animals and the others in the well without exhausting himself. A full bucket would rise to his feet from the man on the ledge below. As he handed down an empty, he’d grab the full one and lift it over his head and pour it into the trough. Over and over.

After about an hour the camels were finished drinking and it was time to move aside so another camp could water its herds.

They rested in the shade of a nearby thorn tree and drank water laced with milk, which was surprisingly refreshing. It was only about a month into fieldwork. His language was lousy. But it turned out the man who’d smiled spoke the national language, and for another hour or so they asked and answered each other’s questions. The other’s name was Abudo. His companions put up with the intrusion, in part, he thought, because he’d helped, which generated good feelings.

A door opened. Abudo told him when he would return with the herds. He promised in turn to help. The meeting was accidental. It couldn’t have been scripted more perfectly to initiate a field relationship.

- From The Names of Things

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