The word “nomad” is hugely overused. People take gap years and call themselves nomads. YouTube channels, blogs and Twitter handles use the word to conjure up images of travel. Marketers use the word to make their products appear more exotic. SUV’s from Qashqai to Tuareg take their names from nomadic peoples.
And yet is precisely because of its connotations that those who travel love so much about the word nomad, myself included. Freedom. Simplicity. Rugged independence. New horizons. New beginnings.
I certainly have my own fascination with indigenous nomadic peoples. I have caught glimpses of such people during my travels. Kuchi tents near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Gujjars herding goats across the road in Murree, Pakistan, Tuareg jewelry sellers in the markets of Marrakesh, Morocco, and caravans of Irish Travellers in England.
I suspect that the lives of these people are much less romantic than most of us imagine them to be. And yet my own fascination has only grown the more I have learned about nomads, especially as historical nomadic peoples become less and less nomadic, increasingly confined by the borders of modern nation-states and the governments that treat people without fixed addresses as suspicious and dangerous.
There are three books I have read somewhat recently that give fascinating insight into the lives and struggles of indigenous nomadic people:
This book gives an intimate glimpse into the lives of a nomadic family of Van Gujjar water-buffalo herders in the Western Himalayas of India. Benanav travels with the family during one of their migrations to their traditional grazing meadows high in the Himalayas. The story itself is gripping and heart-breaking and heart-warming. But it also explores the clash between the rights of indigenous peoples and efforts towards ecological conservation in the creation of National Parks. One interesting section of the book draws parallels between policies adopted by the Indian government and the creation of Yellowstone National Park in the US which also displaced indigenous people from their traditional hunting grounds.
Camel Karma: twenty years among India’s Camel Nomads by Ilse Köhler–Rollefson.
This book describes the author’s interactions with the Raika camel herders of Rajasthan. A veterinarian and humanitarian worker, she becomes heavily involved with the Raika over two decades. During this time she creatively works with Raika leaders in an attempt to improve their lives and preserve their culture. The book gives insight into a wide range of issues that impact nomadic people including culture and traditions, livelihoods, ecology and politics. And ever since I read this book I have wanted to try camel milk!
Tim Cope writes of the amazing expedition he took, riding on horseback from Mongolia to Hungary on a journey that lasted over three years. While the book is primarily about his own travels, he explores the history and legacy of the nomadic peoples that once ruled the Eurasian Steppes. On the journey, the author encounters a range of people from those who still live nomadic lives to those whose nomadic past has all but been erased.