Nomad’s herd gets back on its feet thanks to Raleigh man

pseligson@newsobserver.comJune 22, 2013 

— The cry of a camel being separated from its owner caught the attention of an Associated Press reporter last year in Sakabal, Niger.

A world away in Raleigh, the journalist’s report of that camel’s anguish caught the attention of a newspaper reader.

His efforts, along with those of a few others, helped a nomadic Niger man he would never meet regain his life.

Scott Butler was touched in August when he read the AP article in The News & Observer. It told the story of Soumaila Wantala, impoverished by drought and famine, selling a camel named Yedi – his last camel – to buy food for his family.

“Camels are very loyal to their master, and it’s a really painful thing,” Butler said. “They don’t want to let go.”

Animals mean more to people in Niger than here – they are assets. To see a nomad selling his last camel is like, as the AP story explained, “watching someone sell their house and car, liquidate their 401(k) and empty their bank account all at once, just to buy groceries.”

Butler loves his own two dogs, and the man-beast connection between Wantala and his camel moved him to take action. For days, he thought about how he might help Wantala from so far away.

“I talked to my wife, and she looked at me like I was nuts,” said Butler, 55, of Raleigh, a project manager at the telecommunications company Alcatel-Lucent. “But if there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Butler finally contacted Rukmini Callimachi, the AP reporter, through Facebook. And he wasn’t the only one who reached out. Seven other Americans got involved, including a health professional in New York and a retired librarian in Vermont.

A Raleigh high school student launched a Facebook page called “Where in the world is Wantala?” and, along with Butler’s daughter, spread the word on Twitter.

Callimachi was excited to hear from her readers.

“You often write stories about really sad things, and you know you can’t really do anything to help that person,” Callimachi said recently from Senegal, where she heads the AP West Africa bureau. “It would be unethical for me to give that man money or to have gotten involved in his life in some way. And so when readers contact you and give you the chance to make a difference, it’s really satisfying.”

Buying back Wantala’s last camel wasn’t possible, because it would be too difficult to search for a specific animal. But his new American sponsors could buy him more camels, at about $800 apiece, to re-establish his herd.

Their first challenge was finding Wantala.

“This guy’s a nomad,” Callimachi said. “He doesn’t have a cellphone. We know his first and last name. I didn’t actually even have a photograph of him.”

Callimachi was no longer in the area, but she contacted the driver she had used in Niger. The driver, Hassane Moussa, is part of Wantala’s ethnic group, the Tuaregs.

Finding Wantala

Callimachi warned Butler and the others that they might spend a lot of money and never find Wantala. It cost about $80 per day to rent the car and as high as $100 a day for gas.

Butler and the group wired Moussa some money to start the search.

Moussa began where Callimachi had met Wantala – the market in Sakabal, a desert village. He started driving in the direction people had last seen the nomad walk, asking others along the way whether they knew Wantala or his camp chief.

“And we were lucky,” Butler said. “He found him in two days.”

Moussa came across Wantala living in a tent camp with his wife and children and cousins. It had been about two months since he had sold Yedi.

Wantala was trying to learn farming, but he couldn’t make the crops grow well. He was a burden on the others, who still had animals – they had to help feed Wantala and his family.

After Moussa approached Wantala, things got weird for the nomad.

“Wantala, I think, never really understood or believed that I was a journalist,” Callimachi said. “I was just this strange white woman that came up and that was asking him very detailed questions.”

So when Moussa began to describe the AP story and the people from America who wanted to help him buy more camels, Wantala didn’t understand.

“I think Wantala was just really confused,” Callimachi said. “ ‘Why do these people keep coming after me? Why do they keep asking me about money?’ ”

On Moussa’s recommendation, the group decided to contribute money not just for camels, but also goats and sheep to restart Wantala’s herd. They put together more than $4,000 for animals and Moussa’s transportation and wired the money to the driver.

When Moussa went out to meet Wantala again and told him about the money, Wantala didn’t believe it, Callimachi said.

‘Crossing that finish line’

Moussa took Wantala to the market and together they bought the animals – eight sheep, seven goats, and a male and a female camel.

“Everyone was very happy,” Moussa said in French, speaking through an interpreter. “His family, his children. Very, very happy. He smiled and said, ‘Thank you very much.’ ...

“It was a good thing to help him,” Moussa added. “He had nothing.”

To verify that Wantala had actually received the camels, Moussa took pictures of Wantala with his new animals. Butler was thrilled when he saw the photos.

“I wanted to jump up and down because it was crossing that finish line and feeling like a winner. We had accomplished what we wanted to do,” Butler said.

But the whole thing almost didn’t happen. Callimachi nearly missed her chance to write about Wantala last summer.

When she went to Niger to cover the hunger crisis last July, one of the stories she had aimed to write was about a person in the moment of selling his last animal. But she kept finding people who had either already sold their last animals or still had a few left, so she focused instead on a story about child marriage.

Then on her last day in Niger, the photographer she was with convinced her to go back to the market to take more pictures.

“It was about two or three hours before sundown, and I suddenly saw this camel that was being led away in the animal pen. And it was making the saddest sound,” Callimachi said.

“It was screaming, screaming out and being led away by force. And when I asked people what’s going on, they said it’s a camel that’s just been sold, but the camel is really upset because he’s being separated from his owner and understands what’s happening.

“And it just killed me when I saw that, and then I had my translator go up and find the owner, and the owner was Wantala,” Callimachi said.

Butler said he would like to meet Wantala and his family someday, see how his children have turned out. But the only way would be to fly to West Africa and search for the nomad.

“I probably never will see him,” Butler said. “So all I can do is imagine him walking back home with his two camels, the goats and the sheep, coming over that horizon. And can you imagine the look on those kids’ and his wife’s faces?”

Staff writer Aliana Ramos contributed to this report.

Seligson: 919-829-8983

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