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Drought in India: Disrupted rhythms of nomadic family life

The drought in India separates nomadic families by disrupting the rhythms of the seasons. Over a saucer of chai at the camp of some Maldhari tribeswomen, our blogger finds out nomads like to go home, too, but can't without the monsoon season in full gush.

By Guest blogger / September 4, 2012

Rabari cattle herder Lavuben Rozia and her young son, forced to migrate with their family's herds due to severe drought in Gujarat, India.

Michael Benanav

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Ahmedabad, India

I've been catching the reports that the drought in the western United States is the worst to hit the region since the Dust Bowl years; how farmers are struggling; how livestock is suffering. The situation is similar where I've been traveling: in the Indian state of Gujarat, where some places are drier than they've been in decades.

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Guest blogger

A freelance writer and photographer, Michael is founder of the educational non-profit organization Traditional Cultures Project.  His first book,  "Men Of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold," recounts his adventures traveling with one of the world's last working camel caravans on  the ancient salt trading routes north of Timbuktu; his second book, "Joshua & Isadora: A True Tale of Loss and Love in the Holocaust," tells the remarkable story of how his paternal grandparents met while escaping from Eastern Europe during World War II. He lives in northern New Mexico with his girlfriend Kelly and their son Luke, who just started kindergarten. They have four dogs (and will probably have two cats by the time Michael gets home from India).

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The monsoon season, which usually soaks Gujarat with rain from mid-June through August, is a key element of the rhythm of life here: it waters farms, grasslands, and forests, fills cisterns and lakes, and cultural traditions and social rituals are timed to sync with it. But this year, it's simply failed to materialize in some regions, causing inconvenience for some, panic for others - especially those who rely on agriculture. 

Among those hardest hit are families from the Maldhari tribes, some 5 million people including the Rabaris and Bharwads, who herd cattle, camels, sheep, and goats. Though many Maldharis migrate for half the year or more, moving from place to place in search of fodder for their animals, most return to their home villages for a few months (from about July to November) during and after the annual monsoon, as the grasses grow lush from the rain.

Traveling in August through the Saurashtra region, which has received less than 20 percent of its average annual rainfall, I could easily see the impact of the drought.  Along the asphalt roads that traverse a flat patchwork of fields and open spaces, dotted occasionally with trees, thousands of cows and water buffaloes were marching, steered by men in turbans who wore thick silver bracelets, gold earrings, and carried large bamboo sticks. And they were heading away from their villages. There was simply no fodder for their animals near their homes.

I was with Lalji Desai, a member of the Rabari tribe who works with the non-profit Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG) and is secretary general of the World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Peoples, an international organization that promotes pastoralists' rights and supports their cultures. He wanted to see the drought situation for himself, and how these organizations might help. Not long before sunset one day, when we saw a small Maldhari camp in a patch of land off the side of the road, we stopped to talk.

At a glance, it was hard to believe this was a camp. There were no tents or shelters of any kind, just a few of the typical woven cots known as charpais, out in the open, covered with quilted cotton blankets. Beside them were a clutter of brass and steel pots, jugs and bowls, and a stack of rice sacks filled with other belongings.  Eight cute calves hovered around the charpais, looking like they were trying to figure out if they could rest on them.

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