The Life of a Nomad

The life of a nomad isn’t an easy one. Sweltering heat, freezing cold, scorpions and snakes…these are just a few things to worry about living in the desert.  I had the pleasure of meeting a nomad family during my visit to the Sahara.  My first reaction was one of sympathy…but by the time I left, I felt humbled.

Nomad camp

In order to get around in the Sahara, you have to either walk, ride a camel or drive a 4×4.  As we were on our way to our own camp, we were invited to visit with an interesting nomad family.  Luckily we had our fabulous guide, Tata, to translate and inform of us traditional customs.

I was told that there are 9 people who make up the nomad family I spent time with (a mix of men, women and children).  What immediately struck me were the “structures” that were built for cooking, showering and shelter.  I assumed that nomads were constantly moving from place to place with no sense of permanency.  However, I found out that these nomads usually stay in a place for 3-4 months before moving on. The catalyst for the move is usually the fact that the food source (grass, etc) has dried up for the camels & animals they raise.

The Sahara covers 3.5 MILLION MILES.  And while the popular thought is that deserts are dry & barren, the Sahara has pockets of areas that are abundant with food and water sources.  However, these sources aren’t unlimited which is why nomads have to move on in search for new sources.  They do tend to come back to the structures they built before…after enough time has passed so that grass has been able to grow again.  Kind of like these settlements are their 2nd, 3rd and 4th homes.

sleeping quarters

The ladies allowed me to spend time investigating their housing structures and asking questions.  I noticed that there were 3 separate sleeping quarters.  One area was completely covered on all sides to protect them from rain and harsher elements, while the second was more open to allow for air during the hot, dry months.  The third seemed to be a combination of the two…walled but open ceiling.  I also noticed that there were a lot of toys…big wheels, bikes, dolls, Transformers, etc.  The kids had plenty to entertain them.  I don’t know what the adults do…there is no television.  And they don’t seem to understand how much their life is lacking because they can’t watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

While these women did not have a lot of “wealth”, they were so gracious to offer us mint tea.  Which seems to be typical of Moroccans.  They may not have a lot of material things, but they are the most hospitable people I’ve met.  You can count on being asked to stay for tea and cookies.

Since our guide knew this family, the ladies were open to answering my questions.  And I had a lot.  Below are some highlights.


Q.  Why do you opt to live in the desert moving from place to place?  Why not living in a city with a more permanent home?

A.  This is what we know.  We grew up as nomads and find the desert to be peaceful.  Cities are too chaotic and noisy.  Too many people and sounds.  We like the solitude of the Sahara and not having to constantly see other people.

Q.  How do you get food & water to feed your family?

A.  We dig wells to get water.  Once a month, our family will drive into Merzouga [the city right outside the Sahara] and get supplies.  Mostly grains to make couscous and vegetables.  We are also able to find food here in the desert which we will catch or gather.

Q.  How do you get to Merzouga?  Do you have a car?

A.  Sometimes we are able to borrow a car from another family.  Other times we use our camels to get us to the edge of the Sahara then ask for a ride into town.

Q.  How do you earn money to buy supplies?

A.  The men offer the camels to tourists for rides thru the desert.  The women and children sell trinkets.  Usually small toy camels or dolls that we make from scraps of cloth we are able to find.

During this time, a little boy around the age of 2 has started crying.  His mother tells the guide that she is worried that something is wrong with his legs as he has refused to walk all day.  We take a look to make sure there is no swelling, redness or tenderness.  Then, the guide says that he will escort them to the hospital to have the boy examined.  But, the mother says that she cannot leave without permission of her husband.  She pulls out a cellphone (I know…who knew they had those?  And the next question I wanted to ask was where she charged it since they had no electricity?) and tries to get in contact with her husband to no avail.

As we end our visit, our guide gives the mother his number with the instruction to call him once her husband came back so they could take her son to the hospital.  He even offered to pay the medical bills. 

The next morning, while hiking thru the sand dunes, I am stopped by 3 little girls.  They told me they were 8 and 9 years old.  When I asked if they went to school, only one said yes.  She lives in Merzouga with her mother but comes to the Sahara during the weekends to visit with her father.  During the time I’m asking questions, they have spread out their trinkets to sell.  While I didn’t buy anything, I did give them some money so that I could take their picture.

3 nomad girls

I grew up with plenty of advantages…and the expectation that not only would I graduate from high school, but I would graduate from college as well.  So, it was mind-boggling to meet children who don’t go to school.  While it is hard for me to grasp living without electricity (I mean, I get the shakes when my iPhone dies and I don’t have a way to charge it for a couple of hours), there is a certain tranquility in being able to unplug from the world and just enjoy the solitude.  No emails or text messages to answer.  No demands.  No stress.  No noise (not even crickets…it is dead quiet).  Just stars lighting up the sky.

While some children grow up and leave the nomad life, others are content to raise animals and move from place to place following in the footsteps of their forefathers.  It’s an interesting life…one that I know I’m not strong enough to live, but I am smart enough to respect.  If you ever have the chance to visit the Sahara (and I strongly suggest you do…it is unbelievable), please take time out to visit with a nomad family (but definitely go with a guide…don’t just show up saying, “Hi, got some mint tea?”).  The next time I visit, I plan to take them supplies (grains, vegetables, toys for the kids, blankets, etc.).  If you can, I recommend you do the same.  As Oprah says, “pay it forward.”  The great thing about that?  You can pay it forward anywhere in the world.

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5 thoughts on “The Life of a Nomad

  1. romilybernard says:

    See? This is why I love your writing. It’s not just about the cool places you’ve seen (although you are totally my hero because I want to go everywhere you’ve been), it’s also about how travel changes your perspective on the world…even if it’s just your personal corner of it.

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