“A Lamb is Far Better” than Money: In Conversation with a Shepherd

Sheep in a field in the governorate of Bizerte on April 25, 2021. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

“Ali” practices one of the oldest professions in history: he’s a shepherd. Born and raised in the rural areas between Gabes, Sfax and Sidi Bouzid, Ali first helped with farming family land before following his father’s footsteps into nomadic shepherding as a profession in his late twenties and continued until 2009. While Ali often had a few of his own sheep and goat, he mainly worked as a hired shepherd for other, wealthier herd owners. Since his retirement, he has left the seasonal nomadism but kept his relationship to sheep and nature alive. Now in his late sixties, he lives in an old house near the Bou-Hedma mountain where he raises his own flock of 82 sheep and goats.

Ali agreed to sit down with Meshkal for an interview in his house on the afternoon on November 3, 2021, to discuss a shepherd’s life and how it has changed in recent decades. However, he declined to use his real name or allow use of his photo or photos of his flock, giving the following reason:

 “I spent my life with sheep, alone and away from people. So I grew to like silence and hate questions. I only answered yours because I wanted to help with your work. But, if it’s going to open the door for everyone else to start asking me questions then I will prefer not to help.”

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ahmed Gouider : You’ve been herding sheep your entire life ?

Ali : Yes. My father had a flock and his father as well. When I was a baby, my mother used to strap me to her back and go out herding. As a kid I used to play while herding, and as a man it became a job.

AG :  Is it a good job?

Ali : In the past it wasn’t bad. Now it isn’t the same. Now everything is more difficult.

AG : When in the past?

Ali : In the 80s, the 90s, and even the early 2000s land was abundant. It was easy to find a place to feed your herd and a way to pass through so there was nothing to worry about. You just take your flock and head on wherever it is you want to go and you are sure to find a patch of grass.

AG : Where did you use to go?

Ali : It depends on rain. When it is rainy season, we do not go far from here because grass is available. But when it starts drying up, people usually go to Seliana, Beja, Jendouba and places like that because there they have good land.

AG : And how do you get from here to there?

Ali : We used to walk for days, sleeping wherever night set. Now most people use trucks. Back then there was no such thing. We would take the sheep and just start walking. Sometimes I would have a mare with me to carry my stuff, and sometimes not.

AG : What stuff?

Ali : Well you know, the basics. Some oil and some grains. Something to sleep on and some covers. And tea. Tea is very important.

AG : And how long does it take you to reach there?

Ali : Say 10 days. Sometimes it’s more or less.

AG : And you survive these 10 days on some oil and grains and tea?

Ali : Yes mostly tea [he laughs]. No, usually I would get more supplies on the way and at times I would hunt a rabbit and have a feast and at times a sheep would get injured or sick and I butcher it and eat it.

AG : And when that happens, do you have to pay for the sheep that died?

Ali : I don’t pay for anything. Sheep die. It’s not like I killed it on purpose.

AG : But how do you explain to the owner that he has one or more sheep missing from his herd?

Ali : When it dies, I skin its head and keep its ears. So if three sheep die, I have three sets of ears.

AG : And why the ears? Why not the hoofs or something else?

Ali : Because all hoofs are the same.

Ag : So are the ears.

Ali : The ears carry the mark the owner—each herd has a specific mark—so when I show the owner the ears, he would know if that is his sheep or not.

AG : What difference does it make? He already lost a sheep with no kind of compensation. Why do you have to show him the ears?

Ali : So that he knows that it really died. It’s a way for him to know that I did not sell it or something, meaning I did not make a profit out of it. You have to understand that someone with a hundred sheep or more would not feel a big loss over the death of one or even five. What matters is that he knows that I did not steal from him.

AG : So what is your profit from this work? How much do you get paid?

Ali: In the past, when I first started this work, I would get one lamb for every ten sheep. So if I’m caring for a hundred, I would have ten that are mine.

AG : So you didn’t get money for it?

Ali: No. Like I told you, the boss gives me one lamb for every ten of his, and all female lambs.

AG : But no money?

Ali : Why would I want money? A lamb is far better, especially females. One would become two, and two four, and so on. Besides what am I going to use money for while I’m far in the wilderness? A lamb is better. I could eat a lamb if for some reason I run out of provisions, but I cannot eat money.

AG : So you were content with the payment you were receiving?

Ali : It was good, yes. Like I said, it was a good job. The pay was good, and the terrain wasn’t that hard. Now I hear that people are getting ten thousand [millimes = 10 dinars] for each sheep. So a hundred sheep are a “million” [millimes = 1000 Tunisian dinars TND]. What would I need [1000 TND]  for and how am I going to use it while sitting in a green plain with only me, the sheep and God?

AG : [1000 TND] a month is not bad pay.

Ali : [1000 TND] in one season, what I told you about; how we used to get paid in the past was a year round thing. The owner gives you your pay, working clothes [blouza], a shoe, a scarf and some provisions and you go your way. Now, most people do not herd their sheep all around the year but only for one season. Shepherds are paid like I told you and the owner rents a piece of land, in Friguia mostly, so that the shepherd would use that spot for a month or two.

AG : And how much does it cost to rent land?

Ali : Honestly, I am not sure about prices. It’s been long since I went there, but I hear its around five hundred dinars for one hectare.

AG : How do you tell a sheep that is being herded from one that doesn’t leave the stable?

Ali : It’s not hard really. A sheep that is always in a stable is puffed like a ball. Its meat feels different when you touch it, and it tastes different too.

AG : Different how?

Ali : A sheep that goes out herding has more meat than fat for example. Its meat is tastier because it has the ability to eat different things. Sheep know what they need to eat, and when they need it, so when they are out in the plains they get to select from many types of herbs and grass. Unlike goats that eat everything, sheep are actually selective about what they eat. But a stabled one has no choice but to eat one type of food, so its meat loses taste. Now people feed their herds dry bread because it’s cheaper than fodder, but it is much worse. It inflates the sheep like a football: all fat and no meat.

Goats and a sheep eating in Tunis. Photo by Fadil Aliriza.

AG : And does that affect prices?

Ali : It should, but most of the time it doesn’t. You don’t seriously think that most people can tell from the appearance of a sheep whether it was herded or stabled? When it’s [Eid] season those city people don’t even care if the meat is good or if the sheep is healthy. All they care about is how good it looks and how long his horns are. But we—I mean sheep owners—we can tell. And when it’s not the season, we try not to buy stabled sheep at all.

AG : Can you at least give me an estimate to how much the price changes?

Ali : I don’t know really. I’d say a quarter of the price. I mean it goes down by a quarter. Say if the herded [sheep sells] for a thousand, a stabled one goes for maybe seven to eight hundred. I don’t know really, and I don’t care. Most of the time stabled sheep are nothing more than a way to steal from unsuspecting people, that’s my position on the whole thing.

AG : So, as you take those trips and go around with such big flocks all year round, do you not meet any obstacles along the way? I mean, do you get harassed by people or authorities, like the National Guard or anything like that?

Ali : Not authorities, no. But people, yes. Sometimes someone just pops up, screaming their lungs out, telling me to leave and take my flock. I was threatened many times and chased out a few others. But the real threat is not people; it’s animals. Big birds can take a young lamb in the blink of an eye. I was lucky once to retrieve a lamb from an eagle. I was sitting under a tree and lighting a fire to make some tea when I heard a crash and all the sheep started to bleat and run. It took me a second, but eventually I saw the eagle trying to take off. Apparently the lamb was a bit too big for it, because it was struggling to carry it and it couldn’t really catch flight. So I started running and screaming and threw everything I had towards it, even the teapot, so eventually it let go and flew away. But the lamb was badly injured, so I had myself a barbecue.

AG : What year did this happen?

Ali : I think it was in the 80s, near Mazouna [in Sidi Bouzid governorate) .

AG : What about wolves? Ever had an encounter with wolves?

Ali : I almost got killed by one. While I was sleeping late at night, I felt a movement and heard a sniffing sound near me. So I opened my eyes without moving. At first, all I could see was his back and his tail between my thighs, while his head and front paws were digging under my torso. Then it came out from under me and started sniffing all around me. I froze in place. It was one of the scariest moments in my whole life.

AG : I don’t understand. Why it was digging under you?

Ali : Wolves are smart, and I couldn’t really tell what was it thinking, but I think it was planning to make me fall in a hole and then kill me or something.

AG : Anyway how did you survive?

Ali : I left it sniff around me, and then, as soon as it went back to digging, I squeezed his belly between my thighs as hard as I could. I pressed it so hard it emptied out it’s stomach. Then I took my pocketknife and started stabbing it frantically. I didn’t stop until it wasn’t moving anymore. I couldn’t go back to sleep that night or the night after. I spent the night up feeding the flames. I was scared of the possibility that more would come.

AG : And why do you think it went through all that trouble? Why try to dig a hole and trap you and not just bite your neck or simply kill a sheep and eat it?

Ali : How am I supposed to know what was the wolf thinking? Maybe it knew that even if it killed a sheep the noise would wake me up and I’ll chase it off, so trapping and killing me would make it easier to feed.