HARGEISA, Somalia — To the outsider, haggling for sheep in the livestock market here might look like an elaborate secret handshake.
Two men lay a piece of cloth over their grasped hands and begin negotiating the price in silence, their eyes fixed on one another.
Sequences of squeezes, pinches and clasps of fingers, knuckles and hands — all hidden from public view under the cloth — indicate the buyer's offer and the seller's price. Deals worth hundreds or thousands of dollars are concluded quickly, often without exchanging cash. Payments are transferred between mobile phones.
Semi-nomadic animal herding, or pastoralism, is the Somali way. But while it is a cultural practice with deep historical roots, it also may have a place in Somalia's economic future, helping it emerge from decades of civil war.
"Livestock is what people really know," said Cyprien Biaou, a livestock coordinator in the Somalia office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO.
It is already the bedrock of the economy of Somaliland, a breakaway northwestern region of Somalia, which will this year export more than 4 million sheep, goats and camels, accounting for about 80 percent of Somaliland's $120 million annual budget.
Last month alone, 1.6 million sheep were exported from Somaliland's port of Berbera to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. They were destined for ritual slaughter, which marks the end of the annual Muslim pilgrimage, the Hajj.
"This Hajj season was really very good," said Omer Abokor Jama, the deputy port manager in Berbera.
Fat wooden dhows from Oman and Yemen tie up alongside towering steel cargo ships from Saudi Arabia and Egypt at Berbera's deepwater port. The port's 650-meter long dock reflects Somalia's Cold War past: the first 300-meter section was built by the Soviets in the 1960s. When the country switched sides in the 1980s, the US — never to be outdone — built a 350-meter extension.
At the dock, workers unload everything Somaliland cannot produce, which is to say pretty much everything: cars and trucks, shrink-wrapped palettes of fizzy drinks and bottles of mineral water, flour and pasta, petrol and diesel, cement, timber, washing machines and television sets.
They leave with livestock, and not much else. Some of the larger vessels take as many as 100,000 sheep and goats on a single six-day voyage to Jeddah, the biggest market for Somali livestock.
Ali Guled, a government vet in Berbera, said the livestock industry has grown rapidly since 2009, when Gulf States lifted an 11-year ban on the import of Somali animals. Regional governments had feared the spread of Rift Valley Fever, a virus that can pass from animals to humans.
But relative peace and stability allowed Somaliland to establish a quarantine program where animals are inspected and, if necessary, vaccinated before export, giving buyers peace of mind.
The growing trade in livestock has been good for both Somaliland's economy and for people like Mohamed Aden, a 78-year-old animal trader.
Aden is the chairman of Hargeisa's livestock market association, and a 20-year veteran of Somalia's livestock trade. "Livestock is our life," he said.
Mohamed Musa, a city tax collector, said the market alone accounts for up to 60 percent of the Hargeisa's entire tax revenues. As in Berbera, traders at the Hargeisa market sold twice the number of sheep and goats during this year's Hajj season than in the other 11 months of the year combined. The 39,000 sheep and goats exchanged every day during the month earned the government $200,000 in taxes.
One of the biggest livestock traders here is Dhamac Barud, 52, who said he makes $1 million a year from the animal trade. That dwarfs the income he earns from his other businesses, which include a construction company.
Barud buys sheep and goats by the thousands from pastoralist herders along the Ethiopian border for $50 to $70 per animal. He then ships them off to be sold to Arab merchants — "our traditional trading partners," he said — in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen for $90 to $100 per animal.
In a bid to increase the value of each animal, the Somaliland Meat Development Association has been established with the support of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. At the association's office in Hargeisa, discarded camel bones are ground and carved into jewelry. Marrow and fat is boiled to make soap.
Switzera Yussuf Mohamed, the group's chairwoman and a mother of 11, said the new income was making life easier for her and the 40 other workers.
"So many of us were jobless before. But now we have the opportunity to work, to earn something to live on," she said.
People give a variety of reasons for the popularity of Somali animals. Some point to the animals themselves: they are "free range and organic," smaller ("family-sized," as one man put it), and taste sweeter.
Others say the explanation is more spiritual: that the herders are Muslim like the buyers, or that the Somali sheep is prized because its distinctive black head bears a symbolic connection to the ancient tale of Abraham, who was willing to follow God's orders in sacrificing his son.
Whatever the reasons, exports are growing and that is good news for Somalia's struggling economy.