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‘The Last Nomad’: One woman’s journey from the Somali desert to Santa Rosa

Saturday July 31, 2021
By Meg McConahey

The grasslands and open skies of Crane Creek Regional Park remind Shugri Salh of her childhood as a nomad in the desert of Somalia. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Shugri Salh yearns to return to the red East African desert of her youth. But her native Somalia is controlled by a strict and conservative Muslim sect and she would not feel safe. So she hikes the meadows and woodlands near her Santa Rosa home. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Often, from the deep pools of her memory, Shugri Said Salh can summon images of a time and place so remote from her current life they seem otherworldly. Like a mirage, scenes from the desert of Somalia at the end of jilal — the dry season — drift into her mind, provoked by the sight of the bleached grass covering the rolling hills that overlook the Santa Rosa plain.

Salh comes to the high open meadows at Crane Creek and Taylor Mountain regional parks for healing and as a spiritual practice, often bearing a notebook. She climbs into a nook in the branches of a favorite oak tree or settles on a bench near the summit she calls “my place.” This is her perch for writing, meditating and observing the raptors that glide against a blue scrim of sky, triggering memories of the “shimmering, iridescent” colors of the birds in the East African desert of her childhood.

Salh is “The Last Nomad” of a long family line of goatherds who traversed a parched landscape with camels in ceaseless pursuit of grazing land and water. It could be a perilous existence, facing drought, hunger and danger, hyenas, lions and scorpions. But she vividly remembers with primal yearning its orange skies and acacia trees, drinking goat milk from handwoven grass dihls and climbing atop the towering termite mounds called dudumos that rise, as she says, “like castle spires above the red desert.”

Salh is a woman of two profoundly different worlds. A nurse and self-described “soccer mom,” she lives a comfortable American life in a southeast Santa Rosa subdivision with her Ethiopian-born husband, Selehdin Salh, who is a software engineer, and three California-raised kids ages 14 to 23.

She also is a daughter of the desert. During these quiet times alone on a hill, Salh is still overwhelmed with wonder at how far she has come in the 30 years since she fled her war-torn native Somalia for Canada. She was a wary young girl who had never seen snow, a microwave or a washing machine. It took a long time before she had the courage to step on an escalator. The girl who outran a herd of enraged warthogs was frightened to step on the moving “monster” she feared would flatten people at the top.

“I felt like I had landed in an alien world,” she recalls. “Another planet. But I was taught to survive.

“Survival of the fittest is put to the test in the desert. You either die or survive,” Salh says. “You get sick. There’s drought. Lions attack and take you. Every time you go out to herd animals, it’s obvious you could encounter lions, hyenas and wild dogs. And yet they expect you to come home with the goats all well-counted.”

Today her view from the hillside is of wide-open meadows with the outline of urban development sprawling in the far distance. It was a long and perilous migration across cultures and continents to get to this place of ease and plenty. Salh shares that journey in her new memoir, “The Last Nomad: Coming of Age in the Somali Desert.”

She writes lyrically and with reverence about her upbringing under the wing of her beloved ayeeyo, or grandmother. The middle of nine children, Salh was the spare one, given by her mother at age 6 as “a gift of labor” to the older woman while her siblings remained in the city with their educated but often brutal father and went to school.

“I loved the rhythm and rituals of nomadic life, from the sound of the baby goats demanding milk from their mothers every morning to the mysterious lullaby of the insects and birds that soothed me to sleep every night,” she writes. “I loved sitting around the fire, listening to the stories and poems my family members shared every evening.”

They sheltered in huts of twigs and thatch and disassembled and lashed them to camels when survival dictated they seek out the next watering hole.

But Salh also recalls with clear-eyed honesty the casual cruelties she witnessed in a homeland riven by clan warfare and a native culture that, for all its rich traditions, is rooted in misogyny.

Already garnering high critical praise ahead of its Aug. 3 release, “The Last Nomad” is Salh’s first book. A visiting infusion nurse, Salh self-consciously confesses to being a better master of chemistry and biology than English grammar. But Betsy Gleick, her editor and the publisher of Algonquin Books in New York, predicts that “The Last Nomad” is bound to become a modern classic, much like Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” a bildungsroman about a boy growing up in Kabul, and “I Am Malala” by the young Pakistani activist and Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai.

Every person at Algonquin who read ‘The Last Nomad’ on submission felt they were reading a story they had never read before from a really original and completely fresh voice,” Gleick says by phone from New York.

Publisher’s Weekly said the book “stuns with its raw beauty.”

“I’m always fascinated by somebody who is now living this quintessentially American life, driving her kids to after-school activities, and yet how harrowing that must feel when she looks back on where she came from and ties those two (worlds) together,” Gleick adds. “Shugri is a beautiful writer and a beautiful storyteller, and her voice is something an editor is always looking for. It’s natural.”

Remembering her mother
Salh began writing her story partly as a legacy for her three children, whose upbringing could not have been more different from her own.

It is also a way of giving voice to her mother, a “desert flower” who died young in a dusty river town where she ran a store and found ways to feed the destitute refugees who lived there. She left no trace of her existence, not even a photo. Salh was only 6 when her mother died and has no clear memory of her “hooyo’s” face. But she has a sense of her tall and graceful presence.

“The moment my gaze approaches her face,” Salh writes sadly, “she completely disappears from view.”

Salh is haunted by her mother’s pain. Her father, considered “a holy man,” took on a younger, dominating wife who treated her mother like an unwanted guest.

“She came into this world, gave birth to 10; nine of us lived,” Salh wrote of her mother. “And when she was gone it was like her world died with her. I really wanted to excavate that world like an archaeologist, searching for a remnant of my mother.”

Salh knows only that a solar eclipse happened the day her younger brother, then 5, awoke to find his mother dead of malaria.

Slight and agile with fine bone structure and tight black curls, Salh doesn’t know her own exact age. Births were remembered by whether they occurred in a drought or a rainy time. Her siblings tell her she was a baby during a severe drought, which places her birth in about 1974. She chose her own birth date — Feb. 15 — when she arrived in Canada. But sometimes, on a random day, she will ponder: “Today may be my birthday.”

Painful circumcision
Somali girls undergo circumcision at a young age, and Salh recounts the brutal ritual with excruciating yet almost dispassionate detail.

It is done with a knife without anesthesia or painkillers. There are various levels of what is euphemistically called circumcision, but the practice, outlawed in the U.S., is recast by many now as female genital mutilation.

Somalia regularly practices the most extreme version, which involves removing the clitoris and inner labia and sewing the outer labia shut, leaving just a small opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. It is a new husband’s duty to tear the hole open. Some women may suffer a lifetime of pain and medical problems.

Salh is now appalled by the practice. “We have to stop associating sex with shaming,” she says.

She has gotten into arguments on social media with fellow Somalis who attack her for her female-empowering views. But she hopes that by writing about it, including about her own experience, people may come to at least understand the cultural underpinnings of the practice and show compassion to the women who have lived with the impacts of it. That for her is the path to change. For young girls in Somalia, it was a rite of passage and a point of pride. Young girls who had not undergone the procedure were shunned and looked down on.

Salh says if she had not undergone the ritual she would have “lost a lot of self esteem.

“My truth is, ‘hey, you need to understand the psychology behind it if you want to unravel this monster.’”

She is now working on another book that tells the stories of five women and their experiences and perspectives on genital mutilation.

“By talking about it, our shared humanity comes out and we can have compassion for each other,” Salh says. Eventually, she hopes, cultural attitudes will shift just as they did toward rape or pregnancy out of wedlock.

She also wants it known that “just because we went through female circumcision, (it’s not that) we have no (sexual) feeling or we’re done as a woman.”

Perils and pitfalls
Salh faced many perils as a young woman in Somalia and even after emigrating to Canada.

In her culture, some men view women as objects to use. But a woman raped suffers not just the trauma of assault, but public shaming as well. She is blamed. Female virginity in her culture is a pillar of social status and must be guarded with one’s life.

After her mother died, Salh and her siblings were placed in an orphanage. There, she experienced both great kindness and cruelty but also began her education.

Although in Somalia then, women were still in the inferior position, it was the days of dictator and President Mohamed Siad Barre, who believed in women’s equality. Over time, the country was overtaken by religious extremism, a far cry from the mystic Sufiism under which Salh was raised. Somalia dissolved into civil war, with people siding up based on clan lineage.

Salh and some of her family members managed to make it over the border to Kenya. But it proved to be no refuge. All the beautiful young Somali women streaming into Kenya were like “cows walking into a crocodile-filled river,” she says. Men were out to have their way with them. She managed to fight off a rapist with the ferocity of a lion.

“In the end,” she says, “he did not get what he wanted. It was sick. I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language, and they keep putting me in jail because I don’t have their papers and now I’m being raped by one of them? It’s an insult to the fabric of your being.”

A new world
A twist of fate sent Salh on a new trajectory that eventually led to the life she has now. When a Kenyan doctor misdiagnosed her with breast cancer when she was a teenager, concerned relatives decided she should be sent to Ottawa, Canada, to live with a sister. It was there she finished high school and met her husband, Selehdin Salh, an Ethiopian immigrant.

The young couple moved to Sonoma County in 2000 when he was offered a high tech job in Petaluma.

Salh spent years as a stay-at-home mother. But as her kids grew more independent, she returned to school, first at Santa Rosa Junior College and later at Pacific Union College in Angwin, where she earned a degree in nursing.

She often tells stories of the desert to distract her patients. “I take them to a different world and sneak that IV in,” she says with a laugh.

For all her early trauma, Salh remains joyful and grateful. While she calls herself half a “little hippie girl,” she also has one foot back in the Horn of Africa and finds some American ways funny.

She tells the story of encountering a woman outside Whole Foods in Sebastopol with a few baby goats. Being conversational, Salh said, “You know, baby goat meat is delicious.” The woman recoiled in horror. Salh had missed the sign that said “Goats are pets not dinner.” Then the woman introduced her three goats: Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga and Elvis.

“Can you get crazier than that?” Salh says, erupting in high-pitched laughter. “I said, ‘Oh, my god.’ If you did that in the desert, they would tie you to an acacia tree and you would be eaten by wild animals. Here you have goat yoga and I’m thinking it is meat. With all the crusades in the world, why goats?”

Salh hikes Taylor Mountain above her home and the grasslands of Crane Creek to restore herself and heal from the residual trauma of a youth that was blissful in its simplicity yet also harrowing. The tribal genocide of her country seeps into her nightmares. Her siblings are scattered all over the world, although one sister and her children are living with her now.

“I have take care of myself. I have to hike. I have to meditate. I have to practice calmness,” Salh says. “But I have happiness in my life. I happen to have the most amazing marriage. My children are amazing. I’m blessed in that way.”

Yet something feels unfinished and unfulfilled.

“I want to go back to Somalia. It’s like a bird whose nest is burned. I had to fly away in terror.” She wants to once again touch the walls of her childhood home and visit the land where her mother is buried.

She knows that as an outspoken Somali woman, she would be a target of the insurgent terrorist group al-Shabab if she were to return. Gone is the freedom of the draping guntinos of her youth. Women in Somalia now are hidden under heavy burqas.

For the time being, she is consigned to returning through her memories and her vivid stories.

“Everyone deserves to visit their childhood homes. And if you can’t go to your childhood home,” she says, “the longing is even more.”


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