‘The Last Nomad’: One woman’s journey from the Somali desert to Santa Rosa
Editor’s note: This story contains a graphic description of female genital mutilation, which may be disturbing for some readers.
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.