We left Bosaaso, Northeastern Somalia, just before twilight set upon us for the pristine countryside wilderness or Miyi as it is known in Somali. Accompanied by my brother, we left my hotel at Al-Rowda, passed by Bosaaso Hospital, a thousand and one restaurants at the edge of the main road, countless hawkers, cars, lorries heading out and entering the city, people, goats, sheep, soldiers, more hotels, carts and finally silence. Except for our short stay at Xalwo Kismaayo whilst we bought some sweets and mineral water, there were no commotion-filled and eventful streets to be heard, no clamour of voices, no obnoxious Qat sellers, no loud conductors pulling you into their buses - just the noise of rubber eating away the tarmac.
Arid, dry land occupied either sides of the road as far as the eyes caught. Further ahead, great mountains towered above the levelled ground; the enormity of such mountains loomed over the vast barren earth and formed a somewhat pleasing sight.
The long stretch of road led us past the city control limits where cars are checked for weapons, then past the villages of Laag, Karin, Kalabaydh, and several other tiny assembled huts along the roadside. Just after we passed the dangerously serpentine road of Alxamdullilah, no more than 20 km from Bosaaso, the driver came off the asphalted road and took a narrow rough path through the arid land, formed by the tyre tracks of cars and constant usage. The rough road rapidly rolled in front of us and the car bounced up and down at great speeds. We followed that route through an immense dark terrain, through Ballibusle, through Goraan and after a gruelling five-hour journey set foot in Xaaris, a small village consisting of a few dry huts right in the heart of Sanaag, at 2 am.
A small hut erected in the middle of no where, surrounded by tiny bushes, greeted us and adjacent to it, two thick fences made from the thorny branches of Galool trees formed two large rings. Inside the rings, animal dung had plastered the earth, covering the thin layer of soil. This was where the sheep come to rest after a day of traversing the plains of Sanaag.
From the hut exited my family members whom I was to meet. It was an occasion worthy of a celebration and fresh meat was immediately served. We stayed that night or whatever was left of it and slept in the open, outside the hut, watching the millions of glittery stars that decorated the sky and danced around the vivid moon to form an enchanting display.
Waking up early that morning, I observed my surroundings. I noticed with great enthusiasm the extent to which my vision was restricted – I saw no obstacle in sight as far as my eyes could see. Except for some trees spread sporadically along a vast flat land, the wilderness was as open as the sea and stretched out for, perhaps, hundreds of kilometres.
It was the Xagaa (dry) season and the land, being slightly sterile, was parched and rainless. The nomads whose survival largely depends on water find it hard to live in one place for long. With their huts assembled on their camels, they are constantly on the move, following the trail of every darkening cloud whose assurance of it dropping rain they cannot guarantee. After my few days’ sojourn at Xaaris, I made my way to Habarshiro – a small village about 30km away to greet more relatives and discover the land. I marvelled at the sheer immensity of the terrain; you could be travel all day and not come into contact with a single human being.
Habarshiro, lying at the foot of a small hill, has Ceelbuuh, about 50 km away, as its nearest neighbour. Here, the vast land was, for the most part, unoccupied except for a few houses that conspicuously took up their rightful places in the middle of no-where. Barren and dry as it was, there were hardly any trees either, apart from the few dry trunks that stood like solitary soldiers assigned to keep watch and guard the village. Dug at the periphery of the village are small wells known as Berkedo. These serve as watering grounds for more than a thousand heads of camels, sheep and goats every day - though during the drier seasons they do not accumulate much water. For twenty days, I stayed with the people of Habarshiro, overwhelmed by their affability and munificence in a time of hardship.
As the days progressed, I learnt more about the customs of the Nomadic tribes and soon started to admire them. Though living in the throes of water shortages and meagre resources (particularly during the dry seasons), the nomads are perhaps the one group of people who have understood life’s fundamental lesson of simplicity. They care neither for the trials the barren land may unfold tomorrow, nor do they weigh themselves down with the burdens of yesterday. They live for today, with as little of life’s encumbrances as possible. In their secluded world, detached from all worldly lures, the present is all that matters - the past has no relevance and the future no certainty. Enjoying whatever the earth yields, they live a frugal lifestyle without extravagance. They wake up the morning, each person going about his assigned job. No worries or stress besets them, for as long as they have their camels, life is all pleasant - except for the dry seasons when they struggle hard to find grazing grounds and water for their livestock.
During the rainy seasons of Gu’ and some times throughout the infrequent rains of the Dayr seasons, the pastoral nomads of Somalia’s countryside rejoice in the abundance of wealth that they have. It is at this time when most of their animals give birth. The once barren earth now becomes fertile; the top layer of soil remains constantly damp and with water covering the ground, it produces fresh green grass called Cosob for all animals to graze nearby. With the continually pouring rains, and the abundance of lush pasture for the animals, there is always a plenteous supply of fresh milk and water.
The men, relieved of the burdens of trekking countless number of miles with their camels in search of green pastures and watering places for their families, can now sprawl out under the fully blossomed branches of the nearby trees and relax. They celebrate as their milch-camels usually give birth during these seasons and consume its highly cherished milk - Dambar. The camels, with their front legs loosely tied so as not wander very far, are let out into the fields nearby to nibble at the freshly sprouting leaves. The entire plains are covered in soft green grass and the elders of the village gather under trees and brilliant verses of poetry acclaiming the sweetness of the seasons are sung.
The female nomads, alleviated from the arduous chores of disassembling huts during the dry seasons of Xagaa and Jiilaal to move to greener pastures, are now engaged in conversations and endless moments of merriment. There is a plenty supply of water and milk – the two essential nutrients of the Somali nomads.
Weddings and cultural dances are a regular occurrence during these seasons. It is also a time when young men who have come of age go about, usually to far away places, scouting for their brides. Local cultural dances and wedding ceremonies are the best forms of entertainment and differ from region to region. And scouting usually takes place at the dancing circles where many young men and women come to compete in a war of words.
The Somali Nomadic lifestyle is what defines the Somali culture. It is from these dry plateaus, valleys and watering holes from which all Somali traditions spring, forming the bedrock of the Somali society and a rich cultural heritage handed down to generations of camel herders and pastoralists. The traditional dances and weddings in Miyi form the basis of almost all Somali poetry and music. And to understand the meaning and origins of Somali poetry, music and literature, one must be fairly informed about the pastoral lifestyle, for without it he looses majority of the meaning, metaphors, allusions and insinuations imbedded within them.
The austerities of life in Miyi are simply remarkable. Life here fundamentally depends on ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’ and the western life of hedonism and extravagance does not fall within the purview of the Somali nomad. As soon as children reach six years of age, their set of responsibilities are laid out before them and, against the backdrop of parched fields and scarcity of water, they traipse the vast open country often parading herds of camels, sheep and goats. A boy at that tender age would be expected to learn tending to the camels whereas a girl would start by guarding the flock of sheep and goats in the nearby green pastures.
And now that I have returned to London, I have become slightly disenchanted with all the superfluous material pleasures and their impermanent value. The life of the Nomads has left upon me an indelible impression of simplicity and the contentment that lies within. Whether or not I would return to live among them is a question I am pondering…
You might also be interested in our article on Nungwi, a village on the island of Zanzibar.