Excerpt from The Last Nomad by Shugri Said Salh, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Last Nomad

Coming of Age in the Somali Desert

by Shugri Said Salh

The Last Nomad by Shugri Said Salh X
The Last Nomad by Shugri Said Salh
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2021, 304 pages

    Jul 2022, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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Print Excerpt


I am the last nomad.

How can I be the last one? Nomads still exist in that faraway desert where I grew up, so how can I make such a bold statement? What I am really trying to say is, I am the last person in my direct line to have once lived like that, and now I feel like the sole keeper of my family's stories. As I sit here in my home in California, weaving my tale for you, the weight of that responsibility urges me on. All of my ancestors on both sides of my family were nomads; they traveled the East African desert in search of grazing land for their livestock, and the most precious resource of all—water. When they exhausted the land and the clouds disappeared from the horizon, their accumulated ancestral knowledge told them where to move next to find greener pastures. They loaded their huts and belongings onto their most obedient camels and herded their livestock to a new home.

My nomadic family was at the mercy of the weather. At the end of jilal, the long dry season, when the clouds finally rum-bled with rain, we looked up at the sky with renewed hope. As the desert quenched its thirst, the red earth crackled back to life. Responsibility eased, adults welcomed the rain with drums, singing, and dancing. Children got fat and healthy. Sitting around the fire at night, they soaked in the folktales and poems passed down from generation to generation. But despite the renewed abundance of food, we knew we had to preserve some of it for the dry season to follow. Sometimes, the drought hit harder than usual, killing both livestock and people. Bones and twigs soon littered the terrain where goats and sheep once happily grazed. In those times, my ancestors ceased singing under the moon, their drums hardened, and they longed for good news. Children no longer heard stories by the fire, and an old poet would bellow to the desert, voicing his agony. He would speak of a dying land taking his precious camels. His mournful poem would then travel through time and across borders, to remedy the pain of his people for years to come.

My three children, raised in California, know nothing of nomadic life except from the stories I have shared. As I sit here now in my comfortable suburban home listening to my teenage son excitedly tell me about his favorite YouTuber, I am reminded acutely of the void between my past and my present. I speak of a world of which he has little understanding. An old African proverb says, When an elder dies, a library is burned. I am not yet an elder, but I do feel like a portal between two worlds. I am the last person in my immediate family who holds this particular library of knowledge. As the years pass, the sense of urgency I feel about sharing my experience with my children and the world grows.

In my imagination, I have shared my story with each of you many times as we gathered under a clear black sky, its shiny stars guiding my ancestral wisdom. I have imagined you leaning in to me, as if I had brought news of water after a drought. I have poured us more tea, for I knew it was going to be a long night under the luminous moon; I wanted to get this tale of mine right. The fire between us has crackled with excitement, as if to nudge my story along. But now it is no longer enough for me to just imagine telling you my stories; I feel the need to bring you all to the fire and into my world.

Stories have always created understanding and connection between humans. In this era of great misunderstanding, I wish to help rein us back in to our shared humanity. The beauty of my culture was imprinted on me when I was very young, and I cherish it so deeply that my desire to share it only grows. Like an archeologist desperately excavating a forgotten world, I want to bring the details of my nomadic upbringing to life before it is lost forever. I don't want the library of my past to die with me. The resilience I learned from surviving life in the desert carried me through the unexpected death of my young mother, being chased from my country by civil war, and defying my clan's expectations after I dared to fall in love with a man from the "wrong" country. Though I was torn from nomadic life too early, it gave me a strong foundation and anchored me to that world despite the tumultuous twists and turns that followed.

Excerpted from The Last Nomad by Shugri Said Salh. Copyright © 2021 by Shugri Said Salh. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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