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Out of Africa, into Wales
City-dwelling Somalis in the UK are being given the chance to experience traditional rural life in a hill farm in mid Wales. Sanjida O'Connell reports on how an unlikely partnership is keeping their cultural heritage alive
Cardiff, Wales, August 15, 2009 – As soon as the goat is brought in, Zahra Mohamed bends down and expertly milks it, before turning back to toss another lahooh, a type of pancake made with yeast, on a hot skillet. Mohamed is originally from Mogadishu in Somalia and now lives in London. Today, with another 21 Somalis, she's at a hill farm in mid Wales and seems as at ease here as she once was in her own country.
"Everything is organic," she says, indicating the Welsh flour. "It reminds me of back home. I love the fresh air, the fresh food."
We're at the Degmo Centre for Somali Heritage and Rural Life at Hamish Wilson's farm in New Radnor. Wilson was partly brought up in Africa and, due to his father's experience in Somalia during the second world war, had such strong connections with the country that he became a camel boy, herding camels through the deserts with the nomads in the 1980s. He went on to join the liberation movement during the civil war. Now settled in Wales as an organic livestock farmer, he wants to recreate Somali traditions on his farm.
Somalis have a custom, he says, of sending their children to live in the countryside during the summer months with their nomadic relatives. "It imbibes them with a sense of their own culture and the language. Unlike other Africans, it means they don't turn their back on village life even after they've moved to the city," says Wilson.
However, Somali people in this country often do not have the means to send their children back home. It might not seem immediately obvious that instead of travelling around with the Mi, nomadic pastoralists in Somalia, children should be sent to a rainy, hillside farm in Wales. But Wilson is at pains to point out that it is the Somalis themselves who dictate how the centre is run. A number of Somali businesspeople, including Abdirashid Duale, the chief executive of Dahabshiil, a money-transfer service for the Horn of Africa, have paid for the creation of the centre.
Wilson works with Somali communities in Liverpool, Sheffield, Bristol, Cardiff, Manchester and London. His major partner is the Ocean Somali Community Association (Osca) in Tower Hamlets, east London with which he meets every two or three months to discuss how Degmo should be run. The centre also has a Somali board of patrons who assist in the decision-making.
Osca's most recent concern is how to encourage Somalis to be more interested in the environment and sustainability, and in response Wilson initiated a programme of tree-planting on the farm. Osca is also keen to keep Somali women's customs alive, and a programme of weaving traditional rush mats will begin soon.
Thanks to the intervention of Osca, Degmo now provides private family-sized tents instead of communal accommodation. Somali families come for private visits, and the money they pay is used to fund trips for unemployed or low-income families.
The centre aims to recreate a sense of life on a traditional Somalian settlement with a series of tents filled with mattresses and woolen blankets. There are hot showers and two large, round yurt-like tents with a cooker, a fire and a number of Somalian artifacts. "Degmo" means settlement in Somalian, and the idea is to create a place to stay that has an ecologically low impact and allows people "to hear the birds and the bees", says Wilson.
"I was born in a place like this, on a mattress like this and with a tablet like this one for learning," says Musa Hersi, chair of the London-based Somali Carers Trust, indicating a wooden slab with a fragment from the Qur'an written on it. "We wanted to come here because of Hamish's connection to Somalia.
"We've brought all ages of people with us, from children to the elderly. It's about remembrance for the older generation, enjoyment for the middle-aged and learning for the youngsters."
Migration to the UK
Somali communities have been in the UK for 125 years, originally as migrant labourers who maintained their families back home. As the political situation deteriorated in their own country, they started returning to live here in the 1970s, and numbers escalated in the 90s. Official figures suggest there are 43,000 Somalis living in the UK, but experts say there could be anything from 95,000 to 250,000.
Like many other people from an ethnic minority background, few visit the British countryside. Even though 8% of the UK population is from an ethnic minority, only 1% of ethnic minority communities go on day trips to the countryside, according to the Campaign for National Parks.
For Summer Duale, 21, who is studying architecture at Kingston University, this is the first time she has milked a goat. "It's lovely here but I miss my hair straighteners and makeup," she says.
Hersi's 17-year-old daughter, Amal, who is still at school, says: "Dad told me I had to come because we would be milking goats. I thought it would be boring, but it's not. It's fun, but you have to get used to it." She is wearing a dress over jeans and thin pumps, just as she would have done back home in north London. Wilson sighs with exasperation and hands Amal a pair of swirly-patterned wellies.
A couple of sheep are brought to the tent to be sheared. One is clipped with electric shears, the other with a pair of hand-held metal shears. Wilson explains that Somali sheep don't have wool and aren't fat like ours; instead they store what little fat they have in their tails. The older generation nod sagely - the fatty tail is highly prized. Mohammed, 7, grabs a scrap of wool, sniffs it, makes a face and throws it away.
Four teenage boys stand with their arms folded trying not to look interested.
"It's very interesting - the difference between Somali and English sheep," says Abdi Elmi, 17, from Tottenham. It's his first experience of both camping and visiting the countryside, and he is exactly the age group that the Degmo Centre wants to engage.
"Many of them have never been to visit Somalia. They question who they are. Everything they hear about Somalis is negative, whether it's the disturbances in Mogadishu, street crime in London, conflict with African-Caribbeans in St Paul's, Bristol. Their parents find it hard to impress anything on them," Wilson says.
It is largely thanks to his father that Wilson was able to set up the centre. Eric Wilson fought in Somalia in the second world war and was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery. Much later, Wilson junior was given the opportunity to buy the farm in New Radnor along with 210 acres of land. Unfortunately, he had no money. But his father believed so strongly that his son should set up a centre for Somalis that he sold his Victoria Cross to raise the funds.
The centre is now working in collaboration with the Soil Association to help low-income families visit the farm; the charity is campaigning to raise money to send 150 Bristol-based Somalis there over the next two years. They are also looking at replicating the Degmo model with other ethnic minority groups in the UK.
• Sanjida O'Connell is the author of The Naked Name of Love, published by John Murray
Source: The Guardian, August 12, 2009