31 Jul A Somali holiday in the Welsh countryside
By Rahel Goenner, Head Link Worker
In the Somali region of Africa, there has long existed a convention that families in the towns send their children to stay with their relations in the countryside during the school holidays, to learn about the rural, nomadic side of their culture. Increasingly, older Somalis and community leaders express concerns about the effect that isolation from traditional Somali culture is having on young urban Somalis. Often stigmatised, sometimes unaware of the many positive aspects to their history, and all too aware of news reports portraying Somalia as a “failed state”, it has become common to find Somali youths (especially young men) keen to disown their own Somali identity. This feeling of alienation can contribute to a lack of achievement at school, and in some cases, contribute to more serious disillusionment.
Many of the children supported by West London Zone are of Somali descent and – having grown up in White City – have had little or no opportunity to connect with the rural side of their culture. So, for one weekend in July 2017, we took 10 children from our Ark Swift cohort as well as 5 adults on two minibuses to ‘Degmo’ – a holiday camp in New Radnor, Wales, that aims to connect British Somalis from the inner cities to their rich rural heritage.
Degmo – a word used by Somalis to describe a cluster of family encampments erected by nomads tending their livestock – has the largest collection of Somali cultural artefacts, photographs, and historical material outside of Somalia itself. These items, together with more than thirty years of experience living in the Somali region by Hamish Wilson, Degmo’s director, and his Somali colleagues, form the basis of the activities, workshops, lectures and discussions. Degmo believe (as do we) that a strong sense of self is a powerful asset in life, and that learning about one’s own culture can strengthen that immensely.
After a long coach journey from London to Wales, we pitched our tents in a beautiful secluded valley, where we joined a group from a Somali supplementary school in Southall and whilst the children excitedly explored the stream and sheep, swung in the trees and played football. Included amongst the smaller tents was a large kitchen tent, where over the course of the weekend we cooked all kinds of dishes together – from Israeli breakfast, slow cooked venison, Somali pasta and pancakes, roasted lamb and a lot of spiced milk tea. The next day everyone joined in preparing and baking pizzas in the wood-fired oven.
At night around the fire, Hamish showed us pictures about the traditional nomadic life in Somalia, teaching the children about the wonders and significance of the camels, healthy diet, exercise and working together in the family and the community. Having lived as a camel boy and journalist in Somalia he inspired everyone with his vast knowledge and passion. The parents said it reminded them of their roots, and highly valued the opportunity to share this with their children.
The trip had too many highlights to name – incredibly starry nights, horse rides, goat milking in the morning, amazing hikes in the nearby countryside and foraging on wild raspberries and blueberries. One of our girls truly surprised us with her handling of the animals, particularly the goats, and she was hardly able to part from them. Another girl truly shone when it came to persevere during our hike, leading the group and leaving the boys far behind who struggled to keep up. On our long hike, a Year 6 boy wanted to give up climbing up the first field next to grazing Scottish highland cattle, feeling sick and scared, but after some encouragement from the farmer and our driver, he completed the three-hour hike with immense pride and no complaints. Another Year 6 boy had great fear of getting on the horse and only dared to try after long persuasion by the adults who ended up carrying him onto the horse. He later said: ‘My favourite moment was when I rode the horse and when I met [Hamish’s sons]’
Our group had members from, Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea, Germany and the Netherlands, and conversations stretched across religion, languages, abilities, difference and culture, with all the adults contributing and sharing something. For this group of children, exposure to different ways of behaving and living was a hugely valuable experience and will not be one soon forgotten. They all would have loved to stay longer. We hope that they all bring something of the Welsh and Somalian countryside back to London with them!