Somaliland nomads

Pondering home in Somaliland

Recently I’ve been thinking about home. This happens every time I travel, and I know I’ve been on the road too long when I hear Michael Bublé in my head, “Paris and Rome, but I wanna go home…”

But my recent trip to Somaliland made me think of home in a different way. As a self-proclaimed “global nomad,” I like to say that I can be at home anywhere, but honestly that’s not true. I can survive anywhere for a period of time, but changing beds every two nights for three weeks is not enjoyable, and coming home to an empty room is lonely. (Queue the Bublé…)

Somaliland nomads
A nomadic family on the move in Somaliland.

In Somaliland, I spent time with real nomads. Not only do they move with their herds of camels and goats from place to place in search of water, they often do this away from all other social contact for weeks, maybe months at a time. My wife and I may not see our family very often, but at least we have church, colleagues, and neighbors. True nomads just keep moving, but in Somaliland that is changing.

Years of drought and desertification, coupled with conflict, are making the nomadic way of life much more risky. Rains are fewer and far between. I’ve visited places that get rain two or three days per year. Ironically, so much rain falls that day that it causes walls of water 15 feet high to roar down dry river beds, washing away whole families. Between the constant wind and these flash floods, soil is eroded away and the high central plains are mostly bare rock, with a few inedible shrubs.

Driving across this expanse of desert, not passing a vehicle for days, it is easy to see the comfort of the nomadic life, as well as the struggle for existence. It’s very peaceful—just a few wild animals, the sky, vast stretches of land, quietly grazing herds. But the daily trek for water can be 30 or 40 miles, and there is no health care, no education, no places of worship. You live alone, and you will likely die alone. Why then does this way of life persist? Why is it so heartbreaking to see nomadic families lose everything, and be forced to live in villages, where they make less than 50 cents a day?

It’s about home. Home is not your living quarters, whether a hotel room, a grand palace, or a bundle of sticks and a tarpaulin. Home is not who you’re with, but who you miss. Home is about a sense of purpose, a feeling of well-being, regardless of services and amenities that are available. Home truly is “where the heart is.” But what does this have to do with me and Somaliland?

Donkey in Somaliland carrying firewood
Donkeys carry firewood and jerry cans in Somaliland.

In disaster recovery theory, we do not accept that we can enable a return to pre-event conditions. This is especially true in slow-onset disasters like droughts, where it is difficult to even set a time and place which is accepted as normal. Rather, there is a move towards building a new normal—a safer, more resilient, and more risk-adverse normal. In Somaliland, this means smaller herds, diverse income sources, and improved rangeland and water management. Technically sound, but for the old man who just wishes he could die the way he was born, on an open plain to the sound of camel bells and the blowing wind, it’s hooey. Recovery must be something you can believe in.

In my mind, recovering from a disaster is about accepting a new sense of the word normal, and embracing a future that is quite different from the past. It’s about acknowledging the inevitable march of progress, and anticipating the opportunity for previously unknown joys. It’s about coming home to a new home.

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Chris

Chris Sheach is World Concern's Deputy Director of Disaster Response.

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