From Desert Nomad to American Nurse
The Last Nomad: Coming of Age in the Somali Desert Book Cover The Last Nomad: Coming of Age in the Somali Desert
Shugri Said Salh
Algonquin Books
August 3, 2021
Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback

When Shugri Said Salh was six years old, she was sent to live with her nomadic grandmother in the desert, away from the city of Mogadishu. Leaving behind her house, her parents, her father’s multiple wives, and her many siblings, she would become the last of her family to learn a once-common way of life. The desert held many risks, from drought and hunger to the threat of predators, but it also held beauty, innovation, and centuries of tradition. Shugri grew to love the freedom of roaming with her goats and the feeling of community in learning the courtship rituals, cooking songs, and poems of her people. She was even proud to face the rite of passage that all “respectable” girls undergo in Somalia, a brutal female circumcision. In time, Shugri would return to live with her siblings in the city. Ultimately, the family was forced to flee as refugees in the face of a civil war—first to Kenya, then to Canada, and finally to the United States. There, Shugri would again find herself a nomad in a strange land, learning to navigate everything from escalators to homeless shelters to, ultimately, marriage, parenthood, and nursing school. And she would approach each step of her journey with resilience and a liveliness that is all her own.

A Coming-of-Age Epic

Shugri Said Salh has lived the kind of life that we think of as taking place only in movies. For much of her young life she lived as a nomad in Somalia, sent by there by her parents, to be of assistance to her grandmother. Her grandmother became the defining influence of her young life, teaching her that she could do anything she set her mind to, including train camels and herd goats. Yet, she was also put through the traditional practice that we call female genital mutilation and taught that she would one day need to be subservient to her husband. Shugri’s father was likewise a study in contrasts, practicing polygamy and giving his children frequent beatings, while also insisting on equal education for all of his children, regardless of sex. She later spent time in a Canadian-run orphanage, besieged Somali cities at the outset of their Civil War, a refugee camp, Kenya, Canada, and the United States.

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Shugri’s story provides an education in Somali culture, African politics, the refugee experience, and in the power of choosing to forge your own path. She observes on multiple occasions how racism and segregation are everywhere, from the clan system of her homeland to the treatment of refugees and immigrants in every country she lives in. As a word of warning, at times her tale turned my stomach a bit with the detailed accounts of FGM and practices towards animals that made my mostly-vegetarian-self shutter. Yet, as long as I kept in mind that our way is not the only way, I found the book to be enjoyable and enlightening about a part of recent history that has always been on the periphery of my interests.

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Shugri Said Sahl

The Last Nomad reads like an epic, moving across countries and continents, as one woman evolves from accepting her fate and the forces of culture that shuttle her about, to painstakingly choosing her own path. Shugri Said Salh has made the sacrifices and decisions necessary to create a brand-new legacy for her own daughter, and those who will come in later generations. Today, she works as a nurse in California, and the story of how she got there from the deserts of Somalia, truly is a great read for people everywhere.