‘The Last Nomad’: One Woman’s Journey From the Somali Desert to Santa Rosa

Author and Santa Rosa resident Shugri Said Salh fled her war-torn native Somalia. At Crane Creek Regional Park, she found spaces that stir memories of her childhood in the desert.

Shugri Salh yearns to return to the red East African desert of her youth. But her native Somalia is controlled by a strict and conservative Muslim sect and she would not feel safe. So she hikes the meadows and woodlands near her Santa Rosa home. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

As first-time author and Santa Rosa resident Shugri Said Salh gazes out at the dry rolling grasslands of Crane Creek Regional Park, she is both overcome with wonder and reminded of the Somali desert where she was born. How did a child, raised by her grandmother in a family of nomadic goatherds, get to this place of peace and plenty?

A nurse and self-described “soccer mom,” Salh shares her incredible journey across cultures and continents in a new memoir, “The Last Nomad.” She writes with reverence of her desert upbringing, under the wing of her grandmother, in a world of savage beauty, poetry, and storytelling. She also reflects with clear-eyed honesty on the plight of women in a repressive culture and the cruelties she witnessed in a homeland she describes as riven by clan warfare.

Shugri Salh takes comfort in the open meadows and clear skies in the hills above Santa Rosa. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Shugri Sahl spent the earlier part of her life as a nomad, traveling the desert in Somalia where she was born. Now 47, a mother of 3 and a nurse, she often hikes Crane Regional Park near Rohnert Park for solace and emotional therapy. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A grandmother’s legacy

I don’t believe I would have been as resilient as I am today without watching a woman that strong and resilient. She was a camel tamer. A camel is crazier than an untamed horse. I see her dismantle the hut. I see her herding goats. I see her getting ready for the droughts. I see her enjoying the rainy season. I come from this strong badass woman. So I feel like every time I’m having a hard time, I remember: I am a woman of the desert. I am the girl who came from this grandmother.

The perils of nomadic life

Survival of the fittest is put to the test. You either die or you survive. You get sick. There’s drought. Lions attack and take you. Every time you go out to the animals, it’s obvious you could encounter lions and hyenas and wild dogs. And yet they expect you to come home with the goats, all well-counted.

Shugri Salh surveys the grasslands and oak woodlands of Crane Creek Regional Park, where she goes regularly for emotional healing. Although the terrain is different, the open spaces stir memories of her childhood in the desert of Somalia. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Santa Rosa nurse Shugri Salh’s memoir, “The Last Nomad,” of her early life in the Somali desert and her escape to the west, was published in July by Algonquin Books. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Shugri Salh has a favorite spot in the branches of a tree in Crane Creek Regional Park, where she goes to walk, write and mediate. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Revisiting a life left behind

I wanted to leave a legacy. My children don’t really know the world I came from. I want to make them understand. I was part of two cultures. I am the last nomad of my family. It’s not like my California kids will one day go back to the desert. They say in Somali, loosely translated, “You’re not going to live long or forever. But you may leave your words. “

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