Degmo Is a Cultural Boot Camp for Somalis in the Welsh Countryside
Giving youth a definition of what it means to be Somali beyond pirates and warlords.
An aqal tent in modern Somaliland; Hamish's are a bit fancier. (Photos by Mark Hay)
From the hills near Hangingheld Farm – an organic, 110-acre smallholding on the edges of the medieval Welsh hunting grounds known as Radnor Forest – you can just spy Offa’s Dyke, the great historic dividing line between Wales and England. Somewhere on the hills, you can probably spot some of farmer Hamish Wilson’s pacific Lleyn sheep or ginger Highland cows. And if you happen to be up around Hangingheld between April and October, you’re likely to see a massive aqal – a Somali nomad’s tent – pitched around the property. Nearby, groups of British Somalis, both old and young, fry up squishy, fermented laxoox flatbread, play games of shax and try their hand at milking cows and cleaning the milk pots with the culay technique – a Somali method of scouring that uses heated firebrands.
These are the months when Hangingheld transforms into Degmo, a name derived from the Somali term for nomadic families who’ve pitched tents and grouped their herds in the same area. Hamish’s Degmo is a little more than just a slavish recreation of a Somali desert herders’ camp in the Welsh moorlands, though. It’s something of a cultural boot camp.
Established in partnership with more than 40 Somali diaspora associations in the United Kingdom, Degmo aims to solve some of the problems of this huge – and often maligned – immigrant community by reconnecting the youth to their cultural heritage and giving them a definition of what it means to be Somali beyond the pirates, warlords and terrorists they see on the news and in Google search results.
In a way, it’s surprising there aren’t more farms like Degmo in the United Kingdom. Back in northern Somalia, city folk and farmers alike would send their children to the countryside every summer to live with nomadic relatives, Saeed Yusuf Abdi told me. Saeed is a Somali immigrant and manager at Maan, a Somali mental health organisation in Sheffield. Going into the countryside, he argued, is how children learned what it meant to be Somalis.
That process, added Hamish, "created confident young people, proud of who they are". It also "taught them how to behave to each other", as it was where they learned the checks and balances built into Somali traditions and social structures. For many years, the small communities of Somalis who settled as dockhands or labourers in the UK brought that tradition with them, recreating cultural institutions within their tight-knit societies and maintaining strong contacts with their homeland.
Cattle herding in Boon, Somaliland.
But in the 1990s, the situation of Somali immigrants the world over changed drastically. With Somalia’s descent into civil war, tens of thousands of Somalis flowed into the UK as refugees. They arrived with few language skills, little support or work prospects and not nearly enough pre-established communities to help them integrate. Current estimates place the number of Somalis in the UK between 95,000 and 250,000 – hazy numbers reflecting the community’s marginalisation and misunderstood nature – clustered into urban centres like Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, Manchester and Sheffield.
Some families, according to Hamish and Saeed, easily found their way into UK society. But many adults, Saeed said, “feel isolated and abandoned in the strange new environment of Europe”. As Hamish sees it, many of these grown immigrants never quite unpacked – always expecting they might return home or move somewhere better – so they never felt the need to set down roots.
According to Hamish, the continued reliance on Somali clan structures and communities – though it’s helped the community in many ways – may be keeping many families from building relationships with the British population at large, bridging the vast gap that can make them seem so distant and other to the native population. Meanwhile, the youth struggle to find their place in British society, and they are so far removed from any connection to their homeland that, as Saeed says, “some sons and daughters of nomads think milk comes from Tesco”.
Unmoved by fractured cultural lessons delivered by parents who are also trying to navigate a strange new world, and feeling the pastoral stories and systems irrelevant to their lives, many have begun to actively reject their Somali identity. Some give in to total cultural assimilation, Hamish observes. Others, at the worse end, seek community within violent gangs. It was when more and more Somali children started showing up on the police radar that Hamish and the leaders of the UK Somali community took action.
A modern-day degmo in Somaliland.
If “Hamish Wilson” doesn’t sound like a particularly Somali name, that’s because it isn’t. But his family has strong ties to Somaliland – the de facto autonomous region of northern Somalia – that stretch back nearly a century. In the 1930s and 40s, Hamish’s father, Eric, fought alongside Somalis in the Somaliland Camel Corps against the Italian army invading from Ethiopia. Although brutally wounded and believed dead, Eric survived, received a Victoria Cross award for his service and developed enduring ties to the families of his fallen comrades.
Hamish in turn lived in Somaliland, became a camel boy and even joined the northern resistance during the Civil War – he first met Saeed in Somalia and Ethiopia. Back in the UK, he developed a reputation as a photographer of Somali culture, collector of Somali artefacts and consultant to local police, schools, media and human rights groups on Somali traditions and communities.
When Saeed and others in the Somali diaspora started kicking around the idea of recreating the nomadic summer experience for dislocated and disaffected youths in the community, they approached Hamish asking to use his farm, tents and tools, and archive of Somali documents. He and his father jumped in enthusiastically with the guidance and financial support of various Somali communities.
Hamish and the others knew that they’d never be able to fully recreate the experience of a traditional Bedouin summer retreat. For one thing, camels don’t fare well in the Welsh countryside – they have a tendency to slip on the slick hills, break their legs and die cruel and unnecessary deaths. A few concessions of modern city life have been made as well, like the access to hot showers and the practice of cooking pizzas rather than exclusively Somali cuisine. But even with the introduction to a British rural setting – with walks along the River Wye, lessons in falconry and ferreting from a neighbouring farmer, apple pressing and canoeing trips – visits to Degmo still offer something of value. For years, many groups have turned up for a two-to-five night stay, with as many as 40 people attending the camp at any given time.
Speaking to Degmo’s effectiveness in tackling the cultural assimilation and generational gaps in Somali communities, Saeed recalls a trip of at-risk youths to the farm led by a Sheffield gym coach. Many of the kids had been in borderline-violent encounters with each other, but the camp “had this magical effect”, says Saeed. “Instead of identifying themselves with the Pissmore Gang – I don’t know if that’s what they call themselves, really – they were shown pictures of their country and started to talk it out.” That group now saves a pound a week to try to fund a return trip to Degmo.
Offa's Dyke (via)
Saeed and Hamish both have dozens of stories of groups or individuals who came with their parents and grandparents kicking and screaming but, after just a few days, left with a new appreciation of their heritage. Saeed talks of the ability of the farm – an abstraction from urban life, but not so shocking as a return to the Horn of Africa – to separate kids from the pressures of their lives and open them up to talking with their elders and working through issues with one other.
Hamish thinks it helps with the negative image of Somalis to see a white man rave about the richness of Somali culture. It also wears down the generation gap when kids see their parents or grandparents cry over photos of lost clansmen or artefacts they haven’t seen in decades. At best, Saeed believes they’ve helped hundreds of Somali youth find a way of harmonising their Somali identity with their British selves and lives. At the very least, Hamish thinks they’ve managed to create a positive Google search result for Somali culture – something a number of youths stumbling across the site online have emailed to thank him for.
Over the past two years, though, Degmo has fallen on hard times. The farm came together at the behest of the Somali community in the UK and was funded initially by businessmen like Abdirashid Duale, of the remittance giant Dahabshiil, and sustained by fundraising within diaspora communities. The remoteness of the farm – at least 20 miles from the nearest train station, with no public transit nearby – and the poverty of many Somali communities required a great deal of subsidisation and communal funding for each visit. But ever since the financial collapse, it’s become harder and harder to raise money within the communities just to keep Degmo alive.
The past year has been a particular struggle for Degmo. After several visitors were unable to pay in full, the farm found itself in debt for the first time. Fortunately, Abdirashid Duale, without anyone asking, paid off Hamish’s debts. But the threat of collapse has forced the Degmo team to look into new ways of raising money to subsidise trips for the less privileged and the most at-risk and needy Somali communities.
For now, Hamish is booking space and time for a higher number of salaried and well-established families, the sort who have strong ties to the homeland and might even return once a year. He’s even looked into bringing in groups of white visitors at commercial rates, using the higher fees paid by these groups to subsidise visits by those who can no longer fundraise enough for themselves. But he’ll be the first to admit that his efforts at direct fundraising have fallen short of this goal: it's not that big a strength of his, and, as a farmer running a cultural training camp in his spare time on a shoestring budget, he has little time to lobby and simper for money.
Despite the shortfalls of recent years, Hamish and company seem bent on expanding Degmo out of an honest belief in its power to instill a sense of cultural pride and retention in diaspora youth. After being approached by the Somaliland Ministry of Education, Hamish will be travelling this year to Hargeisa, Somaliland to look into setting up Degmo International, a version of his farm in a traditional environment to be used by local schools to teach a cultural curriculum and serve as an educational tool for the visiting diaspora. Hamish also believes the Somaliland farm could foster research and popular support for the sustenance and enhancement of rural, nomadic life in Somaliland against the dual specters of mass urbanisation and environmental degradation.
And if the first international Degmo works out, he’d like to take a shot at expanding the camps to America and Scandinavia – anywhere there’s a large Somali population – as well. In part, he hopes that revenue sharing across wealthier communities will help to save the farm in Wales. But more than that, Hamish and the UK Somali community believe in the power of Degmo to transform the lives of the diaspora and save the culture they left behind, and they want to bring that opportunity to Somalis around the world.