The Women Shepherds of Somaliland
by Francis Mead
We won’t forget Beerato. It’s a village in central Somaliland. Dust, sheep, goats, camels – and bold women, insisting on changing their lives – and knowing how to party – dancing, singing and clapping in the Sufi style. Cameraman Antonio Tibaldi and I arrived in a UN four-by-four. We had to bring eight armed guards in two more vehicles with us – UN rules – since there’s a danger of kidnapping.
We travelled with Amina Souleiman, a Somali woman who gained political asylum in the UK during Somalia’s civil war in the 90s. She now spends half her year helping women in her homeland stand up for their rights. The UN Democracy Fund is financing her project. In my opinion it’s a remarkable initiative, though each step forward has to be patient and small, and is met by resistance. We met Sahra – an impressive, highly intelligent woman, a shepherd with no formal education and one of the leading lights in the village. Sahra is one of Amina’s protegés.
Water is a central concern year round – and Beerato, when drought isn’t severe, is a major watering hole for the surrounding villages. We watched and filmed as camel herds and flocks of sheep and goats were brought in, lining up to take their turn, almost like aircraft taxiing on a runway. The semi-nomadic families here move their flocks and herds to new pastures several times each year:
Life in Beerato is precarious. By the traditional division of labour, women look after sheep and goats, while men look after the camels. If women lose their flock to drought (which happens not infrequently) they effectively lose their right to graze the tribal lands and are often forced into exile to the capital Hargeisa. Then almost the only option is to labour in the markets. In the city, life is brutally tough, money is hard to come by, and home is usually a displaced persons’ camp or a shanty town.
Amina, Sahra and the village women are determined this won’t happen to them. Holding regular women’s circles, they are asserting their rights with the male village elders, and arguing for access to school and land. Already, they have installed five women teachers in the village school for the first time. Next they plan to build a hospital (money will have to be raised internationally by Amina). The hospital will provide jobs and improved health – many mothers die in childbirth. But there’s opposition all along the way – it took weeks of persistent requests before the women finally got the keys to the school office and generator.
Antonio and I were both inspired by Amina’s enthusiasm and determination – and her ability to bridge the huge cultural gap between two white Western guys with cameras, and rural women in a small village. She had the capacity to know and communicate fluently between both worlds. Antonio, who’s a film director in his own right when he’s not working for the UN, was also very struck by Sahra:
Fatima, already widowed, was forced by drought to leave her village for the city: