Unpicking the concept of minimalism: The nomadic Cushite communities of Somaliland

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To be a minimalist, what does this actually entail? Within this discourse, much attention tends to be placed on what a person does or does not possess with little emphasis placed on mindset. At times, it can feel as if minimalist Olympics are being pursued in place of establishing a connection to our surroundings. Taking the time to invest in a connection to surroundings can aid the process of self-sufficiency and our ability to cultivate. This seems a more viable way of managing consumption instead of focusing on what people should or should not have. Looking at the history of the nomadic Cushite peoples of Somaliland, one can gauge a minimalism that is rooted in a strong connection to surroundings. It can be argued that from this connection, abundance flourished in the form of the important knowledge that was shared concerning the ability to adapt to surroundings and using the tools provided by nature for various aspects in life. This approach also inspired other ways of recounting lessons from the past that were passed on through generations in a creative way.

The Cushites are a group that share linguistic commonalities, who primarily originate from the Horn of Africa, the Nile Valley as well as the Great Lakes region. Their history can be traced as far back as two thousand years ago. For the purpose of this article, focus will be placed on the nomadic Cushite communities of Somaliland who have inhabited parts of this region from around the 12th century. The nomadic lifestyle of these groups saw an emphasis placed on passing on knowledge, as well as understanding and utilising elements of nature for self-preservation. Based on the archaeologic work by Dr Sada Mire, one is able to gauge an “existence woven around the landscape”. This mindset encouraged a more proactive form of cultivation to aid the process of sustainability and educating others. Key aspects of this ideal in practice included:

Nature – A deep rooted understanding as well as a sense of alignment with nature saw many aspects of daily life featuring elements of surroundings. From knowledge of the type of tree to use in the process of building a house, to knowledge of how to create various pieces of homeware as well as jewellery. All were cultivated based on a strong understanding of surroundings and how to sustain a living based on this understanding. Herbs also featured in many aspects of daily life for holistic practices in relation to the body and mind.  Perceptions of vitality and abundance were forged, in part, from the connection to surroundings. One example of this can be seen in the work of Dr Sada Mire concerning the wagar, “a symbol of fertility and part of a wider aesthetic of reproduction within Somali female society…made from a sacred tree considered to possess divine power”. It gives an indication of the perceived abundance of nature which was used to aid the process of nurturing abundance in a person’s life, in this case with regards to fertility.

Poetry – When recounting his travels through present day Somalia on behalf of the British Royal Geographical Society in First footsteps in East Africa, Richard Burton noted the strong presence of poetry in shaping social relations “every man has his recognised position in literature as accurately defined…causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetical expressions”. Different poetry styles were used to denote various social issues such as love, warfare, spirituality as well as politics. It was also used as a means to preserve and continue heritage, as Mary Jo Arnoldi explains in The Artistic Heritage of Somalia, “when a poem composed in the past is recited today, it is often accompanied by an introductory prose segment that explains the historical events the poet recorded in his verse”. Through the presence of poetry, we can gain a sense of the important role of oral traditions and the abundance mindset placed on words for the purpose of self-expression and retaining heritage. This draws attention to another way in which knowledge was utilized to preserve elements of life experiences.

Looking at the two examples indicated above one can gain an idea of the alternative mindset relating to minimalism from the history of the nomadic Cushite communities of Somaliland.  The knowledge-based approach to preserving history rather than through objects as explained by Mire (2014), draws attention to a minimalism that is strongly linked to recognising and utilising the natural abundance from surroundings. By placing emphasis on sharing knowledge in relation to creating things for use in daily life as well as traditions and experiences through poetry, this aided the process of self-sufficiency for these communities. A lot can be learned from this approach, especially when considering the concept of minimalism in our own lives. Namely, that we should first give space to recognise the ability in all of us to adopt a more self-sufficient way of living. This can be done by using our time to learn from each other as well as from our surroundings, and combine both elements as we cultivate.


Cultural heritage: a basic need – Sada Mire

‘The child that tiire doesn’t give you, God won’t give you either.’ The role of Rotheca myricoides in Somali fertility practices – Sada Mire

Wagar, Fertility and Phallic Stelae: Cushitic Sky-GodBelief and the Site of Saint Aw-Barkhadle, Somaliland – Sada Mire

The Artistic Heritage of Somalia – Mary Jo Arnoldi

First footsteps in East Africa – Richard Burton (1904)

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