Maandeeq Features: Sada Mire Features

Sada Mire is a Swedish-Somali archaeologist, art historian and presenter who currently serves as Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Archeology, Leiden University. She has previously headed up Somaliland’s Department of Antiquities, for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism examining cultural heritage sites. She was recently featured in PBS’s ‘Africa’s Great Civilizations’ in February 2017. 

“People write me that if a refugee girl from Somalia can excel in one of the most elitist, male professions, they can succeed with their dreams too.”

MAANDEEQ

Where are you currently based and working?

S. MIRE

I am currently based in The Netherlands, at the Faculty of Archaeology in Leiden.

MAANDEEQ

Your work seems very interdisciplinary in nature. How can you help us make sense of the links between art history and archaeology?

S. MIRE

Usually archaeologists and art historians don’t engage each other in Africa. However, I have always been interested in the relevance of the past in the present. Even in Sweden, I had published research on Indian archaeology and current religious nationalism. However, after coming to London, the social anthropological take on art history and archaeology at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies] has had a major influence on how I subsequently carried out archaeology. I look at archaeology not so much from the perspective of artifacts and sites, but rather from that of people and ideas, the links between current African peoples and our ancient ancestors. Artistic traditions, seemingly thousand years apart, have in many cases continued through various dynamic processes. For example, when I accidently saw the modern ceramic works of the renowned Kenyan artist, Magdalene Odundo at the British Museum where she was presenting, I could not but think of the Kerma Pottery of Nubia made 5000 years ago—so I had to ask her if she had any knowledge of the Kerma pots and she indeed had; in the 1970s she saw the Kerma Pottery at the Petrie Museum, also located in Bloomsburg, and was influenced by it a great deal. This led me to present a conference paper exactly on the links between Magdalene Odundu’s work and the Kerma Pottery, which I presented a year later, in the same Stevenson Hall of the BM, where I discovered the link. So it takes knowing these different periods, places and people in order to connect the dots.

MAANDEEQ

In a 2011 BBC News article you talk to us about Dhambalin, a rock art site in the desert that you have found in Somaliland. You’ve since discovered numerous other rock art sites. Which have been the most interesting for you and why?

S. MIRE

Yes, we have discovered more such sites since. However, I must admit, I think Dhambalin is still the most interesting one for me. I am fascinated by its archaeology, the landscape, the burials around the site, and the actual rock art depictions; it is a holistic site… we have found some really interesting pottery too, which always helps, as dating rock art sites can prove to be tricky. The headless beasts that seem to link with Gilf Kebir and other sites in Egypt and beyond and also the depictions of sheep which are thought to be the only in the Horn of Africa are all interesting. The sheep paintings are particularly important to me because it links with my work on the history of farming in East Africa. While analyzing faunal remains from Lake Victoria, Kenya, I discovered sheep teeth that turned out to date ca:1500 BC; that was basically 1900 years before 400 AD from when we believed farming existed in this part of Africa. According to the Bantu Expansion theory in African history, Bantus from West Africa introduced farming to East Africans, and hence colonial settler politics justified that land was not settled by seemingly mobile-mostly people. Our sheep teeth showed that actually farming existed long before the so-called Bantu Expansion (400 AD), and the Dhambalin material is yet another evidence that in the second millennium BC we have far more complex societies in East Africa, if not much earlier. So this kind of evidence, seemingly small and easily missed if one is not meticulous, yet it plays important role in the rewriting of African history.

MAANDEEQ

In your 2013 TEDxEuston talk, as you speak to this idea of intangible and tangible retention of cultural heritage, you describe that in Somali nomadic culture it is the storytellers and poets that have acted as our archives. You note, “we have an indigenous way of managing cultural heritage, in our society, regardless of ornaments [Monuments] and artifact. And this is what I call the knowledge approach… we preserve it in an intangible way, it’s an oral culture, people value the knowledge rather than the position [possession] of the object…”  What are other such stories or poems that you have stumbled upon connected to tangible cultural artifacts?

S. MIRE

My TEDx talk was explaining the traditional heritage management system that I discovered through careful analysis of how our people talk or don’t talk about heritage, which is very important to know; what is heritage to them and what they do with it. These questions had never been raised with Somalis and a top-down approach was applied, as I argue in the 2007 article. So this distinctive methodology of preserving the past in terms of knowledge and skill in our culture—I call it the ‘Knowledge-Centred Approach’—is based on preserving not the objects, as we do not have the concept of museums and are in fact on the move as nomadic peoples, but rather that we preserve knowledge by teaching (directly or indirectly) and transferring knowledge about the past through oral means. This heritage can be about the landscapes and skill in the making of medicine, food and houses, etc. Our storytelling unites our legends, poets and material concepts of architecture and art. One example is stories of Sayyid Mohammed Abdullah Hassan and how people have used this story to create material and verbal art. Without an understanding of local ontologies, people assumed that we don’t care about archaeology and are ignorant about it, and hence failed to observe we actually have a different approach to research and preservation of the past which is perfect for our way of life (nomadic culture). Not only do we have our own distinct way of preserving the past, learning our genealogies, stories by heart, but we are trained also in processes of material production, meaning and function and can execute this knowledge into material heritage any moment—a knowledge critical to any archaeologist.

MAANDEEQ

When you consider the recent #CadaanStudies movement that looks to push for a decolonial knowledge production in the academy, what kinds of contributions can the excavation of Somali cultural practices make?

S. MIRE

I argued in an old research paper on Somali archaeology and heritage (2007) that for the sake of doing a credible and responsible science and for the sake of self-representation and credible sustainable development that Somalis should lead any heritage and research work. However, it does not mean we don’t work with outsiders, it just means we have in a fair way co-ownership of knowledge production. The archaeology, as I recently outlined in an article published 2015, contributes in revealing a people who for example had writers amongst them, used to write for thousands of years and in so many ancient North-East African languages, and those who used to make extraordinary art, and others who sailed across oceans, making themselves known to the world. Archaeology reveals cultures that had all the foundations that define civilizations, who traded on equal terms with others, and who brought prosperity to their people… The #CadaanStudies movement is very important. The first international Somali studies conference was held in 1980, almost 40 years ago. It is time to build on what our people already started in a serious way. I work on disseminating the knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. What I have realized while working directly with Indigenous Peoples from around the world is that without my both personal and professional Somali experiences in Somalia and Sweden, I would not have discovered our local ontologies such as the ‘Knowledge-Centered Approach’ or been so open-minded, looking beyond sweeping assertions made based on little information in African history. But beyond the knowledge production discourse, discovering our heritage can unite our people and glue us together through a shared heritage. If more Somalis are studying the topic it means they hopefully will bring in their wider cultural lived experience and knowledge. This way we can make a huge difference together with our international Somalist scholarship.

MAANDEEQ

What have been some of your successes as part of Somaliland’s Department of Antiquities [Archaeology], for the Ministry of Culture and Tourism?

S. MIRE

We have done (or succeeded doing) certain things, but we still have a lot to do. When I was doing archaeology, over a decade ago, unfortunately culture was the last thing on people’s minds. I advocated for international donor money for the few local cultural centers. I had to knock the European Union’s doors, the UNDP and various international agencies. Many thought I was mad talking about culture when people were in ‘civil-war’ or ‘post-conflict emergency’; in fact I remember at least one high profile meeting at which I was laughed at for bringing up the destruction of Somali cultural heritage when there was more ‘pressing issues’… However, I was adamant though that culture was a basic need just like security, food and shelter. So it was great that Somaliland, which still receives very little funding, agreed to financially support the building of the Department of Archaeology and it is still very much functioning and celebrates a 10th anniversary. Now the developed archaeology is being used for education and tourism as alternative livelihoods. Also we now have maps and lists of sites (in the 2015 article) and it is open access so I am really happy that any person anywhere can access. In the same spirit of open and remote access, we did with Horn Heritage Organization a digital project with 3D recording and Virtual Tours of 5 rock art sites, so that Somali people wherever they are in the region or in the diaspora can show their kids examples of Somali ancient artistic heritage. For me it was a success to see Somalis taking ‘ownership’ of the archeological heritage. Our youth are getting interested in studying the topic, which is a success in itself. One day soon they will explore the whole Somali populated region and beyond.

MAANDEEQ

Your academic bio shares that you focus on “indigenous institutions and pre-Christian and pre-Islamic belief systems, material culture, (rock) art, rituals, practices and landscapes”, can you tell us more about the types of indigenous artifacts, stories and cultural treasures you’ve worked on?

S. MIRE

I am working on a couple of books at the moment so I hope they will showcase a lot of the findings in a more locally and regionally contextualized manner. However, I have already talked about the rock art at Dhambalin. I can mention the Somali shields, which have ritual and symbolic meaning as well as carrying actual symbols linking with the pre-Islamic beliefs of our Cushitic culture. I have also discussed the sacred wagar sculpture and its links with healing and the site of Aw-Barkhadle, which itself is of great significance and poses a lot interesting questions about religious and state-building ideologies. I am also concerned with ethno-medicine, both therapies involving medica materia, and cultural objects and landscapes. My recent paper in Anthropology and Medicine discussed the butterfly bush (Rotheca myricoides), tiire, which is medicinal plant indigenous to the Horn of Africa. Also this is open access. I have found that in our Somali society it relates not only to various illness but also to the treatment of infertility. However this plant, is in its entirety poisonous and no modern science has been carried out on its alleged fertility values. So medicinal expertise needs to be very accurate to able use it for treatments as otherwise it will continue killing people. I am working on a modern laboratory investigation. The fertility therapy as a whole though is fascinating and link with various ritual ideas heritage. Our Somali heritage is part of a larger regional picture and there is a continuity of some of those shared ancient traditions. Somalis created a lot of art, artifacts, rituals and structures of symbolic meanings associated [with] their various beliefs through time. It is really about understanding the diversity of our past, culturally and ideologically. This is not an easy topic to research for many reasons. However, we cannot just claim the top layer and the lower layers (potential ‘Land of Punt’/Pharaonic heritage), without knowing or understanding anything in between.

MAANDEEQ

What kind of work do you want to be known for?

S. MIRE

I hope I have shown that Somalis, especially girls, have other alternatives in terms of what education or profession we go into and that we can also go back to our home country, demand to be taken seriously, and become institution builders and leaders. Over a decade ago when I did what I did, I had no one to model myself on or even a blue print for the type of work I wanted to do, however, people believed in me and my ideas, and family as well as strangers supported me in whatever way they could. It was not easy though… I also realized quickly that my earliest media features were inspiring Somalis by the sheer number of messages and emails I was receiving, and still do receive to this day. These letters and generous words have also been and still continue to be a huge mental support. Not just Somalis, but others also write me that if a refugee girl from Somalia can excel in one of the most elitist, male professions, they can succeed with their dreams too. As a survivor of a war, who has seen both Mogadishu and Hargeisa in fire, with our own eyes, I don’t take things for granted. This is why I want us to wake up and research our heritage before it is too late.

MAANDEEQ

What does the word home mean to you?

S. MIRE

I am not sure but I guess it means to me different things in different times, places and experiences…. Now, maybe it means moving forward with an understanding of the past, and finding peace. The physical home might not matter that much… But perhaps I contradict myself because when I image home, or a proper home, my thoughts only go back to Mogadishu, and more specifically Madina area, where I grew up. I always have a lump in my throat as this is really the only real home I have ever had, and the city I have so far lived longest in my life. I romanticize I guess, and think about life there with my family, friends and neighbors, climbing Cusbitaal Madino walls to pick the cambe and qumbe in the garden, and watching my brothers play balooni, cherished moments of playing gariir with my sister Sohur, and hearing the frequent laughs of my older sister Layla and her girlfriends. So I entertain this nostalgia, with a dream of actually going back one day and perhaps even doing archaeology there.

Features is a regular series of posts that highlights diverse Somalis from the territories and the diaspora. 


Comments

  1. Amizing to read this article. Always look forward articles at this page. Sister welcome to Madina

  2. Anisa Nur Says: April 9, 2017 at 2:35 pm

    Masha Allah! So proud of you sis!!

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