Sada Mire: Uncovering Somalia's heritage

Sada Mire and rock art at Dhambalin

Sada Mire fled Somalia's civil war as a child, and lived as a refugee in Sweden. But now she is back in the Horn of Africa as an archaeologist, making some incredible discoveries.

Sada Mire is only 35, but she has already revealed a dozen sites that could be candidates for Unesco world heritage status.

She has a fellowship in the department of art and archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and is head of the department of antiquities in the breakaway territory of Somaliland, in the north-west region of Somalia. She is the only archaeologist working in the region.

It's a remarkable journey for a girl who fled Mogadishu in 1991, aged 14, as Somalia descended into the chaos of civil war.

Driving her forward is the urge to uncover and preserve a cultural heritage that has been systematically looted, both in colonial times and more recently by warlords trading national heritage for guns.

Sada Mire at Dhallo Mountains Sada Mire travels with armed guards

The region has proved to be rich in archaeological wonders, which Sada Mire has been logging for the last four years with a team of 50 helpers.

She has recorded ancient rock art at 100 sites, medieval Islamic towns, and pre-Islamic Christian burial sites.

More than 1,000 such sites, she estimates, are still out there waiting to be put on the archaeological map of Somaliland.

The most stunning of Ms Mire's discoveries is a vast series of rock art sites in Dhambalin, outside the seaside town of Berbera.

The brightly coloured and beautifully preserved rock paintings, depicting domesticated animals, could be up to 5,000 years old.

Men are depicted riding on the back of some of the animals, or with raised arms, as if worshipping the cattle.

Wild animals such as giraffes - which no longer exist in this rocky, arid climate - also appear, suggesting a shift in weather patterns since the paintings were made.

"We all agree that this is an important discovery," says Lazare Eloundou Assomo, chief of Africa at the Unesco World Heritage Centre.

But as Somaliland is not recognised by the UN, and Somalia has not ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention, there is no question of the site getting world heritage status in the near future.

Sweden

To begin her study, four years ago, Sada Mire made a journey she had both dreaded and waited for, for many years - back to a region that held so many memories for her.

Somalia's treasures

Rock art at Dhambalin
  • Cave paintings at Dhambalin are the only example of ancient images of sheep in the region
  • The discovery of standing stones at burial sites suggests that there have been many religions in the Horn of Africa - and that its people did not all come from Arabia
  • One Islamic ruin has yielded pottery from the Chinese Yuan dynasty, dating it back to the 13th Century - and suggesting that trade routes across the Indian Ocean developed much earlier than previously thought

She was brought up in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and still vividly remembers the first bomb, which exploded as she was watering the flowers outside her family home.

Within weeks, she was fleeing with her siblings and her mother on top of a relative's lorry, dodging bandits who threatened to attack and rape refugees. Her mother had to sell jewellery along the way to buy food.

"We felt like zombies," Ms Mire says. "We were just a herd, we were just going wherever not thinking about anything, but [my mother] kept us together and was able to keep us safe."

Together with her twin she eventually made it to Sweden, where they joined an older sister and were granted asylum.

Arriving in the north of the country in the dead of winter, with snow and ice all around, was like stepping into a different world, she says.

As she learned about her new home, she also became acutely aware of the lack of historical knowledge of Africa, before slavery and colonialism. Unearthing the history of her homeland became her key objective.

Dignity

Start Quote

When I tell people the importance of a site and its significance for world heritage - it gives them dignity and pride”

End Quote Sada Mire

So far, her work has been limited to Somaliland which, unlike the rest of Somalia, remains relatively peaceful.

Even so, travelling between towns she employs guards armed with AK-47s. The roads themselves are treacherous, and landmines and deadly snakes litter the countryside where many of the archaeological sites are found.

Some sites are also now secured by armed guards, to prevent looters.

The country as yet has no museums.

"She is working under incredibly difficult conditions," says Dr Andrew Reid of University College London - Ms Mire's PhD supervisor.

Ancient burial near the city of Burco The burial site near the city of Burco pre-dates the arrival of Islam

"One of the problems Sada has had to deal with is how to define mobile, nomadic heritage. In Somalia they carry cultural heritage in their heads. It's not something you can point to and say, 'Isn't this a fantastic building?' Their cultural heritage is much more difficult to define."

Sada Mire regards national heritage as a human right, crucial to a nation's sense of itself even during a time of conflict and famine.

"When we find sites and I am able to tell local people about the importance of the site and the potential that can come from it - its significance for world heritage - it gives them dignity and pride," she says.

She spends her time between digs, appearing on TV and in front of local communities to explain the value of the sites she is charting and has set up a non-governmental organisation, Horn Heritage, to fund her work.

"Our culture is very oral, so people need to hear from somebody and they repeat it," she says.

"People immediately feel that they have something, a resource. They can say, 'We may not have a lot but if we can take care of this site, we have something.'"

Sada Mire spoke to Outlook from the BBC World Service. Listen to the interview here.

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