Or The Art of Naming the Years

-Ongoing Research Project in Motif Art Studio

The Nomadic Calender, first handwritten by Sulaiman Labat Abd

The Sahrawi people of Western Sahara had long traditions of different oral expressions and narrations to communicate their arts and knowledge. This includes songs, poetry, oral stories, proverbs, oral wisdom and the Nomadic Calendar. The Nomadic Calendar is a unique way of telling time in a non numerical way. Instead of numbers, the Sahrawi gave names to the years, every year had a name. The practice of naming the years was based on the different events occurring in a particular year. The names bear stories and knowledges related to their surroundings, environmental phenomenon, social events, plants, seasons, geographic references and much more.
It’s hard to trace the Nomadic Calendar in a linear regression because the Sahrawi were nomads, they were constantly moving across the desert. This means that if a family or a community witnessed some important event from which they coined the name of that particular year could possibly move to a different area next year, another family or community could have witnessed a different event in that same year but didn’t have a way to coordinate the naming of the year, this resulted in some years having multiple names which only enriched the Nomadic Calendar by mapping the different stories and events that took place in different parts of Western Sahara. As I follow and trace the Nomadic Calendar, I understand that it requires a lot of work to document the different year names and their stories.
The Nomadic Calendar preserved crucial knowledge related to the landscape, plants, ecology and the social and political life of the Sahrawi people.
The Sahrawi gave poetic names for the years, the names often carried stories and encounters important in the Sahrawi collective memory.

Here I list a number of years from the Nomadic Calendar based on the version narrated by Sayd Ramdan (my maternal grandfather) and documented for the first time by Sulaiman Labat Abd (my father) who shared with me the original document with his own handwriting.

The Year of Alhenzab (1901)
The Year of Locusts (1915)
The Year of Scattering Stars (1934)
The Year of the Red Wind (1949)
The Year of Balls (1957) *Check our film about this year

The Nomadic Calendar connects time and space in a unique way. In this research, and as part of our way to decolonize our methodology of research and decolonize of the Sahrawi oral history and knowledge, we are focusing and leaning on the Sahrawi sources; oral and written. We will visiting the testimonies, the stories, the interviews, the poems and the different archival materials to carry out this research. In collecting the Nomadic Calendar versions and knowledge, we are contacting different sources in order to ensure that contributions from different parts of Western Sahara can enrich this research.
My method to collect and study the Nomadic Calendar is organic, I often interview my father who I collaborate with in this long term research. He was the one to write the Nomadic Calendar from my grandfather, he also has a lot of knowledge about the stories and meanings of the different names given to the years. I also connect with other Sahrawi families who have lived in different parts Western Sahara in order to collect their version of the Nomadic Calendar. The different calendars overlap in some years, especially in the case of events that have been witnessed by the entire region. They do however differ in many other years. In my interview with Badi Mohamed Salem, he acknowledges the difficulty in collecting something as anarchic as the nomads movement and calendar, but he also referred to the fact of people exchanging years’ names differences during their nomadic encounters and conversations.
The Nomadic Calendar presents an autochthonous method used by the Sahrawi to tell time using oral references that carry their stories and knowledges in such a poetic way.

I will be updating this page with input as we move forward with the process of documenting the Nomadic Calendar from the elderly in our community.

This research project is a collaboration between me and my father Sulaiman Labat Abd. It will take some time to finish, but we will be updating this page with the progress we make in the research.