Identification. Somalia was known to the ancient Egyptians as the Land of Punt. They valued its trees which produced the aromatic gum resins frankincense and myrrh. The Somali people share a common language, Somali, and most are Muslims of the Sunni sect. Somalis also live in northern Kenya; in the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia; and in Djibouti, to the northwest of Somalia. In spite of national boundaries, all Somalis consider themselves one people. This unity makes them one of Africa’s largest ethnic groups.
Location and Geography. Somalia is on the outer edge of the Somali Peninsula, also called the Horn of Africa, on the East African coast. It is bordered on the north by the Gulf of Aden, on the east by the Indian Ocean, on the southwest by Kenya, and on the west and northwest by Ethiopia and Djibouti.
At approximately 246,200 square miles (637,658 square kilometers), Somalia is about the size of Texas. Its coastline extends about 1,800 miles (2,896 kilometers). Somalia is hot for much of the year, with two wet and two dry seasons. Vegetation is generally sparse, except in the area between the Jubba and the Shabeelle Rivers in south-central Somalia. A semiarid plain called the Guban runs parallel to the northern coast of Somalia. The Karkaar Mountains extend from Somalia’s northwestern border to the eastern tip of the Horn of Africa, with the highest point, Shimber Berris, at 7,900 feet (2,408 meters). South of the mountain ranges, a central plateau known as the Haud extends to the Shabeelle River and westward into the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. During the rainy seasons, from April to June and from October to November, this area provides plenty of water and grazing lands for livestock.
Somalia’s two rivers, the Jubba and the Shabeelle, flow from the Ethiopian highlands into southeastern Somalia. The Shabeelle (Leopard) River does not enter the Indian Ocean but instead turns parallel to the coast and runs southward for 170 miles (274 kilometers) before drying up in marshes and sand flats. The Jubba flows year-round into the Indian Ocean. The port city of Mogadishu, in southeastern Somalia on the Indian Ocean, is the largest city and the traditional capital of Somalia. Mogadishu was largely destroyed in the fighting between clans during the civil war of the 1990s. In 2000 a Somali assembly voted to make Mogadishu the new president’s base but to move other government functions to the city of Baidoa, northwest of Mogadishu, until the capital could be rebuilt.
Demography. No census was taken in Somalia until 1975, and those figures were not reported. The large number of nomads makes it difficult to get an accurate population count. Population estimates have been made based on the 1986–1987 census, which recorded a population of 7.1 million. In spite of the death toll due to famine and civil war in the 1990s, 2000 population estimates range from 9 million to 14.5 million. About three-quarters of the people live in rural areas and one-quarter in the cities. Ethnic Somalis make up about 95 percent of the population. The remainder are Indians, Pakistanis, other Asians, Arabs, Europeans, and groups of mixed ancestry.
Linguistic Affiliation. All Somalis speak Somali, the official language. In the Afro-Asiatic family of languages, Somali is an Eastern Cushitic language. Somali did not become a written language until January 1973. Common Somali is the most widely spoken dialect, but Coastal Somali and Central Somali also are spoken. Somalis frequently use wordplay and humor in everyday communication.
Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, is spoken and read for religious purposes. A small percentage of Somalis also speak Italian, and a growing number speak English. Educated young adults from well-to-do urban families may speak five or more languages.
Symbolism. The most widely recognized symbol is the camel, because it provides transportation, milk, meat, income, and status to a majority of Somalis.
Other symbols of Somalia are the five-pointed white star on the Somali flag and the crescent, which represents the new moon and is a universal symbol of the Islamic faith. Each point of the star represents a land that is home to Somali people: the portion within the national boundaries, once divided into two territories, Italian and British; the Ogaden region of Ethiopia; the Northern Frontier District of Kenya; and Djibouti. Somalis hope that one day all these territories can become a unified Somali nation.
The leopard is considered the national symbol of Somalia. Two African leopards adorn the national emblem, a five-pointed white star on a light blue shield with a gold border. national emblem, a five-pointed white star on a light blue shield with a gold border.
History and Ethnic Relations
Emergence of the Nation. The origin of the Somali people is uncertain. Current theory suggests that the Somali originated in the southern Ethiopian highlands and migrated into northern Kenya during the first millennium B.C.E. They then gradually migrated northward to populate the Horn of Africa by C.E. 100.
The Somalis are tall and wiry in stature, with aquiline features, elongated heads, and light brown to black skin. Somali women are known for their beauty.
Arabs introduced the Islamic faith to Africa beginning in the seventh century. By the tenth century, Arab trading posts thrived in southern Somalia, along the Indian Ocean. These included Mogadishu, established as the first Arab settlement in East Africa. The city was at the height of its influence and wealth during the thirteenth century, when it controlled the gold trade on the East African coast.
Most Somalis converted to Islam by about 1100. They joined with the Arabs in fighting the Islamic holy wars against Ethiopian Christians in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By the eighteenth century the Somalis had defeated the Oromo people, who had threatened both Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia and Somalia. The Somalis became the dominant people in the land.
Europeans became interested in Somalia during the nineteenth century, beginning with its exploration by British adventurer Sir Richard Burton in 1854. Interest grew when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and in 1887 Britain declared the northern Somalia coast a protectorate, known as British Somaliland. The French claimed the far western coast (now Djibouti) at about the same time, naming it French Somaliland. Italy took control of southern Somalia, including Mogadishu, in 1889, naming it Italian Somaliland.
In 1899 Somali Islamic teacher Muhammad Abdullah Hasan (1856–1920), known to the British as “the Mad Mullah,” gathered an army. They hoped to gain the Ogaden region of Ethiopia for Somalis and to drive out the non-Islamic Europeans. Hasan and his army, called Dervishes, fought the Ethiopians and later the British from 1900 to 1920. The British bombed the Dervish capital in 1920 and Hasan escaped, but he died later that year, ending the resistance movement.
At the beginning of World War II the Italians drove the British from northern Somalia. The British recaptured Somalia and drove out the Italians in 1941. In 1949 the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly awarded Italy administrative control over southern Somalia as a trust territory for a ten-year period that would then lead to Somalia’s independence. British Somaliland was awarded its independence on 26 June 1960 and united with Italian Somaliland to establish the Somali Republic on 1 July 1960. After independence, parliamentary leader Aadan Abdullah Usmaan was appointed president by the legislature. He appointed Abdirashiid Ali Shermaarke the first prime minister of Somalia.
National Identity. Although united as one nation in 1960, northern and southern Somalia had for years functioned as two separate countries, with separate school systems, taxes, currencies, police, and political and legal administrations. As early as December 1961, northern Somali military leaders pushed for separation of the north and the south. At the same time, most Somalis wanted to unite the regions outside of Somalia that were populated with many Somalis—the Ogaden, the NFD in Kenya, and Djibouti. In the 1960s, a guerrilla warfare campaign by Somali shiftas (bandits) in Kenya and skirmishes over the Ogaden region resulted in a mutual defense agreement against the Somalis by Kenya and Ethiopia.
Former prime minister Shermaarke was elected president in 1967, and his prime minister, Muhammad Ibrahim Egal, focused on internal development and restoration of peace with Ethiopia and Kenya. Shermaarke was assassinated by a bodyguard on 15 October 1969. Somali military took control of Mogadishu in a coup d’état on 21 October 1969. The new government, called the Supreme Revolutionary Council (SRC), chose army commander Major General Muhammad Siad Barre as president and renamed Somalia the Somali Democratic Republic. Based on principles of Marxism as well as on the Qur’an and on Siad Barre’s ideas about self-reliance for the Somali people, this new political ideology for Somalia was known as “scientific socialism.”
Somalia was engaged in the Ogaden War with Ethiopia in 1977–1978. Defeated, Somalia suffered an economic decline, and there was growing national opposition to Siad Barre’s leadership, nearly a one-man government by 1982. Siad Barre was severely injured in a car accident on 23 May 1986, and a power struggle for control of the government began between political leaders and clan leaders. Siad Barre recovered and was nominated for another seven-year term, but various clans whose members had been terrorized by Siad Barre’s Red Berets (a military terrorist unit from his own clan, the Mareehaan) rose up against him.
In 1990, members of the Hawiye clan of south-central Somalia formed the United Somali Congress (USC), and in December they stormed Mogadishu and defeated the Red Berets. Siad Barre escaped to Nigeria. The USC’s leader, Muhammad Ali Mahdi, was appointed president, but Hawiye subclan leader General Muhammad Farah Aidid, of the Habir Gedir subclan, also claimed power. The two disagreed on forming a central government for Somalia, and civil war began. Somali civilians suffered the most in the unstable years that followed. It was estimated that some three hundred thousand Somalis died between 1991 and mid-1993. Although international relief organizations sent food and supplies, much was stolen by bandits and warring clan members before it could reach those who needed it most.
U.N. secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali arranged a truce between Mahdi and Aidid in December 1992, but clan members continued to fight. The United States led Operation Restore Hope in 1992, and U.N. countries sent food and supplies, along with soldiers to ensure that they reached the people. In mid-1993 the U.N. Security Council resolved to turn the operation into a “nation-building” effort that would include disarming militias and restoring political and civil institutions. The operation deteriorated as Somalis and U.N. troops committed acts of violence against one another. U.S. troops were pulled out of Somalia in early 1994, and the last U.N. troops left in March 1995. Aidid died in the fighting in Mogadishu in August 1996, but his son, Hussein Muhammad Aidid, took his place and continued his father’s mission to put their subclan in control of Somalia.
After U.N. aid slowed and troops were withdrawn, the situation gradually improved in Somalia. Farmers returned home and produced a good harvest in 1995. Although clan fighting continued in 1997 and 1998 and no central government was established, local governments continued to function. In August 2000, after twelve failed attempts to organize a central government, some two thousand Somalis representing the clans and subclans met in Djibouti to discuss forming a government for Somalia. During the clan wars of the early 1990s, northern Somalia declared itself the independent Somaliland Republic, appointed former Somali prime minister Muhammad Ibrahim Egal as its president, wrote a constitution, developed an assembly, and governmental institutions, and began to function successfully apart from the warring to the south. Although it has not been recognized as a separate nation, the Somaliland Republic continues to declare itself independent. Members of the Murjateen clan in northeastern Somalia also formed their own government during the 1990s, calling their territory Puntland, although they agreed to rejoin Somalia if a central government was formed.
Ethnic Relations. Some 95 percent of the people of Somalia are ethnic Somalis, and relations with the small percentage of Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Asians, Europeans, and mixed groups living in Somalia are generally peaceful. With a history of colonization by the British, French, and Italians, the Somalis are said to be wary of foreigners, even fearful of possible renewed colonization. Somali civilians, however, welcomed U.N. troops arriving during Operation Restore Hope in the early 1990s, and most Somalis welcome the international relief workers who have become a part of daily life in post-civil war Somalia.
early 1990s, and most Somalis welcome the international relief workers who have become a part of daily life in post-civil war Somalia.
Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space
Nomadic herders spend nearly all of their time outdoors. A large shade tree might provide a meeting place or a classroom. The traditional shelter of the herders is the aqal, a dome-shaped, collapsible hut made from poles covered by hides, woven fiber mats, or sometimes cloth or tin. Easy to break down and reassemble, the aqal is carried on a camel’s back and set up by the women of the family once a new camp is made. A bed made from wooden stakes covered with hides is the only furniture in the aqal. Nomads have few possessions, and each item has practical uses. Cooking utensils, storage boxes, stools, woven mats, and water bags are among the family’s only household goods. A nomad camp may be surrounded by a fence made from thorn bushes to keep out predators. Animals are also kept in corrals made from thorn bushes. A prayer area may be set apart within the camp by a circle of stones. Farmers make permanent homes that are similar to the aqal. Round huts called mundals are made from poles and brush or vines plastered with mud, animal dung, and ashes and covered with a broad, cone-shaped thatched roof. Rectangular huts, often with flat tin roofs, are called arish. Other homes are built from logs, stone, brick, or cement. Farmers have a few pieces of wooden furniture and decorative pottery, gourds, or woven goods.
City dwellers often live in Arab-style whitewashed houses made of stone or brick covered with plaster or cement. These are one-or two-story houses, with a flat roof. Bars cover the lower windows, which rarely have screens or glass. Wealthy Somalis, Europeans, and others may have traditional Western-style homes with tile roofs and walled courtyards. Many Somalis, even in the cities, do not have electricity and running water in their homes.
Somalia’s largest cities are the ports of Mogadishu, Merca, Baraawe, and Kismayu on the Indian Ocean, and Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. Other significant cities are Hargeisa and Burao in the north and Baidoa in the south. Mogadishu’s oldest sector, Hammawein, contains the mosque of Fakr al-Din as well as many old Arab-style buildings. Italian occupants also built their own neighborhoods in Mogadishu. Much of this architecture was heavily damaged in the civil war, along with modern Somali government buildings such as Parliament House and Somali National University. The former palace of the sultan of Zanzibar still stands, although in poor condition, as a museum in Mogadishu. A few statues and monuments were erected in Mogadishu but several were destroyed, among them an equestrian statue of Muhammad Abdullah Hasan, erected after Somalia’s independence in 1960. A monument to independence also was built in Mogadishu. The city’s oldest mosque, the mosque of Sheik Abdul Aziz, built in 1238, survived the civil war, along with a Roman arch built in the early twentieth century.
Food and Economy
Food in Daily Life. Milk from camels, goats, and cows is a major food for Somali herdsmen and nomadic families. Young men tending camel herds during the rainy season may drink up to ten quarts of milk a day. Aging camels may be slaughtered for their meat, especially when guests are expected for a celebration, and the fatty camel’s hump is considered a delicacy. Meat, including liver, from sheep and goats also is popular, but meat is served only a few times a month, usually on special occasions. Durra (a grain sorghum), honey, dates, rice, and tea are other food staples for nomads. Farmers in southern Somalia grow corn, beans, sorghum, millet, squash, and a few other vegetables and fruits. Boiled millet and rice are staples, but rice must be imported. The most popular bread is muufo, a flat bread made from ground corn flour. Somalis season their food with butter and ghee, the clear liquid skimmed from melted butter. They also sweeten their food with sugar, sorghum, or honey. A holdover from Italian occupation in the south is a love for pasta and marinara sauce. Although fish is plentiful in the waters off the Somali coast, Somalis generally do not like fish. In accordance with the Muslim faith, they do not eat pork or drink alcohol. Milk, tea, coffee, and water are favorite drinks. Carbonated drinks are available in cities.
Among nomads and farmers, cooking is usually done over a wood or charcoal fire outdoors or in a communal cooking hut, because homes are large enough only for sleeping. Grain is ground by hand, using primitive tools. Restaurants are popular in cities, but women seldom dined out with men until the late 1990s. Arab cuisine is popular fare in many restaurants, Italian at others. Especially in Mogadishu, international restaurants serve Chinese, European, and sometimes American foods. At home it is customary for women to serve the men first, and then eat with their children after the men have finished. Rural Somalis eat by scooping food from a bowl with the first three fingers of their right hand or with a spoon (as in many other Muslim and African cultures, the left hand is considered unclean because it is used for washing the body). A rolled banana leaf also may be used for scooping. Urban Somalis may use silverware when they dine, but many still enjoy eating with their fingers.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Weddings, births, circumcisions, and Islamic and secular holidays call for celebrations involving food. Families slaughter animals, make bread, and prepare food for guests and for the poor, who are often invited to join the celebration.
Basic Economy. Somalia is one of the world’s poorest countries, and many gains made during the years after independence were lost in the destruction brought about by civil war in the 1990s. However, in 2000, individuals had begun to help rebuild cities through independent businesses. Among the factors hindering economic development is lack of adequate transportation. The country has no railroads, only one airline, and few paved roads. Financial assistance from the United States helped improve Somalia’s major seaports and Mogadishu International Airport during the 1980s. Telecommunication systems were largely destroyed during the civil war. However, in 1999, independent businessmen in some towns established satellite telephone systems and electricity, and Somali livestock traders and other entrepreneurs conducted much of their business by telephone. Banking networks also were being established. The basic monetary unit is the Somali shilling, with one hundred cents equal to one shilling. A large amount of the income received by Somalis comes from Somalis who have migrated to other countries to find work and send money and goods home to relatives.
Land Tenure and Property. In precolonial times, land claims were made by families and through bargaining among clan members. During European colonization, Italians established plantations in the riverine area and settled many poor Italian families on the land to raise crops. Since independence much of this land has been farmed by Somalis. Somali nomads consider pastureland available to all, but if a family digs a water well, it is considered their possession. Under Siad Barre’s socialist regime there was an effort to lease privately owned land to government cooperatives, but Somalis resented working land they did not own. Some land was sold in urban areas, but grazing land continued to be shared.
Commercial Activities. In the colonial era Italians developed banana, sugarcane, and citrus fruit plantations in southern Somalia. These again thrived in the late twentieth century with Italian assistance after a decade of decline due to high government taxation of exports in the 1980s. Livestock and animal products make up a large portion of the goods produced in Somalia.
The country’s few natural resources, such as gypsum-anhydrite, quartz, uranium, iron ore, and possibly gold, have not been widely exploited.
Major Industries. Although Somalia is not an industrialized nation, there are some industries, such as fish and meat canneries, milk-processing plants, sugar refineries, leather-tanning factories, and pharmaceutical and electronics factories. Many of these were built with the help of foreign nations such as the former Soviet Union. Some mining and petroleum exploration has been done, with the help of Middle Eastern countries.
Trade. Transportation equipment, machinery, cement and other building materials, iron, and steel are major imports of Somalia. Most of the imports come from Italy, Ethiopia and Kenya, China, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, the United States, and Great Britain. Livestock is the country’s main export, especially camels, which are sold to Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations. Animal hides also are exported. Bananas are the chief crop export. Coffee, cotton, peanuts, mangoes, citrus fruits, and sugarcane are other important crops. Fishing and the export of frankincense and myrrh add to the economy.
Division of Labor. More than half of all Somalis are self-employed, as herders, farmers, or independent business owners. In the cities, some workers once held government jobs, and in 2000 a growing percentage of workers had factory, plantation, or fishing-industry jobs. Among rural Somalis of the Saab clan-family, lower castes still provide certain types of goods and services.
Classes and Castes. The Samaal believe that their clan-family is superior to the Saab. The Saab clan-family developed a caste system that awards status to different groups based on their heritage or occupation. Lower-class groups among the Digil and Rahanwayn were identified by occupation. The largest group was themidgaan (a derogatory name), who served as barbers, circumcisers, and hunters. The Tumaal were blacksmiths and metalworkers. The Yibir served as fortune-tellers and makers of protective amulets and charms. In the late twentieth century, many from these groups found work in towns and cities and raised their status, and the old arrangements whereby they served certain clans had largely disappeared by the 1990s.
A small percentage of the peoples of the riverine and southern coastal area are descendants of a pre-Somali people who lived in the Horn of Africa. Added to this group are descendants of Africans once enslaved by the Somalis. These cultural groups are called habash. While not poorly treated, habash are considered inferior by the Somalis. Most habash are Muslims and speak Somali, although some, such as the coastal groups Bajuni and Amarani, speak Swahili.
Symbols of Social Stratification. Among the nomads, wealthier men were traditionally those who owned more camels and other livestock. Warriors and priests were considered to have the most prestigious vocations. In some Rahanwayn and Digil settlements, members are divided between Darkskins and Lightskins, with those of darker skins having slightly more prestige in ceremonies, although the two are considered equal in other ways. By 2000, education, income, and the ability to speak foreign languages had become standards by which status was attained among urban Somalis. By 2000, education, income, and the ability to speak foreign languages had become standards by which status was attained among urban Somalis.
Government. During most of the 1990s there was no central government in Somalia. However, some of the fifty districts and eight regional councils formed at the Addis Accords of March 1993 survived into 2000. In August 2000, Somalis met in a representative council in Djibouti and took the first steps toward reestablishing a government for Somalia. A 245-member assembly made up of men and women representing all clans chose a new president and wrote a transitional constitution. The assembly was to function as a transitional government for three years. It appointed a new Somali president, Abdikassim Salad Hassan, a leader of the Habir Gedir subclan in the Mogadishu region. Allied with the Islamic courts and Somali businessowners, Salad proposed unity, peace, and prosperity for all of Somalia. After three years under the transitional government, national elections were to be held.
Leadership and Political Officials. Somalis are traditionally an independent and democratic people but are fiercely loyal to their clan and its associated political party. Ceremonial clan leaders are called sultans, or bokor in Somali, a term referring to binding the people together. Actual rule and enforcement of clan laws usually fall to the elders and a council made up of the clan’s adult males. Somalia’s first modern political party, the Somali Youth Club (SYC), was formed in Mogadishu in 1943, at the urging of British colonial officials.
Women greeting each other in Mogadishu. Somali women generally do not socialize with men in public places.
multiclan organization that favored Somali unity, it was renamed the Somali Youth League (SYL) in 1947. Throughout Somalia’s modern history it remained the strongest political party.
During Siad Barre’s dictatorship, political parties were prohibited in Somalia, but several organized outside the country and sought to overthrow the regime. Among them was the Somali National Movement (SNM), a militant party organized by Isaaq clan members living in London. In alliance with the rebel United Somali Congress (USC) and the Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), it was able to overthrow Siad Barre in 1991.
After ousting the dictator, however, disagreements and fighting broke out among the three parties as well as the clans, subclans, and various guerrilla groups, plummeting the nation into civil war that lasted throughout the 1990s.
Social Problems and Control. Under the central government formed at independence, Somalia developed a Western-style judicial system, with a penal code, a code of criminal court procedures, and a four-tiered court system. Islamic law ( Shari’a ) and Somali customary law ( heer ) were retained in many civil and interclan matters. The Somali Police Force evolved from forces organized during colonial administration by the Italians and the British. The most common crimes committed are shootings, robbery and theft, looting, and kidnapping for ransom.
Somali clans have a traditional means of compensating for lives lost in interclan disputes, thereby discouraging violence and encouraging peaceful settlement. The clan responsible for the death pays the victim’s clan a fine, called dia, traditionally a set number of camels or other livestock. A certain percentage of the dia—called jiffo —is paid by the immediate relatives of the one responsible for the death to the immediate family of the deceased. Dia is also paid, in a lesser amount, for other crimes, such as rape, adultery, and theft. Dia-paying groups are formed by agreement among closely related clan members. Enforcement of dia customs falls to the elders and the clan council. If a matter cannot be settled peacefully, fighting breaks out between clans, followed by another peace council.
Military Activity. The Somali National Army (SNA) was formed at independence from military groups created under British and Italian colonial rule. Somalia was allied with the Soviet Union during the 1960s, receiving both military training and weapons from theSoviets, as well as from Egypt and other Muslim states. Before the Ogaden War of 1977–1978, Somalia’s military was one of the largest and best-armored and mechanized in sub-Saharan Africa. After it lost the war and the Soviets withdrew support, however, the Somali military declined. During the early 1980s it received training and weapons from the United States, France, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. However, when the Western world learned of human-rights violations under Siad Barre, it withdrew military support. After Siad Barre’s fall, the Somali military ceased to exist.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
Probably the largest efforts at social welfare and change in Somalia came during the 1960s and 1970s, the years after independence, and the early years of Siad Barre’s socialist regime. Barre attempted to do away with the clan system and create a heterogeneous society. Some nomads were settled as farmers, ranchers, or fishermen. Under Barre the status of women improved, a written alphabet was created for Somalia, and there were increased efforts in the areas of literacy and education.
Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations
Associations active in providing relief to the starving and the ill in Somalia during the late 1980s and 1990s were the International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Crescent, the United Nations (U.N.) World Food Program, Save the Children Service, Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere, Inc. (CARE), Irish Concern, and many others. Somalis provided a large portion of this care as well. In 2000 and 2001, a dozen U.N. agencies, among them the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), provided all types of aid to Somalia. They continue to be assisted by NGOs both from around the world and within Somalia.
In 1994 a group of Somali women educated in Western countries returned to their homeland to help Somali women who were striving to rebuild the economy by starting their own businesses. The group, called the Somali Women’s Trust, also helped establish girls’ schools and women’s health centers, and helped reestablish refugees in Somalia. Another Somali women’s group, Candlelight, provides similar services.
Gender Roles and Statuses
Division of Labor by Gender. In traditional Samaal clans, men and older boys do the important work of tending camels and cattle, the most valuable animals. Girls and young boys tend sheep and goats. Somali men are considered warriors ( waranle ), except for those few who choose the religious life. Adult men are also expected to serve on their clan-family council. Urban men may work as businessmen, blacksmiths, craftsmen, fishermen, or factory workers. Women in nomadic clans are responsible for caring for children, cooking, and moving the family aqal. Women and girls in farming clans are responsible for planting and harvesting crops, caring for children, and cooking. Urban women may hold jobs in shops or offices or may run their own business.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Somali women are expected to submit to men and to fulfill their duties as daughters, wives, and mothers. Although they do not wear the Muslim veil, they generally do not socialize with men in public places. Somali women living in the cities, especially those
A Somali nomad woman ties roof supports together to reconstruct a portable hut after moving to a new location. The aqal is easy to break down and reassemble.
educated in other countries, dress and behave more like Western women.
Given the right to vote in newly independent Somalia, women began to take an active interest in politics and served on government committees and the People’s Assembly. They served in military units and played sports. Opportunities for secondary and higher education had increased for women before the collapse of the government in 1991. With many Somali men killed during the civil war or lost to diseases such as tuberculosis, women have learned to fend for themselves. They have shown remarkable adaptability and a talent for business. The United Nations and other international organizations launched campaigns in the late 1990s to help Somali women and girls get better health care, an education, and job skills training. Somali natives who have been educated abroad are returning to help with these endeavors. Several programs have been started to promote nomadic women’s enterprises, such as the collecting of henna leaves for grinding into natural cosmetics. Women in urban areas sell wares in the streets or marketplaces or run their own shops.
In spite of condemnation by the United Nations and by modern Muslim leaders, nearly all Somali girls are forced to undergo the dangerous and disfiguring circumcision rite known to the United Nations as “female genital mutilation” (FGM). Somalia also has one of Africa’s highest maternal mortality rates; approximately sixteen mothers die for every one thousand live births. Widespread efforts to correct unsafe practices in reproductive health are expected to improve these conditions in the twenty-first century.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Marriage. Somali marriages have traditionally been considered a bond between not just a man and a woman but also between clans and families. Until very recently, most Somali marriages were arranged, usually between an older man with some wealth and the father of a young woman he wished to wed. These customs still hold true in many rural areas in the twenty-first century. The man pays a bride price—usually in livestock or money—to the woman’s family. Samaal traditionally marry outside their family lineage, or, if within the lineage, separated from the man by six or more generations. Saab follow the Arab tradition of marrying within the father’s family lineage, with first cousins often marrying. A Somali bride often lives with her husband’s family after marriage, with her own parents providing the home and household goods. She keeps her family name, however.
Weddings are joyous occasions, but the couple often signs an agreement giving the bride a certain amount of property should the couple divorce, which is common in Somalia. The husband holds the property in trust for her. Tradition calls for the wife to relinquish her right to the property if she initiates the divorce. Islamic law permits a man to have up to four wives if he can provide them and their children with equal support. If a man repeats three times to his wife, “I divorce you,” the couple is considered divorced. The wife is given a three-month grace period, however, in case she should be pregnant. Today many urban Somalis choose a mate based on love and common interests rather than accepting an arranged marriage.
Domestic Unit. The Somali domestic unit consists of a man, his wife or wives, and their children. Elderly or unmarried relatives may live with the family. In homes with more than one wife, each wife usually lives with her children in her own house, and the husband and father divides his time among them. In the case of a divorce, children usually remain with their mother. The male is considered the head of the household, except where it is headed by a divorced or widowed woman.
Inheritance. Inheritance passes from father to son in Somali families. A wife remains a part of her father’s lineage, while her children belong to her husband’s lineage. Under Islamic law, daughters are entitled to inherit half of what sons get, but in Somali society daughters usually did not receive valuable animals or land. Under Siad Barre’s regime, social reforms included equal inheritance rights for women, although this was opposed by some Islamic leaders.
Kin Groups. Somali society is based on a clan-family structure. The two major clan groups are the Samaal (or Samale) and the Saab (or Sab), named for two brothers who are said to have been members of the prophet Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraysh of Arabia. Many Somalis believe that their ancestor from Old Testament times was Noah’s son Ham.
The Samaal, which make up about three-quarters of the Somali population, are divided into four main clan-families: the Dir, Daarood, Isaaq, and Hawiye. The Saab are divided into the Digil and Rahanwayn clan-families. Major clans can have thousands of members, each claiming descent from a common ancestor. These clans are subdivided into subclans and into primary lineage groups. Somali men trace their membership in a particular clan-family through their patrilineage, going back a dozen or more generations. Clan groups with the longest ancestry have the most prestige. Clans and subclans are associated with the territory they occupy for most of the year.
Child Rearing and Education. Somali children are raised with much love but are also disciplined and taught to work from age five or six, with little time for play. In spite of numerous hardships, Somali children are known for their sense of joy and abundant laughter. Children are taught independence and self-reliance and to carefully observe the world around them.
Both boys and girls are circumcised during a ceremony and celebration. Boys and girls are kept separated, according to Islamic law, and traditionally do not date, although a group of teenage males do a courtship dance for girls of marriageable age. Because of the high incidence of divorce, many children grow up with only one parent, usually the mother, although boys may stay with their father and his wives. Multiple wives make for family groups with many children.
Education for Somali children in all but the wealthiest urban families was practically nonexistent, except for training in reading the Qur’an, before the early 1970s. Boys in rural areas attended outdoor schools where they learned Arabic using wooden slates. Before independence some attended Roman Catholic schools, where they learned Arabic or Italian. Under Siad Barre, a Latin-based alphabet was created for the Somali language, which previously had no written form. The leader undertook a massive literacy campaign in Somalia and achieved some success, although many nomadic children still did not attend school, and many others, especially girls, dropped out after four years of primary school. Students learned reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as Arabic, animal husbandry, and agriculture. A lack of trained teachers, materials, and schools, however, made secondary-school classes inadequate, and only about 10 percent of students went on to secondary school. When civil war broke out, most secular education stopped, as schools were bombed and the government, which had hired teachers, collapsed. However, some dedicated teachers struggled on during
A woman and child in Og Village, Ainabo. Somali children are raised with much love, combined with discipline.
the 1990s, often without pay. Students continued to come, eager to learn even when there were no chairs or desks and no roof on the school. In the absence of a government, parents contributed what they could toward supplies so their children could continue to get an education.
Higher Education. Somali National University in Mogadishu, founded in 1970, was the nation’s principal university before the civil war. Courses were offered in education, sciences, law, medicine, engineering, geology, economics, agriculture, and veterinary science. The National Adult Education Center was established in the late 1970s to combat a relapse in literacy among the adult nomadic population.
In 1981 the Nomad Education Program was created by the Barre government, which established boarding schools in ten regions and selected students from various clan-families to attend school for sixty days. Students ranged in age from fourteen to fifty, but most were in their twenties. After completing the course, they went home and taught what they had learned to other members of the clan-family. The most relevant courses for the nomad students were those related to geography and the environment. Other valuable classes were those in personal hygiene, nutrition, first aid, and midwifery for female students. The Nomad Education Program, like so many others, died during the civil war.
Somali National University was largely destroyed in the fighting in Mogadishu. University professors and Somali intellectuals began working in 1993 to establish a private university in Mogadishu. The new Mogadishu University was finally opened in September 1997. It offers programs in Shari’a and Law, Education, Arts, Business and Economics, and Computer Science. Somaliland also opened a private university, Amoud University, in 1997. It is largely supported by international funding and by Somalis living in the United Arab Emirates.
In the Somali language soo maal, a common greeting of welcome, refers to the act of milking, offering a guest the opportunity to milk an animal and get himself something to drink. Somalis offer a milky tea and burn incense to welcome visitors. Somalis greet one another by saying, “Maalin wanaagsan” (Good day) or “Nabad myah?” (How are you?). Men of the same clan-family then share a long handshake. Women greet one another informally and may hug and kiss one another on the cheek. Members of unrelated clan-families do not shake hands or exchange intimacies. Somalis also use certain Arab hand gestures to communicate.
Religious Beliefs. Religion is a major influence on the lives of Somalis. They are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’ite rite, with great interest in Sufi spiritualism, characterized by chanting, whirling, chewing qat, (a narcotic leaf), and falling into a trance as a way of communing with Allah. They also include the veneration of Somali saints in religious worship.
Added to the daily practice of Islam is a belief in mortal spirits called jinn, said to be descended from a fallen heavenly spirit. According to folk beliefs, jinn can cause misfortune and illness or can help humans. Somalis believe the poor, weak, or injured have special spiritual powers given by Allah, so Somalis are always kind to the less fortunate in hopes that they will not use this power for evil against them.
Religious Practitioners. Unlike other Muslims, Somalis believe that both their religious and secular leaders have the power to bless and to curse people. This power, believed to be given by Allah, is called baraka . Baraka is believed to linger at the tombs of Somali saints and to help cure illness and resolve other troubles upon a visit to the tomb. Islamic teachers and mosque officials make up a large portion of religious practitioners (Islam has no priests).
Somali followers of Sufiism, given the name Dervishes, dedicate themselves to a life of religion by preaching Islam and giving up all possessions. The Sufi are also known for the farming communities and religious centers they established in southern Somalia, called jamaat.
Among nomads, a respected male leader or religious devotee might be appointed wadad. His duties are to lead prayers and to perform ritual sacrifices on religious holidays and special occasions. He also learns folk astronomy, which is used for healing, divination, and to determine times for migration.
Other religious practitioners include the Yibir clan of the Saab. Yibir practitioners are called on to exorcise spirits and restore health, good fortune, or prosperity to individuals through prayers and ceremonies, including animal sacrifice.
Rituals and Holy Places. Mosques can be found in all Somali cities and towns. Nomads worship wherever they are, with men and women praying and studying the Qur’an separately. In accordance
A pedestrian passes a billboard in Mogadishu. Somali did not become a written language until 1973.
with Islam, Somalis are to pray five times each day, facing Mecca. They should recite the creed of Islam and observe zakat, or giving to the poor, if able. They should make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once and should observe the fast of Ramadan. Tombs of the Somali holy men or sheiks, venerated as saints, have become national shrines. Pilgrims visit on the saint’s annual feast day, usually in the month of his birth, when his power is believed to be the strongest.
Religious holidays include the Islamic holidays of Ramadan (the month of fasting); Id al-Fitr (the Little Feast); the First of Muharram (when an angel is said to shake the tree of life and death); Maulid an-Nabi (the birth of the prophet Muhammad); and Id al-Adha (commemorating the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael). Islamic holidays fall at different times of year according to the Islamic calendar. Holidays are celebrated with feasting and storytelling, visiting graves, giving to the poor, parades, plays, and ceremonies.
Death and the Afterlife. Somalis hold the Muslim view that each person will be judged by Allah in the afterlife. They also believe that a tree representing all Muslims grows at the boundary between Earth and Heaven (some believe the boundary is on the Moon). Each person is represented by a leaf on the tree. When an angel shakes the tree on the first day of the new year, in the Islamic month of Muharram, it is said that those whose leaves fall off will die within the coming year. Muslims also believe that a person who dies while fasting during Ramadan is especially blessed by Allah.
When a Somali dies, feasting and celebration are held, as they are at a birth. A Somali wife must mourn her husband’s death in seclusion at home for four months and ten days, according to Islamic practice.
Medicine and Health Care
Before the civil war of the 1990s, Somalia’s Ministry of Health regulated all medical practices and personnel, but with the breakdown of the government and the destruction of most hospitals and clinics, Somalia’s health care system has declined. There are few doctors and hospitals, and many unqualified persons practice a form of medicine at private facilities, especially in Mogadishu and other cities. The absence of regulation carries over to prescription drugs, which are often improperly dispensed by pharmacies. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), along with international and Somali nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provide much of the health care and health information services in Somalia. Most health care is free, but some hospitals charge patients a fee to help recover costs.
Tuberculosis and malaria are the two major causes of illness and death in the nation. Somalia had one of the world’s highest tuberculosis rates in 2000, but it also had one of the highest cure rates, thanks to U.N. and other international organizations and their Somali health workers. In 2000 these organizations launched an aggressive program to fight malaria. They have also conducted ongoing polio, measles, and tetanus vaccination campaigns.
Cholera and other gastrointestinal diseases had become endemic in Mogadishu and other areas by 2000, largely because of the piles of rubbish and poor sanitation conditions resulting from civil war. Malnutrition and starvation, schistosomiasis, tetanus, leprosy, venereal disease, and skin and eye infections claim life and limb unnecessarily. Somalia is estimated to have a low prevalence of HIV and AIDS, compared with other African countries. In late 1999 studies showed from 8 to 9 percent of the subjects were HIV positive. Health workers are being trained in prevention and management of sexually transmitted diseases.
Somali folk medicine is often practiced by nomads and farmers who have no immediate access to medical care. Somalis believe that some kinds of illnesses are caused by possession of the body by spirits, which can be exorcised through ritual.
Somalis celebrate Independence Day on 26 June, the date in 1960 when British Somaliland gained its independence. They celebrate the Foundation of the Republic on 1 July. At the beginning of August they hold a secular New Year celebration called Dab-Shid (Fire-Lighting) when they light a stick and jump over the fire.
The Arts and Humanities
Literature. Somalia has long been known as a nation of poets. A people with few possessions and no written language until the 1970s, Somalis developed an oral tradition of poetry and storytelling, that has been passed down through generations. Many of these poems and stories were written down in the late twentieth century. A popular new genre of song on the radio in the late twentieth century was heello, taken from Somali poetry. Some themes of Somali poetry are history, philosophy, and clan politics, as well as praise or ridicule of humans or animals. Probably the best-known Somali poet is spiritual and military leader Muhammad Abdullah Hasań, leader of the Muslim Dervishes.
Islamic poetry is also a Somali tradition; many poets were great religious leaders and are now considered saints. Somali Islamic poetry is written in Arabic, often in the form of prayer. Although Somali poets have been writing since at least the twelfth century, the most well-known Somali Islamic poets of recent times are Seylici (d. 1882), “Sheik Suufi” (d. 1905), and Sheik Uweys Maxamed (1869–1905).
Somali Islamic prose written in Arabic is called manqabah. Writers record the deeds and virtues of Somali sheiks, or religious leaders, some with miraculous powers. Somalis also read Arabic religious classics. Modern Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah (b. 1945) has become internationally famous for his novels about African women’s issues and the struggle for human rights in postcolonial Africa. His novels include From a Crooked Rib (1970), Maps (1986), and Gifts (1992). He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998.
Performance Arts. Somali plays were performed in the late twentieth century at the National Theater in Mogadishu and at small theaters in other cities. Somalis began to write plays under the influence of British and Italian colonists. Somali plays are now written in Somali, Arabic, English, and Italian. A well-known modern Somali playwright is Hassan Mumin ( Leopard Among the Women, 1974; Contes de Djibouti, 1980).
The State of the Physical and Social Sciences
Astronomy has been a popular career for Somalis; astronomer Muusa H. Galaal wrote The Terminology and Practice of Somali Weather Lore, Astronomy, and Astrology (1968). Science and engineering students who might have studied in Somalia if not for civil war have emigrated to other countries to study, where they have successful careers in medicine and the physical and social sciences. Some have returned to Somalia to help their people. In the late twentieth century, telecommunications and computer science became popular areas of study and enterprise for Somalis as they sought to rebuild their war-torn country and keep pace with new technology. In 2000 Somalia had one of Africa’s most well developed telecommunications systems, as well as Internet service for its expanding computer networks.
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—A NN H. S HURGIN