14 Things You Need to Know About the Somali People
Somalilandsun – In a brief student discussion at the University of Delaware, USA on Democracy in Africa, a visiting professor from the African Studies department told us that the two main challenges to the success of democracy in Africa are differences in ethnicities and poverty. He argued that in Africa there are only two nations with homogenous society, Somalia and Swaziland, and that a functional democracy has a good chance in these two countries for ethnicity doesn’t matter. I left the discussion thinking about why then is Somalia at civil war for a quarter century and one of the continent’s most intractable civil strife? I found it inconceivable. That is why I won’t be surprised if some people are not in perfect acquiescence with me on these points that most Somalis have in common apart from shared language, faith and culture. The points were gathered through a research but by mere mundane personal observation.
1. They don’t believe they are quite Africans
It is true that Somalis have distinctive physical look different from the vast majority of African peoples but it is more substantial than that. The British colony treated the Somali Kenyan community in Kenya as the same level as the Asians and not as other indigenous Kenyans. Even to date, the Kenya police, when expelling illegal Somali refugees, they identify Somalis with perfect ease. While a great deal of Somalis are light skinned, yet the biggest difference comes from the hair texture and the nose. Most Somalis don’t have a kinky hair, flat nose and the heavily muscular African physique. This is not to completely ignore a significant Somali Bantu population in the Southern Somali with typical Africa features..
2. Impatient people
It is mostly unbearable to tell a Somali to wait for long be it a bank queue or a doctor’s clinic. In fact some of them may answer your question before you finish asking. Political dictatorship will not only be futile but it will always be impractical in Somalia, for it will eventually lead to insurrection.
3. Political views heavily influenced by clan ideology
I would not recommend pushing a Somali person to a political view not shared by his clan base, for chances are it won’t come to fruition. That is why they would never agree on what and who caused the eventual collapse of the Somali state. If you question a Hargeisa-born person why Somaliland should succeed, the question hurts him while the southerner finds such succession abhorrent and unimaginable.
4. Poor in colonial languages
With the exception of highly educated and/or some of the Somali diaspora, most Somalis don’t speak good English or Italian. Even Arabic is only well spoken by religiously inclined people or in institutions which is not the mainstream education system now. Before the independence, they spoke colonial languages well. The union of the north and south, at first promoted the Italian language to be the language of instruction in schools and colleges, but after the military coup with its scientific socialism ideology, it promoted the Somali language. The regime collapsed two decades later and so did the education system.
5. Entrepreneurial people
The Somali people are widely known for their entrepreneurial skills. The exodus of Somali refugees in neighboring countries also led to a significant business communities there. Viable business activities are evident at home too.
6. Intermarriage with other ethnic groups and races unwelcome
While the issue of integration of Somalis has been a subject of debate for many years, but it is clear that most Somalis don’t welcome intermarriage with other races and ethnic groups. The Somali diaspora mostly tend to live together in one particular neighborhood. Nairobi’s Eastleigh is a classic example.
7. Proud people
While the name of Somalia has frequently been associated with unpleasant images of violence, displacement, famine and terror, yet most Somalis are proud in nature and will shrug off every effort that could diminish such pride. In fact the first ever recorded suicide bombing by a Somali was in 2007. Suicide was previously an anathema in the Somali culture. Some say Somalis are spendthrift people.
8. Revere the BBC
Somalis hold the BBC in enormous regard and high esteem not only because of the quality reporting of the BBC but also because it was the only source of neutral news material they could find after the collapse of the Somali state as most local news was seen as biased toward a particular clan or interest. If you want to get a large Somali crowd, just walk into a cafeteria at 5:00 p.m. where the BBC radio news is on, you will find them keenly listening to it.
9. Generally adversely affected by Miraa
Somalis are one of the highest consumers of the stimulant leaf of Miraa. Walking through the Somali towns you will never fail to spot the Miraa on sale almost everywhere. This had an unpleasant social impact on them.
10. Resent class system
Somalis strongly resent the class system. This might be attributed to their nomadic and pastoral history as a man with ten camels could comfortably sit with another man with 100 camels under the same shade. The difference in wealth did not create a significant wedge amongst people. To date, don’t be surprised if you find an illiterate Somali person arguing with another Somali with bigger wealth and academic qualification.
11. Lack staple food
While Anjeero is the closest somali meal, but it is not a true staple food indeed, for Somalia is not quite an agricultural country nor the flour is processed in Somalia. So if you visit Somalia for the first time, don’t ask about staple food. It is not there.
12. Boastful of their rich Somali Literature and Poetry
Somalis do have a very rich culture and the Somali literature, poetry and songs make up a good part of their identity. This was at its peak during the military regime years though in its twilight years Mr. Barre fell out of favor with some of the most prominent artists for promoting anti-revolutionary songs and some ended up in jail while other fled the country.
13. Migration at the center of the Somali life
While migration has become the trend for many poor and war-torn countries in recent times, yet Somali, along with Eritrea, top the list of African migration. Since the civil war begun, millions of Somalis left home. The Dadaab refugee camp hosting Somali refugees in Kenya is the world’s largest refugee camp. There are significant Somali communities in neighboring countries, South Africa, Arab countries, Europe and North America. You might find a Somali in almost any airport in the world. The Somali remittances have been a life line for those at home. The Somali diaspora’s role in local politics and economics has been increasingly overwhelming.
14. Generally conservative society
As far as any country I visited is concerned, Somalia is the only I country I saw women don’t wear skirts or trousers in public. Men don’t wear shorts in public too. Of course, I never visited Saudi Arabia. But don’t forget the vast majority of the Somali territory is not under an Islamist organization control, yet you can observe the uniformity of this conservatism across the country.
Hamse Ismail is an author and human rights activist based in Hargeisa, Somaliland. He is also a columnist for various newspapers. His most common fiction works include Mediterranean Bird: A Quest for Love in Paradise. It is a fiction story on African youth migration across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Mr. Ismail is also a former Mandela Washington Fellow at the University of Delaware, USA.