Whenever I brought up the subject of readable Somali history to my father, I was always met with a steady grumble. Books written about Somalia’s past, at least in my father’s eyes, could generally be placed in two categories: foreign undertakings penned by colonial agents and other European scholars, or biased historical accounts written by Somali authors. I thought maybe this was an exaggeration and tried to research about Somali history myself, but found that many books and articles written in English about Somalia were sourced by the same handful of authors and the credit for recording modern Somali history and traditions was given to noted European scholars in ‘Somali Studies’ such as I.M. Lewis.
This discovery pushed me into further reflection and forced me to question the methods by which I had chosen to gather information – in English, via libraries and databases of written scholarly works. I revisited my father to ask about how I could access Somali sources for understanding our history and he explained that the stories and histories of Somali-speaking peoples are best found through orature. In order to gain a full grasp of what Somali history is and how it’s formed, it is necessary to discuss the famous Somali oral narrative tradition.
Somali Orature: A Landscape
Af Somali is spoken by multinational communities living across the Horn of Africa in Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. Colonial projects by the French, British, and Italians in the region contributed to the artificial separation of Somali-speaking communities, and the post-colonial nation states that emerged thereafter reflected these divisions. I introduce this history to clarify that Somali linguistic traditions are shared by communities living outside of Somalia’s official borders. The intensification of violence in Somalia during the 80s and 90s created a large Somali refugee community and grew the size of the Somali diaspora in North America, Europe, and Asia. This reality adds another layer to the geography of where Somali is spoken and used today.
Sheeko, oral storytelling, has always played a significant, daily role in Somali society. Oral prose and poetry in Somali formed the basis of communication for political rhetoric, judicial practice, entertainment, education, and public protest. Classical Somali poetry comes in a number of styles with rhythmic distinctions including Gabay, Geeraar, Jiifto, and Buraanbur. Somali proverbs and riddles also have special social and cultural functions in the daily life of Somalis. These Somali oral traditions represent the media by which Somali history, lineage, tribal law, and traditions were transmitted for much of the past and even the present.
1972: Somali became an official written language, but what happened to orature?
The debate around Somali orthography began decades before the official Somali writing system was introduced in 1972. Somalia, despite not having an official system for writing in Somali, had an abundance of written traditions and languages in use. Latin scripts were employed to dictate in colonial languages including Italian and English (depending on the region of Somalia). The Arabic language was also in play for written communications and maintained for religious purposes. When deciding which orthography would be most appropriate for Somali, the arguments were laid out in three camps. The first supported adopting a latin-script, which was: 1) Already known to those educated in colonial schools, 2) Considered more ‘modern’ and commonly used in international settings, and 3) Could be adapted to the latin-based machinery that already existed in Somalia. The second argued for using the Arabic script, which already possesses most Somali vowels and consonants and would produce religious benefits for the masses. The last group pushed the idea of creating a unique Somali script invented by Cismaan Kenaadid called Cismaaniya. They believed that using an exclusive Somali system would bolster patriotism and national pride. Truthfully, each option had shortcomings either linguistically or practically. In the end, a latin-based script was modified and adopted by Siad Barre’s regime in 1972.
The introduction of Somali written literature did not diminish the importance or prevalence of orature practices. In many ways both continued to evolve and were disseminated side-by-side. Literacy campaigns and publishing boomed after the Somali writing system was brought into practice in 1972. At the same time, technological advances in communications like radio and audio-recording, on cassettes and later disks, gave Somali poetry and music a new range. Poetry, recorded but also importantly performed in public, played an intimate role in the rebellion period of the late 80s against Siad Barre that encouraged criticism of the military regime. This brings us to the post-conflict period and the pressing question of what preserving Somali orature means for future generations.
Conserving Somali Oral Narratives & Arts in a Post-Conflict Environment
In an interview Sarah Drake and Eddah Mutua-Kombo conducted with a Somali elder in Minnesota on the topic of maintaining the Somali language and orature in the diaspora, the elder shared:
If we lose our language how will second generation of US-born Somalis communicate if they decide to go back to Somalia? What about Somalis scattered all over the world who have to learn different languages other than English? How will we communicate if we lose our language?
In recent years I have also found this question weighing on me with mounting anxiety. What happens to our history when the next few generations of elders pass on due to time and old age? We stand to lose much more than loved ones. Ongoing conflict in Somalia has produced political instability, social fragmentation, loss of life and displacement, and the consequences of the past and the present will reverberate painfully into the future. The responsibility to document Somali traditions, including orature, in Somalia and the diaspora should be upheld alongside other forms of investments in Somalia’s political, social, and economic infrastructure. Many Somalis have already begun to document the history of their communities abroad and at home, and these efforts must be encouraged, linked, and shared outside of academic settings.
In my future contributions to Futuwwa, I hope to explore the paths that have been taken and can be taken to preserve Somalia’s living heritage. What does this heritage look like and mean to different groups in Somali society? How can we learn more and provide access? I invite you to join me in my journey to find these answers, though it’ll likely take a lifetime.
Drake, Sarah & Mutua-Kombo, E. “Somali Language and Oral Tradition in Post-conflict Life in the US: What Does the Future Hold?” Africa Media Review 17, no. 1-2 (2009): 109-122.
Jama, Zainab M. “Silent Voices: The Role of Somali Women’s Poetry in Social and Political Life.” Oral Tradition 9, no. 1 (1994): 185-202.
Johnson, John W. “Orality, Literacy, and Somali Oral Poetry.” Journal of African Cultural Studies 18, no. 1 (2006): 119-136.