The Somali People
(Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia)
6,000,000 (plus 500,000 in Kenya and 800.000 in the Diaspora)
Religion: Today Islam (0.01% Christian)
Somali people group inhabits almost the entire Horn area of Africa.
The majority of the Somali people live in the country of Somalia.
Somali are also the principle inhabitants of the Ogaadeen (Ogaden)
region of Southeastern Ethiopia. Somalis also live in the
southern half of the country of Djibouti, and in the North Eastern
Province of Kenya.
The Digil, Mirifle and
Rahaweyn clans, who speak the Maay language, and the Jiiddu and Tunni,
speaking their Maay-related languages, are also part of the broader
Somali clan structure and political alliances. These clans
include an additional 1.5 million people whose distinct
characteristics warrant classifying them as separate ethnic groups.
While the aboriginal inhabitatants of Somalia are people of
hunter-gatherer culture (like the Madhibaan), firm evidence for the
history of the Somali people per se dates back to only about AD 1000.
[Ahmed, Ali Jimale, Ed. The Invention of Somalia (New
Jersey, U.S.A.: The Red Sea Press, Inc., 1995), p. 233-256.[
There are folk genealogies
tracing certain Somali clans to the Arabian Peninsula and associating
their ancestors with the Sharifs, the family of prophet Mohammed.
Linguistic, cultural and historical evidence, however, indicates they
came originally from the southern highlands of what is now Ethiopia.
The basis of such claims to Arab origin may lie in trading and
marriage alliance relations with old Arab colonies on the Somali
coast. Anthropological studies indicate the Digil-Rahawiin (Maay-speaking)
peoples represent the earliest migration group and also the most
The Somali peoples were
never under any unified political structure. Sporadic attempts
such as the Gareen dynasty from the Ajuuraan in Central/Southern
Somalia in the 1500s (Cassanelli 1992) and the Bartire around Jigjiga,
Ethiopia, in the late 1700s were overthrown violently by other clans.
The clans, with various
genealogical ties, or political or military alliances, provided
a broad, loose identity. In the colonial era, the various
European powers easily established a hegemony, then a dominance over
various divisions of the Somali peoples. The British, French and
Italian Somalilands roughly followed geographical areas of clan
alliances or federations and actually helped limit clashes between
In 1960 Britain and Italy
combined their territories into a unified independent Somalia. The
French territory remained separate and gained independence in 1977 as
Somalis are most closely related to the Rendille and the Afar, and
distantly related to the Oromos, all Eastern Cushite peoples.
Somalis are not a unitary people group, but a grouping of broad clan
federations divided by language and by clan conflicts. Although
all Somalis profess strong allegiance to Islam, they hold stronger
primary loyalties to self, family and clan, in that order.
Somali language is a member of the Eastern Cushite family of
languages. Forms of this language are spoken in Djibouti,
Ogaadeen (Ethiopia) and the northern areas of Somalia, as well as in
Kenya. The language situation, however, is quite complex.
Linguists analyze several languages among the Somali peoples which are
not mutually intelligible.
The Rahawiin people and
most of the Digil federation, living the lower Jubba Valley and the
Baay-Bakool plateau of the Shebeelle Valley, speak Maay, while the
speech of the Jiiddu and Tunni clans are classified as separate
languages. Most Garre in Somalia speak Garre as a mother tongue,
but Maay is the mother tongue of some. The Garre language is
close to Boni. (Most Garre and Ajuuraan in Kenya speak an Oromo
language named after them: Garre-Ajuuraan.)
The Debarre clan of the
Garre also speak their own language, more closely related to Maay.
Many Somalis speak various languages as a second language. Clans
are genealogically based and cut across language lines.
studies show that Maay, Tunni and Jiiddu retain older vocabulary and
structure than "standard Somali" language forms. After
independence, Arabic served as an official lingua franca, and the only
written language. However, Arabic is not commonly spoken and
written Somali has been taught in school since an official Latin
orthography was chosen in 1972. This orthography is also used in
Ethiopia since 1993 or 1994.
The Somali clans were nomadic, though they maintained established
boundaries for the herding area of each clan and sub-clan. There was
never any established political system which encompassed all the
When the Oromo people
began spreading out in their turn from the Ethiopian southern
highlands, the Somali clans did resist their encroachments on
recognized Somali settlement and herding areas. Nevertheless the
actual borders were somewhat vague and flexible, and military clashes
were common among the Somali clans themselves.
In the colonial period,
the French established a presence in the northern Red sea areas of the
Somali area. The Italians grabbed the largest portion, including
the actual "horn" of the Red Sea/Indian Ocean area, going
The Italians negotiated
additional sovereignty with local leaders over the southern areas from
Mogadishu to Ras Komboni, inland to the Jubba River. In 1925 the
British ceded a section of Kenya colony west of the Jubba to the
current Kenya border, to Italy. The Ogaadeen/Hawd area of
British Somaliland was ceded to Ethiopia after WW II, settling a firm
border between Ethiopia and British Somaliland. This separated
the Ogaadeen clan from other clans.
There has always been
tension and rivalry between the clans, growing to military conflicts
at times. This was diminished under colonial administration, but
flared up again at times after independence and the unification of
British and Italian territories for the first time in history.
After the total breakdown of order in the civil war of the 1990's, the
north (former British Somaliland) restored order and peace shortly,
while Mogadishu and the southern areas continue in self destruction.
These nomadic, pastoral people have a culture primarily centered
around camels with a few cattle and goats in the more productive areas.
Women and young children care for sheep and goats while the young men
and boys are responsible for herding the highly esteemed camels.
In a land that has an
average rainfall of less than four inches a year the Somalis' lives
are consumed with finding water and grazing land for their livestock.
Formerly, the diet consisted almost entirely of milk and milk products
but now includes maize meal and rice for most.
In highland areas with
adequate rainfall, agriculture has developed in the past few
generations, including vegetable and fruit gardens, as well as grains.
Sorghum is an important grain, grown in the northwest and south and
along the river valleys and cowpeas are important in the south.
The Abgaal and Murusade Hawiye along coastal central Somalia also
practice agropastoralism with sorghum, cowpeas and some maize.
Families live in portable
huts; each wife has her separate hut made of bent saplings and woven
mats. Villages consist of a group of huts for related families
arranged in a circle or semi-circle with cattle pens in the centre.
Home building and home making are the women's responsibility.
Modern life in the city of
Mogadishu, Somalia, is ravaged by clan rivalry. No one cares if
a member of another clan starves. As many as 30,000 automatic
weapons are held by men and boys who steal food meant for the relief
of those who are starving. Some of them sell the food to support
their drug habit of chewing qaad (khat) leaves. Khat, or miraa,
a mild stimulant promoting sleeplessness and talkativeness, is a
The Somalis love poetry
and have a rich oral literature. Children are taught history and
tradition through poetry. The Somalis have remarkable memories
and often chant folk tales to entertain themselves on long night walks.
A man is allowed four
wives under Islamic law and polygamy is widely practiced.
Divorce is the prerogative of men only and is easy and common among
the Somali. In case of divorce the children are divided by
gender, boys to the father and girls to the mother.
Somalis accepted Islam in the 1400's. Some historians think it
was as early as the 1200's. Their commitment to Islam has led to
the development of legendary claims of lineages in the Arabian
Peninsula, but these claims are not supported by linguistic evidence
and other oral traditions.
Some Somalis at times
refer themselves as Arabs, yet they consider themselves superior to
the Yemeni Arabs who live among them. These people staunchly
profess unwavering commitment to Islam, but the Islamic teaching of
unity is superseded by clan loyalties and destructive philosophy of
The following spirit
possession cults are practiced by the Somali peoples: Borane,
Mingis, Wadaaddo and Saar. These all involve dances, efforts to
placate spirits, and specialists who are paid by possessed people or
families. Most of these are related to other Cushitic people,
but also to the Amharic (mingis is an Amharic word). It is
reported that possessed people often speak in Oromo.
At the same time Islamic
fundamentalism has been gaining ground over the traditional Sufi
mystical orders, the Axmediya, Qaadiriya and Saalaxiya.
Fundamentalists have established NGOs and brought financial aid from
Muslim organizations in Sudan, South Africa, North America, Europe,
Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia and Iran. Reformers have opposed
the veneration of saints and Muhammed and ecstatic rituals.
Traditionalists often react violently to the attempts at change.
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The Invention of Somalia. New Jersey: The Red Sea Press,
"Dramatic Roles in Central Somali Narrative Discourse," Studies
in African Linguistics. Vol. 15, No. 1, April 1984.
Cassanelli, Lee V. The
Shaping of Somali Society: Reconstructing the History of a
Pastoral People, 1600-1900. Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Ehret, Christopher and
Mohamed Nuuh Ali. "Somali Classification," Proceedings
of the Second International Congress of Somali Studies, Linguistics
and Literature. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, 1983.
Somalia," The World and Its Peoples: Africa North
and East 2. New York: Greystone Press, 1969.
Hanley, G. Warriors
and Strangers. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1971.
Kjaerland, Gunnar. Culture
Change Among the Nomadic Borana of South Ethiopia.
California: Fuller Theological Seminary (unpublished
dissertation), June 1977.
Laitin, D. D. and S. S.
Samatar. Somalia, Nation in Search of a State.
Boulder: Westview, 1987.
Lamberti, Marcello. Map
of Somali Dialects in the Somali Democratic Republic.
Hamburg, Germany: Helmut Beske Verlag Hamburg, 1986.
Lawrence, M. New
Wind in a Dry Land (Prophet's Camel Bell). NY: A. A.
Lewis, I. M. Peoples
of the Horn of Africa. London: Int'l African
Institute, 1969 (reprinted, Haan Press, 1995).
Menkhaus, Kenneth J.
Rural Transformation and the Roots of Under Development in
Somalia's Lower Jubba Valley. Columbia: University of
South Carolina (unpublished dissertation), 1989.
Saeed, John I.
"Central Somali--A Grammatical Outline," Monographic
Journals of the Near East. October 1982.
Schlee, GŁnther. Identities
on the Move: Clanship and Pastoralism in Northern Kenya.
Nairobi, Kenya: Gideon S. Were Press, 1994.
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Thanks to an anonymous
contributor who has lived in Somalia and among Somalis for decades,
for his critical reading and helpful suggestions.
Last updated 05 January