The Somalis: Their History & Culture published by the Refugee Service Center, Center for Applied Linguistics, 1118 22nd St. NW Washington DC 20037 (202) 429-9292

The first Somalis came to the U.S.A. in the 1920’s and settled in the NY area. A group of students came after Somalia gained independence in 1960 and a third group came as refugees in mid 1980. There are large concentrations in Washington, Boston, LA, San Diego, Atlanta and Detroit. The first group being admitted as refugees are primarily Benadir (also spelled Benaadir and Banadir). Their name means harbor or port.

Clans: To understand the Somalians, it is necessary to understand the clans system since Somalians are divided into clans. The primary division is between the Samaale and the Sab.  Samaale are the majority and consist of four main clan families—the Dir, Isaaaq, Hawiye and Daarood—each of which is divided into sub-clans. They are primarily nomadic and live in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.  Sab consists of Digil and Raxanweyn clans . They live in the south where they mix farming and herding and are more sedentary than the Samale.
The Benadir and the Barwyan clans are between these two major clans. They live in the lower Shelbelle and Mogidishu. They view themselves as the founders of Somalia. The Benadir today are a light-skinned minority whose economic livelihood, unlike most of Somalia’s people, is based on commerce and not agriculture. They were an unarmed, prosperous and neutral minority in the civil war and as a result suffered greatly. Many were skilled tailors, weaver, bankers, businessmen or shopkeepers. They are extremely entrepreneurial, independent and family oriented. They may not relate well with the Somalis who arrived in the United States earlier since they were not Benadir. In fact, they may view Somali people and their clans as the perpetrators of the lawlessness and destruction which caused them to lose everything and flee for their lives.

General Information: Before the civil war, the population of Somalia was 7.7 million. 400,000 people died during the war from famine and disease while 45% were displaced. In addition to the Benadir, there are Bantu and Arab minorities. Most of the population is ethnically Somali and speak dialects of Somali. The Benadir speak a dialect of Somali among themselves but this was not established as a written language until 1972. Three million Somalis live in Kenya and Ethiopia. Somalia is hot and dry and 80% of the population is pastoral.

History: Britain, Italy and France were colonial powers. Somalia gained independence in 1960. At that time, the U. S. was giving aid to Ethiopia so Somalia aligned with the USSR and China. By the late 1960s, the Somalian govt. was perceived as inefficient and corrupt. The president was assassinated in 1969 and the army under Barre took over. This regime was closely allied with the USSR and initiated a program of scientific socialism and Islam. However, Islamic scholars grew unhappy with the socialist regime. This led to the military abolishing the national assembly, crushing the Islamic opposition and even executing some Islamic leaders while becoming more and more allied with the Soviets. The USA completely suspended aid in early 1970. Emperor Haile Selassie fell in 1974, and in 1977 Somalia invaded Ethiopia to support the Western Somali Liberation Front, a Somali guerrilla organization based in Ethiopia that sought to free the Ogaen and unite it with Somalia. The Soviets supported Ethiopia with massive military assistance and cut off aid to Somalia. This led to Barre expelling the Soviets from Somalia in November of 1977. As a result, Ethiopia won back all the territory it had lost to Somalia by the spring of 1978. Barre then turned to the West for support. However, in the last years of his rule, there was less and less aid, as the regime became more and more repressive.

Barre had always based his power on broad clan support, but now he relied on a limited number of clans considered loyal. Nepotism and inefficiency resulted. Some members of the Majerteen clan opposed him and he singled them out. Isaaq and Hawiiye clans also resisted. By mid 1980, govt. and opposition were clan-based and polarized into clan groups. In 1988 Isaaq clan Somali Nat’l Movement (SNM) and the govt. fought in the north. This started an exodus of refugees to Ethiopia. By the end of Dec. 1990 the conflict spread to the capital, Mogadishu. In Jan. 1991 the Barre regime collapsed and he fled to Gedo. After two failed attempts to regain power, he left the country in early 1992.

Then the civil war began as clans competed for power and settled old scores. One faction of USC (Hawiey clan) formed a govt. without checking with other factions, Somali National Movement held a conference that declared the North independent and known as the Somaliland Republic. USC split into two factions in the south—one led by President Ali Mahdi Mohammed, the other by USC military wing leader, General Mohammed Farah Aideed. The northeast largely maintained local peace and began local government.

Mogadishu, where the merchant and seafaring Benadir lived, and much of southern and central Somalia slipped into anarchy. Over the course of the year, several hundred thousand Somalis died from violence, disease, famine. In August 1992, 1/4 of the population was in danger of starvation. By early 1993, 1/2 of all Somali children under five had died. Somalia lost most of its commercial and seafaring (Benadir) communities. Armed bandits, who looted warehouses and food shipments, greatly aggravated problems of food distribution. These bandits were under the authority of local warlords who filled the power vacuum created by the government’s collapse. In addition to stealing food aid, they also looted public property left by the previous government, and disrupted commercial activities. In August of l1992, the USA began Operation Provide Relief, airlifting emergency supplies into Somalia from Kenya. In December 1992, the USA led Operation Restore Hope, which reduced the level of violence and facilitated the delivery of humanitarian assistance. On May l, 1993, the United Nations took over command from the USA. This has stabilized the south with the exception of Mogadishu where the warlord General Mohammed Farah Aideed continues to wage a guerrilla campaign against the United Nations. Most warlords, including Aideed, feel they will lose power in a society in which the advantage of military force is eliminated.

Society is fundamentally democratic. Councils of men, which are egalitarian in nature, make decisions. Diya paying group—diay is compensation paid for killing or inuring another person. The family is the ultimate source of personal security and identity. Somalis typically live in nuclear families and are usually monogamous, with polygamous (1/5) marriages arranged. Society is male centered while women play important economic roles as long as the male is still seen as being in charge. Somali women have more freedom to become educated to work and to travel than do most other Muslim women. Somalis speak Somali. Many speak Arabic as well as Swahili. Somali is a member of the Cushitic language family which is part of the Afro-Asiatic stock There are two major dialects, standard and Digil Raxanweyn dialects which are mutually understandable. As mentioned above, there was no written form until 1972 when there was a major literacy campaign. In 1990 literacy was 24%.

The traditional education was in Koranic schools, then there was British and Italian schools. Somalis believe strongly in independence, democracy, egalitarianism, and individualism. Well known for their generosity, they generally do not express their appreciation verbally. They respect strength and often challenge others to test their limits—boasting and saving face is very important, indirectness and humor are often used in conversation. Able to laugh at themselves, they are opinionated but willing to reconsider their views if they are presented with adequate evidence. They have the ability to adjust. They deeply value family while loyalty is an important value and can extend beyond family and clan. They value friendships—once a Somali becomes a friend he is usually one for life. Most are Sunni Muslim with a strong tradition of tariqa, which is mystical Islam. However Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise which opposes tariqa and secular government and advocates the introduction of sharia law and strict Islamic dress for women. Somalis value the ability to use words, which is expressed in the poetry and humor. Their diet is low in calories, high in protein and follows Islamic restrictions against alcohol and pork. Their attire is diverse, guntiino similar to Indian sari, single girls braid their hair and wear no makeup or perfume. Henna is popular, with paintings that cover the foot up to the ankle or the hand up to the wrist for marriage or birth. Festivities generally are religious Id al Fitir, Id Al Aha, festival of fire. Somalis do not have surnames rather they have a given name followed by the father’s given name and the grandfather’s. Women, therefore, do not change their names at marriage. Somalis have one pool for all three names. As a result, many names are similar. Perhaps for this reason, nearly all men and some women are identified by a public name, naanay—overt nickname and covert nickname, used to talk about a person but rarely used to address that person. First-born children are commonly named Faduma or Mohammed and male twins are commonly named Hassan and Hussein.

Somali language uses all but three letters p, v, and z of the English alphabet. Of the 33 sounds, 15 are very much like their English counterparts. Somalis have problems with c, q, and r.

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There is a guidebook for Refugees from Center for Applied Linguistics by Ku Os Dally Mareykana Buugga tusmadda Qaxootiga (Welcome to the United States. 1118 22nd St. NW Washington Dc 20037 English and other languages available.