Khadar Ayderus Ahmed, a Finnish-Somali film director, recently stated that for far too long, ‘Somali people have been presented to the world as pirates, as radicals, as warlords, and all of those one-dimensional stereotypical images you can think of.’ This myopic understanding of Somalia and its people is not only offensive, but it also does a disservice to its rich and storied culture and history. This country, located in the Horn of Africa, was heralded for centuries as a ‘Nation of Poets.’
In Western civilisation, perceptions of dark and brooding figures pondering the universe’s unanswered questions and the complexities of the human experience have inevitably coloured our perceptions of poets and poetry. Somalia’s poetic tradition, though still a reflection of the world, is strikingly different to that of the West. The Somali scholar, Said Sheikh Samatar, notes that while poetry in the West is ‘increasingly relegated to a marginal place in society’ and often the privilege of those who do not have to secure a more stable form of income, Somali verse, by contrast, is ‘central to Somali life.’
Richard Burton, the English explorer who travelled through Somalia throughout the 1950s, remarked that the country was full of ‘poets, poetasters, poetitoes, [and] poetaccios.’ Indeed, even the most mundane of human experiences is often retold with remarkable panache and cadence.
Scholars still debate the origins of Somalia’s rich oral tradition. One explanation favoured by some scholars is that Somalia has historically been a nomadic country. Much of the Somali population is composed of pastoralists who rear livestock. Year after year, pastoral nomads move to other parts of the country or abroad in search of fresh pastures that can sustain both their families and animals. As the concept of family, particularly a reverence for elders and ancestors, is so deeply entrenched in Somali society, the best way to preserve familial history, in the face of constant movement, is by word of mouth. Creative wordplay and emphatic delivery make the ordinary more memorable, and therefore, unforgettable.
Another explanation is that Somalia has been subject to colonisation for much of its recent history. In the face of violence and displacement, Somali bards have used their skillful command of words to preserve the country’s history, culture, and traditions. The lyrical and poetic use of the country’s mother tongue created the sense that the nation’s identity was secure and unharmed.
It’s also important to remember that the Somali language itself was not written out in text form until the late 1970s. As Tamela Hultman notes, ‘poetry has been the country’s chief means of mass communication, substituting for history books, broadcasting, and newsletters.’ The long-standing absence of any formal or written version of the language means that poetry, or rather poetic expression, has inevitably crossed over into how current affairs are communicated and understood. It is no surprise that for decades, Somalis relied on the radio for news and often gathered around the device as if listening intently to a bard reciting a poem.
Although we have only touched the surface of the intricacies and complexities of Somalia’s rich poetic tradition, we encourage you to delve into this fascinating topic in more detail.
For a brief, yet more comprehensive, overview of what we have discussed, check out this video: