Located along the eastern coast of Central Africa, Somalia, despite its limited resources has always been a hotbed of military conflict. During the Cold War, Somalia was a pawn in the political partition of the world. At one point, the country was allies with the Soviet Union. This friendship died in the late 1970s as the Soviet Union began to support Ethiopian revolutionaries who had deposed Emperor Haile Selassie. Following a Somali invasion of Ethiopia by Mohamed Siad Barre, the Somali leader who dreamed of a “Greater Somalia,” the Soviet Union withdrew its military and financial support in Somalia. Vast internal repression coupled with the end of the Cold War, signaled a change in Somali politics as the country reverted back to Tribalism. The two most powerful clans, the Habr Gedir and the Abgal, ousted Barre. This rising tension between clans erupted into a full scale Civil War as the country was ravaged by tribal conflict and famine. Military rule controlled the country hampering the relief efforts of international humanitarian organizations.
Somalis have had a long history of immigration into other countries ever since the early eighteen hundreds. Entrance into the United States first began in the 1920’s when Somalis began settling in New York. These immigrants, gaining employment by becoming sailors or steel workers, mainly came from Northern Somalia. After becoming U.S. citizens, many aided and supported Somali leaders joining the United Nations and gaining independence in 1960.
Following the independence movement Somali students began immigrating into the U.S. funded by relatives or scholarships offered by the United States or the UN promoting advanced education. Once they completed their schooling, many returned to Somalia in order to help improve their native country. Beginning in the 1980’s, several refugees from Somalia were allowed to enter the United States, a figure that grew substantially after civil war broke out in 1990. Refugees arriving into the U.S. have heavily populated New York, Washington, D.C., Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Diego.
The national language of Somalia is Somali. Other spoken languages include: Arabic, English, Italian (spoken by educated Somalis), and Swahili. Somali is a member of the lowland Eastern Cushitic languages spoken by people in Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Kenya. Depending on the spoken region, Somali has two dialects. The first dialect is basic Somali, spoken by most Somalis. The second dialect is Digil/Raxanweyn, spoken by southern Somalis, which maintains similar characteristics to the basic dialect, but is distinct. Along with dialect interpretations, Somali has integrated many Arabic and Qahtani words into the language.
The written language of Somali was newly created in 1972 when Somali script became based on the Roman alphabet. Until this time, only the well educated, government officials had been able to use a written form of the language. Since the creation of the written word, the Somali government has stressed the importance of literacy for Somali citizens.
Somali education increased after the written alphabet was created in 1970. Before this development, Somali children were taught by an Islamic curriculum rooted in the early colonial periods (learning theology, Arabic, and Islamic practices), and then influenced by western style education providing skill training in agriculture, aviation, administration, and technical jobs. Although education reflected the advancing Somali culture in the 1970’s, most of the Somali citizens had not completed secondary schooling. Still, many Somalis attend technical or trade school specializing in their intended, future job.
The predominant religion of Somalis is Sunni Muslims with Islam being the main foundation of the Somali culture. In accordance with Islamic beliefs, Somalis accept that if they do not follow the correct path in life, God will punish them with social disorder. Furthermore, the only way to amend their relationship with God is to repent for their errors and encourage others to follow the Islamic philosophy.
In the Somali culture, family and tradition are great influences on an individual’s life. Typically the family is seen as “the ultimate source of personal security and identity”, which is as Putnam & Noor (1993) suggest is why “What is your lineage?” is such a common question for Somalis. The importance of genealogy and respecting ancestral descent is instilled in Somali children. Traditional families of Somalia: live in nuclear families, have prearranged marriages, and wives reside in separate quarters from their husband. Men tend to be the center of the Somali culture, being in charge of household affairs, while the women are responsible for household chores, helping in farming or businesses, and child rearing.
Putnam, D., & Noor, M. (1993). The Somalis: Their History and Culture. Washington, D.C. The Refugee Center.
Peterson, S. (2001). Me Against My Brother: at War in Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda. New York, New York: Routledge.
A useful beginning resource for information about Somalia, its language, history, and culture.
Official Somli Government website.
Most useful for its link to books about Somalia.
Official site of United Nations Agncies in Somalia.
Barnes, Virginia Lee and Boddy, Janice (Contributor) Aman : The Story of a Somali Girl As Told to Virginia Lee Barnes and Janice Boddy.
Hassan, Halima Abdillahi. Somalia: Information for teachers and other professionals working with Somali refugee children.
Hussein, Ikram (Editor). Teenage Refugees from Somalia Speak Out (In Their Own Voices).