Background

  • The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 stimulated European expansion into the region. By the end of the century, Somali people were living under the rule of four foreign powers: the British, the Italians, the French, and the Ethiopians.
  • The impact of colonialism on Somalia’s economy was limited. To the colonial powers, Somalia’s value was more strategic than economic.
  • Italian Somalia and the British protectorate of Somalia merged to form the Somali Republic on July 1, 1960.
  • For the next nine years, citizens of the new republic enjoyed high political participation.
  • By the late 1960s, the government was perceived as inefficient and corrupt.
  • In October 1969, one of the president’s bodyguards, motivated by clan animosity, assassinated the president. A few days later, while politicians were busy with matters of succession, the army under Major General Mohammed Siyaad Barre, took over.
  • Shortly after taking over, Siyaad Barre abolished the National Assembly, suspended the constitution, prohibited any form of political association, and put some prominent politicians and members of the previous government into custody.
  • Due to internal and international pressures, On January 27, 1991 Siyaad Barre’s regime collapsed. Siyaad Barre fled Mogadishu and after twice failing to regain power, he left the country in early 1992.
  • Different factions within Somalia began fighting for power, and civil war erupted. Consequently, Somalia lost most of its farming and commercial communities.
  • Efforts by the United States and the United Nations to bring humanitarian aid and to recover agricultural growth have helped the situation in Somalia, and hostilities have decreased.
  • The exception is Mogadishu, where the warlord General Mohammed Farah Aideed continues to wage a guerrilla campaign against the United Nations.
  • It is believed that about 400,000 people died of famine or disease or were killed in the war, and nearly 45% of the population was displaced inside Somalia or fled to neighboring countries, to the Middle East, or to the West.

Culture and Society

  • Somalis belong to clans and sub-clans. These hierarchical descent groups, each said to originate with a single male ancestor, are a central fact of Somali life.
  • Clans combine forces for protection, access to water and good land, and political power. The Somali clan organization is an unstable system, characterized by changing alliances and temporary coalitions.
  • The society of the pastoral Somalis is fundamentally democratic. Traditionally, decisions are made by councils of men. These councils are egalitarian, sometimes to the point of anarchy, although age, lineage seniority, and wealth can have influence.
  • Somalis typically live in nuclear families, although older parents may move in with one of their children. Households are usually monogamous; in polygamous households (one fifth of all families), wives usually have their own residences and are responsible for different economic activities.
  • Somali culture is male centered, at least in public, although women play important economic roles in both farming and herding families and in business in the cities. In recent years, war, drought, and male migration have dramatically increased the number of female-headed households.
  • As the result of efforts by the socialist regime to improve opportunities for women, Somali women have more freedom to become educated, to work, and to travel than do most other Muslim women.
  • It is said that female circumcision and infibulation, performed on 98% of Somali girls between the ages of 8 and 10, represent an effort to control women’s sexuality, since the practice is not required by Islam.
  • Somalis speak Somali. Many people also speak Arabic, and educated Somalis usually speak either English or Italian as well. Swahili may also be spoken in coastal areas near Kenya.
  • Many Somali values are similar to American ones. Somalis believe strongly in independence, democracy, egalitarianism, and individualism. Like Americans, Somalis value generosity.
  • Islam is the principal faith and is vitally important to the Somali sense of national identity.
  • In Somalia, location and livelihood influence diet, but on the whole, the Somali diet is low in caloric intake and high in protein consumption.
  • Somalis do not have surnames in the Western sense. To identify a Somali, three names must be used: a given name followed by the father’s given name and the grandfather’s.

Adjusting to Life in America

  • Although Somalis value generosity, the do not express their appreciation verbally.
  • Somali justice is based on the notion of “an eye for an eye.” Somalis are a proud people—excessively so, some would say—and their boasting can stretch the truth more than a little.
  • Saving face is very important to them, so indirectness and humor are often used in conversation.
  • As Muslims, Somalis are forbidden to eat pork or lard or to drink alcohol. All meat must be slaughtered in a special way so that it is xalaalclean and pure. In the United States, kosher foods meet Muslim dietary requirements.