Somali Culture

Core Concepts

  • Generosity
  • Honour (Sharaf)
  • structure
  • Respect for elders
  • Modesty (Xishood)
  • Entrepreneurship

 

Somalia is located in the Horn of Africa, bordering Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya. The majority of the population are ethnically Somali and can trace their back to common forefathers. Somalis are distinguished by their traditional system, Somali language and Sunni Islamic beliefs.1 Daily life and culture can differ significantly across Somalia as many regions experience varying levels of poverty, governance and safety. Widespread and prolonged displacement has also contributed to diverse understandings of Somali culture. For example, many displaced people and refugees rely on abstract ideas of the Somali identity as they have few or no personal memories of their homeland. Nevertheless, there are certain values that are characteristic to Somalis, these being generosity, hospitality, , respect for the elderly and honour. Broadly, Somalis have also demonstrated a high level of adaptability and entrepreneurialism in the face of adversity.

 

The Somali Identity

The entire Somali population and land area was separated between five countries during the period – British Somaliland, Italian Somaliland, French Somaliland, Ethiopia and Kenya. The present-day Republic of Somalia was formed when British and Italian Somaliland were united as an independent state in 1960. However, significant numbers of Somalis continue to reside in the regions they have historically inhabited across the Horn of Africa which now belong to the countries of Djibouti (former French Somaliland), the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and northeastern Kenya.

 

Since independence, Somali nationalism has been largely based on the idea that Somalis across all these regions share a common language, religion, culture and , and hence are united under a single identity. For example, Somalia’s flag is an flag that has a star with five points to represent the unity of the Somali people inhabiting the five territories.2 Somalia fought a very damaging war against Ethiopia (1977-1978) in an effort to reclaim the territory of the predominantly Somali Ogaden region. The goal of uniting Somali territories has become a lower priority since the civil war (see Somali Civil War below). Nonetheless, Somalis from neighbouring countries are generally treated as citizens rather than foreigners when they visit.

 

Traditional Lifestyles, Displacement & Urbanisation

The Somali people are traditionally semi-nomadic, having lived subsistence lifestyles as agro-pastoralists or nomadic livestock herders. Somali nomads typically live in domed structures (agal) made of branches, mats and/or animal skins that can easily be taken down and moved to another area. However, many people’s mode of living has been disrupted over recent decades. The cultural lives of many Somalis have been significantly impacted by the turmoil of the past 30 years.

 

It is estimated over 2 million Somalis are internally displaced within the country, and almost a million refugees are hosted in the region.3 In addition to conflict, many pastoralists and farmers have been displaced by famine and drought and have had to give up their livelihood and lifestyle, moving to refugee camps or urban areas. In 2014, the UN Population Fund estimated that 42% of the Somali population resided in urban areas, 26% were nomadic, 23% lived rurally and 9% were internally displaced.4

 

Despite what mass displacement may suggest, many Somalis are very educated, urbanised, well-travelled and familiar with industrialised environments. The coastal cities have tended to absorb global influences from the period and international trade. While those from the interior of the country are less likely to have experienced such international exposure, many displaced people are also introduced to infrastructure and modern industrial functions during their time in refugee camps or urban areas. People who are located in the more well-established and organized refugee camps sometimes have the ability to further their education and skill set.

 

Social Structure and Clan System

One’s is a defining factor in Somali culture. Society is characterised by a large extended family system. Membership to is determined by lineage (through the father). People can trace their lineage back for generations and are generally able to determine how they are related to a person, how they should address them and pay respect to them, simply from learning their name and membership.

 

There are four major in Somalia (Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Rahaweyn) and a number of medium-to-small groups. Each can be further divided into numerous sub- that can consist of tens of thousands of people alone. Within these sub-, there are even more group divisions based on alliances of smaller extended families. The group divisions within the system are not necessarily based on geographic differences. It is common for a variety of sub- to live within the same area.5

 

The Role of Elders

Elders play a very important role in Somali society and everyday life. They are negotiators, mediators and counsellors. They can also act as representatives. Somalis generally seek advice from a community elder about an issue before any further course of action. Being an elder is more closely linked to a person’s status and authority rather than their actual age. For example, chiefs (aqal) and religious leaders are considered elders due to their authority, regardless of how old they are.

 

The power and authority elders hold has been immensely important in upholding law and order in areas of Somalia that do not have functioning governments. When an incident occurs, elders sit together and try to resolve the issue with a decision that de-escalates the situation non-violently. Indeed, in some regions where there is a strong respect for customary law, elders’ decisions reached under a tree in a rural area can carry the strength of law.

 

The observance and enforcement of elder’s’ decision-making depends on respect for their traditional authority. Nevertheless, generally all Somalis continue to have a deep respect for age and experience. Elders continue to be the first point of contact for many living overseas to work through personal problems.

 

Tribalism and Nationalism

loyalty is traditionally very strong and deep-rooted in Somalia. Many Somalis derive their sense of belonging from their ancestry and being born into a particular group – a concept known as ‘u dhashay’.6,7 Some people may feel a stronger sense of belonging to their or sub- than with the broader Somali society and nation. For example, people are likely to side with members of their own -group in any dispute with other Somalis. However, such alliances and coalitions can change at short notice depending on the context. This is summed up in the Somali proverb: “Me and my nation against the world. Me and my clan against my nation. Me and my family against the clan. Me and my brother against the family. Me against my brother.

 

The Somali people tend to unite whenever faced with the threat of foreign interference. This overarching national allegiance has been formed through repeated confrontations with outsiders and a history of resistance.8 The population suffered under and many still have bitter feelings about the era. The involvement of some international powers in Somali internal politics is also a source of resentment; foreign assistance is often seen as having political motives. Today, social attitudes are often strongly opposed to outside interference. The Somali people generally reject hierarchical authority and seek independence from controlling bodies.

 

Somali Civil War

It is important to understand the political history of Somalia as the events and hardships of the past few decades have drastically changed Somali society and shaped the living overseas. Somalia was ruled by General Mohammad Siyad Barre for 22 years from 1969 until 1991. His regime was characterised by corruption, and the progressive building of inter- tension. Barre attempted to reorder society and end tribal/ institutions by declaring the country a socialist state.9 However, many rejected the centralised state authority. There were several internal conflicts between government forces and various armed rebel groups. Civil war broke out as rebelled and Barre’s regime collapsed in 1991.

 

Many (if not most) Somalis currently living in other countries fled Somalia during or after the outbreak of the civil war. Over the years, the country’s political infrastructure completely collapsed and the political violence turned into -based violence perpetrated on and by ordinary citizens. This broke down mutual trust throughout society on a large scale.10 Killings, lootings, sexual violence and the destruction of property led to large numbers of internally displaced people within the country, and to refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. Famine and drought have also contributed to widespread poverty and displacement.

 

Political Sensitivities

Somalia’s political history may be a sensitive issue for many, particularly for those who were displaced. Every Somali family is likely to have their own personal experiences of the civil war. The role of politics is particularly complicated and controversial. When the government collapsed, became the organising units of conflict with people splitting into factions. There are varying opinions and accounts of the truth. Therefore, be cautious forming opinions on dynamics as you may be perceived as taking sides without having a full understanding of the situation. 

 

Many Somalis may consider the system to be divisive and problematic and prefer not to discuss it at all. Some argue that rivalries are exaggerated by politicians and the media to be a bigger issue than they are, and do not have as much social relevance outside of politics. People may prefer to emphasise the unity of all Somalis in an effort to promote stability. This is particularly common among Somali living overseas who generally view themselves as a single conglomerate. Many people have also intermarried between different . Ultimately, one should not allow politics to inform opinions of other people as generalised knowledge and information on are becoming less relevant to understanding the average Somali.

 

Contemporary Challenges

Somalia did not have an effective government for over 20 years after the outbreak of civil war in 1991. The first formal federal government was formed in 2012 and a president was democratically elected in 2017. While this election was tarnished by corruption, it has still been hailed as a milestone towards stability. However, Somalia continues to face challenges. The prolonged lack of a functioning national government contributed to instability in the region, allowing the civil war to evolve into a jihadist battlespace. The Islamic jihadist terrorist group Al-Shabaab controls large parts of south-central Somalia and carries out high-profile attacks in the capital and elsewhere. Famine and drought also continue to be the biggest causes of displacement throughout the country.11

 

Today, the strength of law and order in Somalia differs between regions. In 1991, the northern state of Somaliland (formerly British Somaliland) self-declared as an independent breakaway republic. This region has not been as directly affected by the war in southern Somalia. However, its current declaration of independence is not internationally recognised. Somalia also has five autonomous regions that have created their own political institutions in part to secure peace from rivalries – Puntland, Galmudug, Jubaland, South West Somalia and Hirshabelle. Unlike the secessionist region of Somaliland, these regions are not trying to gain international recognition as separate nations. Meanwhile, south-central Somalia continues to suffer the most from -based violence and Islamic insurgencies. The majority of internally displaced people reside in camps in south-central Somalia, including around one-third in the region surrounding the capital of Mogadishu.12

 

Minorities

Occupational Castes

There are some occupational caste groups in Somalia who are minority groups within their tribes, such as the Gaboye, Tumal and Yibir people. These groups are known as ‘midgaan’ and are treated as social outcasts in Somalia. They are discriminated against in all levels of society, unable to marry other Somalis and face a higher risk of violence. For these people, settlement as refugees overseas can be a very empowering experience as they are able to gain equal rights that they were previously denied.

 

Minority Ethnicities

There are also some minority groups who are not part of the Somali genealogical , but have been living in Somalia for centuries.13 These include the Somali Bantu, Bajun, Barawani and Hamari people. Little statistical information is available on minority groups in Somalia. However, it is believed that there is a higher concentration of minorities in south-central Somalia. They are interspersed throughout society and do not have the political representation and military organisation that the majority Somali have.14 The Somali Bantu are the largest minority, and tend to face more social barriers than other groups such as the Barawani and Hamari. Credible sources indicate that many internally displaced peoples in south-central Somalia are Bantu.15

  

Honour (Sharaf)

The notion of honour (sharaf) is central to Somali culture. Personal honour is deeply intertwined with family reputation in Somalia, regardless of wealth or power. Traditionally, one’s behaviour would affect the honour or reputation of the entire or community. This is still the case for some tribes in rural areas, while in urban areas it has changed to be reflective of the family alone. People’s awareness of their personal honour informs their sense of pride and integrity, and tends to guide behaviour and interactions in almost all circumstances.

 

One’s honour is linked to an individual’s personal demeanour, treatment of others, honesty and modesty (xishood) – specifically, the sexual modesty of one’s female family members. These reflect many Islamic principles. If a woman is perceived to be promiscuous, her family name is put to shame. In some conservative communities, the unproven suspicion of a woman’s infidelity can cause enough disgrace to ruin her family’s reputation.

 

However, a person’s honour is determined by more than their sexual modesty. Respectability and character are also reflected in the way people dress, the language they use, the hospitality they show their friends, the respect they give the elderly and their general demeanour. By remaining conservative, modest and respectable in all these aspects, one is thought to have proper decorum. It is important to note that the expectations and standards of behaviour are different for men and women. Generally, women are subject to higher expectations of social compliance than men. For example, it would be seen as uncivilised for girls to laugh or speak loudly in public whereas the same behaviour would be less inappropriate for men.

 

Community Interdependence

There is a very strong community focus embedded in Somali culture. People are mutually reliant on their family and community for support meeting essential needs. Dependence upon has become particularly crucial to survival since the civil war. The government’s capacity to provide basic services or respond to humanitarian or conflict-related disasters is low.16 Therefore, Somalis rely on their to provide food, protection and conflict resolution. Everything is always redistributed and shared among the community, from engagement money to compensation money. One’s community also takes responsibility for an individual’s actions. For example, if a person commits an offence, traditionally it is their group that is held responsible and must pay compensation.

 

Generosity

Generosity is a core value of Somali culture that people extend towards the broader community and public rather than limit to their immediate community or family. Somalis find dignity in being helpful, hospitable and charitable to others with everything (money, food, time, personal connections, etc.). Hence, individuals may also receive social, emotional and financial support from the broader Somali community and public when going through particular hardship. Local mosques also often play a key role in mobilising community support.

 

Some Somalis report that they feel spontaneous generosity is more common in Somalia, such as a stranger paying for someone’s food without telling them. Somalis tend not to think conservatively about the future, but rather give what they can to others at the present moment. Therefore, people can often rely on the hospitality of strangers. For instance, a person may be able to travel long distances across Somalia without comprehensive provisions as they will be taken care of by the strangers they come across on their journey.

 

Social Life

The community focus of Somalia gives the culture a strong social dimension. For example, Somali men may be able to maintain a healthy social life simply by sitting at tea shops on popular streets, watching locals and waiting to be spoken to by those passing. Meanwhile, women often make spontaneous visits to their neighbours and friends. It is common for people to meet friends without having to organise to do so. Generally, people tend to be very social, friendly and open.

 

Rather than having ‘acquaintances’, Somalis generally see everyone as their friends. Once a Somali has met somebody, they are usually prepared to open up their homes and lives to that person, and help them in times of need. It is similarly expected that the person would be willing to do so in return. This quick development of personal relationships can be very different from Western notions of privacy. Sometimes their openness to conversation can come across as quite or bold to those from the English-speaking West. For example, it is normal for a Somali to approach a stranger for a chat. Many Somalis report that they miss this aspect of their culture whilst living overseas. They often describe how strangers in Somalia are met with a very welcoming and open attitude that they do not necessarily experience in Western countries.

 

_____________________

1 Elmi, 2016
2 Central Intelligence Agency, 2018 
3 World Vision, 2018
4 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017
5 Lewis, 2004 
6 Barnes, 2006 
7 Bradbury & Healy, 2010
8 UNHCR, 2016
9 Proquest, 2017
10 UNHCR, 2016
11 Asylum Research Consultancy, 2018
12 Asylum Research Consultancy, 2018
13 Proquest, 2017; UNHCR, 2016
14 Minority Rights Group International, 2019
15 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017
16 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017

Want this profile as a PDF?

Get a downloadable, printable version that you can read later.

BUY NOW

A unified, searchable interface answering your questions on the world’s cultures and religions

Sign up for free