Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

The Horn of Africa – Somali


The land of the Somalis consists of arid plains and plateaus, barren rugged mountains, and two main rivers under a harsh, hot and dry climate. The Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden, Ethiopia, and Kenya bound this area – the Horn of Africa. Archeological evidence indicates that the Somali people have occupied this region since before 100 C.E.

But the Somalis have not been alone. The present-day state is said to be “largely a creation of European colonialism,” tempting others largely for its strategic and trade route importance. In the early centuries the region was ruled by Omanis, Zanzibaris, Yemenis, and Ottoman Turks before being regionally colonized by the British in the northwest, the Italians in the south, the Ethiopians in the west, and the Kenyans in the southwest. The segmented colonial control existed until Somali independence in 1960.

Civil war, the breakdown of health care services, drought, widespread malnutrition and famine, and the plight of refugees have plagued the Somalis since independence. After the fall of the regime of Mohammad Siad Barre in 1991, anarchy and civil war have added to the harsh realities of Somali daily life.

Officially Islamic and predominantly Sunni Muslim, the Somalis’ ethnic groups consist of four pastoral nomadic clans: Dir, Daarood, Isaaq, and Hawiye and two agricultural or “cultivators” clans: Digil and Rahanwayn who dwell between the Shabeelle and Jubba Rivers. English and Italian are spoken by less than 10 percent of the population; the rest speak Somali in one of several dialects: Common Somali, Central Somali, and Coastal Somali.

While 95 percent of the population are Somalis, their hierarchical clans nonetheless segment them. Membership in these clans shape social status, individual obligations, and rights, while Islam permeates every aspect of daily life.

Traditionally Islamic, Somalis are polygamous and often marry four wives to produce as many children as possible. Population provides a workforce and fighting strength as well as political clout. The harsh lifestyle and the harsher climate take lives as well. Women are mostly involved with the care of the sheep and goats while the men concern them-selves with the camels. The quality and quantity of camels confers prestige and wealth on the owners. Despite the importance of women’s chastity, few are veiled and it is said that Somali women do not shrink from either assuming responsibility or expressing their opinions.

The Somalis’ daily life and all festivities and saints’ days emerge from and revolve around their religion of Islam. The wadads, the religious leaders, dispense – for a fee – blessings, advice, and magic potions and mediate in criminal proceedings and feuds. They also provide all religious services from birth to death. Pilgrimages, belief in the special powers of saints, charms, and amulets are all deeply interwoven in Somali daily life.

Frequently, the Somali pragmatism emerges from the religious mysticism and unabashedly accepts modern medicine, while at the same time promulgating traditions for ensuring the virginity of their women. Somalis recognized mosquitoes as the carriers of malaria before this was discovered by western science.

As with many nomadic peoples, the cultural literacy of Somalis is to be found in their oral tradition of reciting stories and poems, and in their encyclopedic knowledge of sayings and history. As might be suspected, Somalis enjoy talking!

Somali foods are based on dairy products, sheep, goats, and grains such as rice, sorghum, barley, and maize. Some vegetables such as varieties of squashes, sweet potatoes, and varieties of beans round out the meals. Groundnuts and sesame seeds, bananas and sugarcane find a place as well, when available.

A cautious suspicion greets strangers and newcomers, even amongst their own people. But Somali hospitality is legendary with the finest they have to offer being proudly proffered to a guest. Differences in temperament are evident between the nomads and the cultivators with the latter being less aggressive and less suspicious than the former. However, the entire nation of Somalis unite in the celebration of Ramadan, as do Muslims the world over.

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