A note on Somali poetry
We have included a number of poems composed by Somali women (and translated from Somali) to illustrate certain points of concern to the authors. Where the poets and translators are known, we have given their names.
In a society without a written common language until 1972 oral poetry has a special place in Somali life. The eminent Somali language scholar, the late Professor B. W. Andrezejewski noted in his introduction to An Anthology of Somali Poetry:
When Sir Richard Burton visited Somalia in 1854 he found that a most striking characteristic of its inhabitants was their love of poetry… so that the phrase ‘a nation of poets’ became current among people acquainted with the Horn of Africa.1
The ‘Somali devotion to poetry’ is more than an appreciation of an art form described by Andrezejewski as ‘reminiscent of Classical Greek’ (Andrezejewski 1993):
Before the Second World War oral poetry was used in inter-clan and national politics as a weapon of propaganda and to bring peace where there was conflict; it was used in forging new alliances and reviving old ones; it was used to praise or criticise friends and opponents. Poetry also provided entertainment. By custom, opinions expressed in verse could be much sharper in tone than anything said in ordinary language.2
The Somali dictator Siad Barre acknowledged the potency of oral poetry early in his reign when he tried and failed to stamp out antigovernment poetry by imprisoning poets such as Hadraawi and Abdi Aden Gays. Women in this book (see Chapter 6 for example) refer to the way certain poems helped end outbreaks of violence during the civil war. Women have used verse to build support for women’s empowerment and human rights (see Chapter 9).
Scansion, alliteration, imagery and message are all qualities by which a poem is judged in Somalia. Whilst there are no cultural restrictions on who can be a poet, they have tended to be spokespersons for their group. There are, however, poetic forms for women and poetic forms for men. The buraanbur, examples of which are included in this book, is the highest poetic form in women’s literature and has sub-categories which include the hobeeyo (lullaby), the hoyal (work songs) and the sitaat (religious songs). The Somali scholars, Dahabo Farah Hassan, Amina Adan and Amina Warsame, point out that ‘Gabay, the highest of all poetic forms, is considered male territory and women are discouraged to participate in its composition’.3
Andrezejewski (1993) noted in An Anthology of Somali Poetry that ‘although there have been many women poets, their poetry seldom reached the public forum; in the traditional Somali society it would have been recited within a limited circle of family and friends’. Hassan et al go further:
… you will never hear of a great woman poet in Somali history, while there have been a great many celebrated male poets, whose poems have been documented and memorised by a large number of people. . This, of course, does not mean there were no women poets; but the reality is that nobody, neither foreigners nor the Somalis themselves, bothered to view women’s literature and the themes they talked about as important enough to be recorded. Even the women themselves did not see their importance because they had internalised the idea that their culture was of less significance than men’s. (Hassan et al 1995)
1. B. W. & Sheila Andrezejewski (1993) An Anthology of Somali Poetry (Indiana: Indiana University Press).
2. Cited in Faraax Cawl (1982) Ignorance is the Enemy of Love (London: Zed Press).
3. Dahabo Farah Hassan et al (1995) ‘Somalia: Poetry as Resistance Against Colonialism and Patriarchy’, in Saskia Wieringa (ed.) Subversive Women: Historical Experiences of Gender and Resistance (London: Zed Books).