When the ex-Italian-administered Somalia (the southern region) and the ex-British Somaliland (the northern region) attained independ­ence in 1960 and formed the Somali Republic, new economic opportunities became available because of environmental differences between the two regions. Farming was prevalent in the south since it had the only permanent water sources (the Juba and Shabelle rivers). Traders would take farm produce such as mangoes, bananas, sesame-oil, peas, grapefruit and water melons to the north. The building of a tarmac road connecting the two regions in 1973 facilitated this trade in perishables.

Although no studies were made of this internal trade, it is known that the majority of traders were women. They chartered trucks and, setting off from the north with the goods they planned to sell in the south, would buy fruit from farms in the south through middlemen. They then travelled back to Somaliland to sell the fruit there, or in some cases they would go further on to Djibouti. A former fruit trader I interviewed describes it thus:

Most of the fruit traders worked in partnerships of two to three women. Because of the long route from the north to the south, women traders worked in shifts, i. e. one woman, usually with a young boy as a helper, would accompany the truck during each trip. A woman partner and I used to take fruit to Djibouti. We took mostly mangoes, grapefruit and watermelons. It took us five to six days from the farms to reach our destination. At one time the road from Jilib [a farming town in southern Somalia] was rough and when it rained the trucks stuck in the mud. The fruit would then go bad; it was a matter of luck. At other times our truckload would come in when there was a shortage of fruit and we would get a lot of profit. (Author’s research)

Other commodities such as leather shoes were taken from the south to the north. Unlike the north, where only a few traditional shoemakers existed, catering mainly for the nomadic populations, in the south there were a number of small shoe industries. Moreover, some animal products such as ghee were much cheaper in the south. Like the fruit and shoe trades the ghee trade was mostly conducted by women. The traders would go deep into the villages, and through middlemen they would buy ghee which they then transported to the northern towns.

Because the seaport of Berbera in the north was close to the rich Arab states, many imported goods such as sugar and rice fetched higher prices in the south, especially during shortages. As one trader commented: ‘As soon as we found out that a certain commodity was in shortage in one locality, we would seize the opportunity to take it from where it was plentiful to where it was in demand.’

Trade in qaad (catha edulis), whose leaves are chewed as a stimulant (see page 37), became an increasingly important trade item. Originally qaad was mostly chewed in northern Somalia. However, it spread to southern Somalia soon after unification, opening up new markets for qaad trading. Since the leaves are chewed fresh, the opening up of air services between the two regions further facilitated qaad trading. It was first taken by fast-moving Jeeps and Land-Rovers from Ethiopia where it is grown, to the northern towns. From there it was transported by plane to Mogadishu and surrounding towns.

At first it was mostly men who traded in qaad. But during the early 1980s, before qaad was banned, a significant number of women were trading both within the north and between the two regions. Traders would send qaad in small marked bags by aeroplane. The traders’ agents would pick up the bags from Mogadishu airport and sell it.

Because of the increased dependence of both rural and urban populations on imported foodstuffs, some women took the opportunity to rent out storage space to wholesalers. In a famous Mogadishu market area known as Yobson, which was a trading transit and meeting place for people from the north, there were many of these rented buildings, known as bakhaaro, used for storing commodities. Many were owned by women, some of whom became wealthy and well known among northern entrepreneurs. There were similar storage buildings in the major northern towns.

With the growing number of Somali guest workers, especially northerners, in the Gulf oil-producing countries, trade flourished in the 1970s and early 1980s. It was facilitated by a semi-legal system of transferring foreign currency: a person working in Saudi Arabia or the Emirates would entrust money to a trader – usually a friend or close acquaintance from his or her own clan – to give to his relatives back home; the trader would use the money to purchase goods there; on arrival, and after selling the goods at a profit, the trader would give the original amount to the person or persons to whom it was destined. People working outside the country rarely used the banks to transfer money; instead, they used this system to send remittances. The relatives of the guest workers would get their money, and the traders would have access to hard currency with which they could buy commodities abroad.4

Many women used remittances sent by husbands or close relatives to start a trade. One such woman told me how she benefited from her trading activities:

My husband migrated to Saudi Arabia in 1976, during the dhabadheer drought [one of the most disastrous droughts of the mid 1970s]. He got a job as an unskilled labourer in a construc­tion company. He used to send me some money for our expenses every two months or so. Every time he sent me money, I would set aside some. When I saved a significant amount, I started to trade in women’s clothes, perfumes and incense. My cousin was a trader who used to travel to Saudi Arabia and she helped to buy me what I needed from there. I would pay her for transporting the goods. In 1985 my husband was deported from Saudi Arabia as he didn’t have the proper documents. By then I had a big clothes stall; we depended on the profits until we fled in 1988 after the war broke out. (Author’s research)

During the post-independence period trading by women increased. Women maintained that they exploited opportunities to upgrade their position by gaining their own income. A survey carried out in 1987 among women in Bakaraha, one of the largest open markets in Mogadishu, substantiated women’s yearning for economic inde­pendence. One said:

When my husband divorced me I didn’t have money because all the money he gave me was for our expenses. After the divorce I went to my brother and asked him for some capital to begin trading. Now, although I don’t get much profit, I can feed myself without staying in another woman’s doc [house]. I don’t think I will ever again wait for a man’s money.5

During the late 1970s and 1980s many women, either on their own initiative or through their relationship with the ruling elite, became wealthy by travelling to such countries as India, Pakistan and Italy and bringing back commodities such as medicines, clothes, and spaghetti. This trade was facilitated by the presence of Somali communities in these countries. Since most of these traders could not speak any language other than Somali they received assistance from the Somalis living there, who in return were given small payments for their assistance.

To illustrate the importance of Somali women’s involvement in trade in one of these countries, India, on a visit to Bombay I was surprised to hear wholesalers in a shopping centre addressing me in Somali when they realised where I was from. These merchants, who were apparently familiar with Somali women traders, called out names of Somali cloth (garbasaar and macawis) as I passed. I learned from the merchants that they have Somali women clients who buy clothes from them; they thought I was a trader too.

Women’s role in the economy during the war

Even before the outbreak of war in 1988 the economy was severely depressed and it was impossible for ordinary people to survive on one source of income. The value of wages halved in real terms between 1970 and 1978, and a high proportion of trained and experienced personnel sought employment in richer countries. These hard economic times caused more women than ever to take up diverse trading activities.

When war broke out in 1988 between the northern opposition Somali National Movement (SNM) and the troops of the central government headed by Siad Barre, the latter used air raids and artillery bombardment to flush out the opposition, which had captured two main towns. As a result, the majority of the population in the bombed cities, as well as a large rural population, fled to neigh­bouring Ethiopia where several refugee camps were set up.

As the people recovered from the initial shock of the disaster, women in the camps were the first to start trading with whatever money they had fled with. Some traded some of their rations to get hold of capital. Others sold their gold in Ethiopia (if they were lucky enough to escape with it) and used the money to start trading. In this way, refugee families were able to supplement their food rations with other necessities.

Soon the refugee camps became trade and exchange centres. Goods from as far as the then capital in the south would be brought to the camps and further forwarded to surrounding Ethiopian and Somali towns. Grain would be bought from families in the camps and traded for pastoral products in the countryside. In the same way, goods would be taken to the soldiers and their families and anyone remaining in the deserted northern towns.

The majority of the traders were women because it was safer for women to cross enemy lines. (Africa Watch 1990) Making use of their dual identity (their clan of birth and that of their husband and children – see Chapter 7) women traders travelled far and wide to bring commodities from every corner of the country for sale.

Apart from their dual clan identity, Somali women also exploited another clan-related factor enabling them to cross enemy lines, namely that revenge killings only apply to men, since according to Somali perception no woman is worthy to be killed in revenge for the killing of a male clan member. It must be mentioned however, that trading across enemy lines was not always risk-free. As Africa Watch for example has reported, many rapes were committed by government soldiers during this period. (Ibid)

In addition to their involvement in trading activities during the war years, women served other important functions too. Women traders would also take remittances or other material assistance from the Gulf States and from families living in the capital, and pass them on to the senders’ relatives in camps or nomadic areas. In this way these women served as mobile banks.

This was especially the case during the first years of the civil war when many families from the north joined their relatives in Mogadishu (the population of which doubled) while others fled to the countryside or refugee camps in Ethiopia. Until the war spread to the south, financial assistance from abroad was sent to and from these family members through women traders. The women traders made use of the cash sent through them. As it was less safe for them to carry cash long distances through the territories of different clans, they used it to purchase goods, repaying the beneficiaries from the sale.

During the war remittances from abroad – i. e. from the Arab states, Europe and North America (where a large number of Somalis fled to) – were a significant way for many traders. Some got income from relatives living in neighbouring Ethiopia or Djibouti, while others could get their commodities on credit, which is an important way of making profit without having cash.