Somalia is often misrepresented as a country with a homogeneous population, culture and language. Its total population in 2001 was estimated to be 6.3 million. (UNDP 2001) The vast majority are ethnic Somalis (of Hamitic origin) which comprise two distinct groups associated with one of two livelihood systems: nomadic pas – toralists, who are the majority, and agro-pastoralists.12 In addition, there are also significant populations of non-ethnic Somalis in the southern part of the country.

Much of Somalia is semi-desert with few seasonal water sources and therefore suitable only for nomadic pastoralism – practised by about 59 per cent of the population. (UNDP 2001) Agriculture is confined to the areas of the fertile Shabelle and Juba river valleys (see map), and the valleys of the northern escarpments. The clan basis of the social organisation of pastoral society is explained in detail in Chapter 7, ‘Women, clan identity and peace-building’.

Somalis from the clan lineages of the Darod, Isaq, Hawiye and Dir are by tradition nomadic-pastoralists and the pastoral culture has become the dominant political culture in Somalia. Their language, af-Somali, was made the official and unifying language of Somalia after independence. They include the ‘outcast’ groups such as the Tumal, Midgan, Eyle, Yahar and Yibr. Historically politically margin­alised, Somalis from the clan lineages of the Digil and Mirifle clans, known collectively as the Rahanweyne, are traditionally agro-pas – toralists. Their language, mai or af-maimai, comes from the same Cushitic root as af-Somali but the two languages are not mutually intelligible.

There has been tragedy and loss for all groups in the civil war but some groups have suffered more than others. The Rahanweyne agro – pastoralists, inhabitants of the fertile lands between the Juba and Shabelle rivers which were the epicentre of the war and the 1992 famine, experienced some of the worst of the war’s horror, as Habiba Osman’s testimony describes.

Somalia’s non-ethnic Somali populations, sometimes termed ‘minority groups’, include the riverine semi-subsistence farming communities of the Juba and Shabelle valleys – also referred to as the people of the Gosha (meaning ‘dense forest’). These people do not constitute a single ethnic or political group but since colonial times have been classified as a group by outsiders. The majority are descended from slaves brought to Somalia from East Africa. Considered inferior to ethnic Somalis by the colonial and post-inde­pendence powers alike, their history has been one of subjugation. Besteman sums up the stigma attached to the people of the Gosha who ‘speak Somali, practice Islam, share Somali cultural values, are legally Somali citizens and most consider themselves members of Somali clans13 … however, many look different, and so are considered different by Somalis’. (Besteman, 1995) The people of the Gosha inhabit an area of fertile arable land in a country that is predomi­nantly semi-desert; in so far as the civil was has been a war over land and wealth, the Gosha peoples have been one of the main victims.14

The other major non-ethnic Somali people are the Benadari – including Hamari, Barawanese and Bajuni. These groups populate the urban coastal settlements, historically important trading centres linking Somalia with the Gulf and Asia as well East African ports to the south. Rich in cultural heritage, and claiming descent from Arab, Persian, Pakistani, Portuguese and Somali ancestors who came as early migrant settlers to the Somali coastline,15 these groups are important artisans and traders. The skills they are renowned for include fishing,16 leatherwork and weaving. The Barawans of Brava have their own language, Jimini, which is related to Swahili, the language spoken by the Bajuni fishing community. They tradition­ally practice endogamous marriage, that is marrying within the extended family; this is in contrast to the exogamous marriage practice of pastoral groups. Amina Sayid’s testimony includes more detail on the culture of the Barawanese.

Being outside of the Somali clan system, these unarmed groups had no protection during the war and were killed in great numbers by militias and looters. One analyst has concluded that ‘the civil war may represent the last stage of the[ir] extermination’.17

With its predominantly rural population, more than 70 per cent, Somalia is often portrayed as a country of nomads; however, by the 1980s Somalia had one of the fastest growing urban populations in Africa (UNDP 2001) and a growing urban and educated middle class. Migration to urban areas, which is once again on the increase, did reverse during the war as people moved back to their clan territories to find safety from the conflict. The war has thus led to a redistribu­tion of Somalia’s educated, urban elite. Formerly concentrated in the cities of Mogadishu and Hargeisa where they were employed as civil servants, commercial and private sector workers, and public sector employees, they are now scattered throughout the country in the small regional towns and villages where they had rural clan relatives.18

These regional settlements, such as Bossaso in the north east and Beletweyne in the west, have experienced rapid population growth over the past decade. The population of Bossaso for example is estimated to have increased from 10,000 to 60,000 since 1991.

(UNDP 2001) Lacking the infrastructure and services to cope with such influxes, these new urban magnets also lack ready employment opportunities. As discussed in Part 2, a high proportion of male urban dwellers are unemployed and depend on income from relatives, usually female, who in turn depend on informal employment, petty trading and remittances from relatives in the diaspora.

Several chapters in this book refer to the significance of the remittance economy. This has grown in importance during the war as the diaspora has expanded. Studies indicate that the main bene­ficiaries are urban households with educated and skilled members in the diaspora. (UNDP 2002)