The political functions of marriage
In northern Somalia the clan system involves relationships that Somali nomads utilise to create both war and peace. Marriage creates important ties between lineages. However, neighbourhood may be given greater importance than lineage. A Somali saying goes: ood kaa dheeri kuma dhaxan tirto (‘a fence far away from you does not protect you from cold’) meaning if a clan or family is far away, they cannot offer help in time of need.
Importance is also attached to relations with the mother’s family (reer abti), and kinfolk, ie people who are not directly related to each other but are linked to each other via a third family (xigto), distant relatives (qaraabo qansax), and in-laws (xidid), all relationships created by marriage. For example, a mother’s family regards their girl’s offspring as very important, and treats them with the utmost respect. In-laws are usually valued highly, especially in cases where the husband treats his wife with respect and where there is harmony between them. In such cases the two families consider themselves to be especially close. These relations may prove more important than relations with other lineage members.
Somali pastoralists call on these ties in various circumstances. For example, when a trader is on long-distance journey through other clans’ territories, relationships by marriage can provide safe passage. People traveling through territory belonging to another lineage will often select a highly respected name among the family whose territory they are crossing. Announcing the name of this protector easily deters any threat. Misdeeds encountered within the territory of that group will be avenged or redressed by the person whose name is quoted as protector. Travellers must have a strong claim on the person they trust with their safety (magan-gelyo), who will probably be a kinsman. For example, if a woman marries into another clan, her relatives can use her husband’s name to travel through his family’s area, or to seek assistance from members of her family in time of need. (See Amina Sayid and Halimo Elmi’s testimonies, pages 59-66 and pages 127-37).
Family ties are also called on in other cases. For assistance when one is needy, for example when drought kills most of the family livestock, one can call on relatives for support and they are obliged to help. Kinsmen can be used as a ‘bridge’ in seeking the hand in marriage of women who otherwise would be unattainable. The assistance of relatives can be sought in redressing grievances committed in war, or in putting a stop to the looting of stock (when tribal cattle brands – sumad – are recognised by relatives). Another example of the importance of wider kinship links is that if a young man wanting to marry cannot acquire enough livestock by himself, he is given a long rope (xadhig siin) with which to collect livestock from kin. All his kin are expected to contribute.
These examples show that marriage often forms the sole basis for interaction between groups. The more marriages there are between two groups, the stronger the relationship between them. This enables land and other common resources to be shared between related groups. However, the existence of such relationships can become a constraint in times of shortages of resources such as water and pasture, and potentially create conflict between the groups concerned.