Rhoda M. Ibrahim

After a journey so long and tiring indeed,

Like a fully loaded camel, tired as you are under the load,

You at last set a camp,

beside a hamlet with no blood ties to you,

Your livestock will need,

to be always kept in sight,

Your beast of burden will need to be tied to their tethers.

The newly born baby sheep have to be taken out to graze.

The house will always need to be tidy and in shape.

Your children will always need your comforting care and love.

Your husband will call for your service in different ways.

And may at times scold you for services poorly done.

And may at times beat you for no apparent reason.

So stop whimpering and perform as best you possibly can The responsibilities and the duties set out for you to do.1


Women play a vital role in the Somali pastoral economy. On top of women’s universal domestic tasks – child-care, food preparation and household chores – they also have important roles in animal husbandry, the mainstay of the national economy. They employ con­siderable technical skill and knowledge in the construction and maintenance of the nomadic home (aqal – which they unpack and repack each time the family moves on), as well as in crafting utensils and containers and in administering natural medicines to livestock. Recurrent drought has obliged both women and men to adapt their economic roles. The conflict which has affected Somali society since 1988 has broken up families and required many women to take sole responsibility for their families.

This paper sets out to record the typical roles and lifestyles of girls and women in the pre-war pastoral economy of north western Somalia (now Somaliland), as I experienced it during prolonged visits to relatives. This personal experience is supplemented by research I carried out in 1992 and by more than 18 years’ experience as a development worker in rural Somalia and Somaliland. I also refer to research carried out since the war by Vetaid and the Pastoral and Environmental Network for the Horn of Africa (PENHA).

My ethnographic description of the nomadic pastoral family shows how the family’s division of labour, herd management, mobility, marriage patterns and lifestyle adaptability are all essential factors for everyday survival in an extremely difficult environment. I describe a girl’s rite de passage into womanhood and her preparation for marriage. I describe some of the coping mechanisms pastoral families may resort to in times of severe drought, including the long-term or even permanent separation of the male head of the family from his wife or wives and children. I then try to trace some of the known impacts of the war and collapse of state structures on the pastoral way of life and on pastoral women in particular. These include loss of adult males through combat and migration to urban centres and the resulting changes in gender relations at the level of household decision-making and livelihood as well as household mobility. Among the questions my paper asks are, are these changes in gender relations going to be long-term and are they actually empowering for women? And what does the widespread male urban migration mean for the marital prospects of pastoral girls and the future of Somalia’s nomadic pastoral economy?

What I describe here is representative of the pastoral way of life throughout Somalia although there will be some regional variations.