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By Prof. Said S. Samatar


This piece appeared in Research in African Literatures exactly three decades ago. Since then mighty changes have occurred in Somalia in particular, and in the world at large generally.  Alas, Abdisalaam Haaji Aadan, the witty burlesquer in the piece, is dead, so is the Somali state, so is the Soviet Union; for its part, America has bulldozed recklessly into the wastelands of Afghanistan and Iraaq where it continues to suffer, in  blood and treasure; and presidential claims for “Obama Care” are  now sticking  in President Barrack Obama’s craw!  But somethings never change, notably Somalis’ passionate love for their poetry, which, by turns, inflames and inspires them.  Below is a sliver of poetic discourse, which should give them a momentary respite from their clan obsessions!


“The country teems with ‘poets’ . . . every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines-the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions, whereas a false quantity or prosaic phrase excites their violent indignation . . . Every chief in the country must have a panegyric to be sung by his clan, and the great patronize light literature by keeping a poet.”

Somali_danceSo wrote the romantic, eccentric British explorer, Sir Richard Burton, in the 1850s from the Somali coast of ZaylaC. Burton’s comment was prompted by a desire to share with his countrymen what he thought to be a “strange” phenomenon, notably, that an unwritten language “should so abound in poetry and eloquence.” Burton’s expression of astonishment in finding the unlettered Somalis in possession of developed literature reflects a widespread, if complacent, assumption especially in the West, equating literature and literary perfection with writing. Yet contemporary students of literature would tell us that the “connectionn3 between writing and literature is “actually accidental,” and belongs “only to a secondary phase in the history of literature.”

Burton, however, has validly noted the prominent place occupied by poetry among the pastoral Somalis; for poetic oratory and pastoralism tend to dominate the Somali sociopolitical system and few students of Somali culture and history have failed to observe the salience of these two themes in the social institutions of the Somali pastoralists. The works of such scholars as M. Maino, Margaret Laurence,’ and B. W. Andrzejewski and I. M. Lewis have confirmed Burton’s assessment of the importance of oral poetry for the social milieu of the Somalis. These authors refer to the Somalis as a “nation of bards.” Their appraisal is echoed by Somali commentators on numerous occasions, most notably by the late president of the Republic, Dr. ‘Abdirashiid ‘Ali Shermarke,who spoke of his countrymen’s lyric verse as “one of the two national assets of inestimable value . “The other asset the president had in mind was Islam and in putting poetry on the same level of importance, the president paid no small recognition to his country’s poetic heritage.

If not also a nation of nomads, the Somalis are a nation in which nomadic pastoralism plays a dominant role in the life of the people. Not only do more than half of the Somali people still continue to pursue pastoralism as the chief mode of economy but urbanized nomads dominate the modern state.8 They form the class of people who, for want of a better term, we may propose to call “the transitional generation”: former nomads who have migrated to the urban centers in the last thirty years and taken over control of government from the departing expatriates in the wake of decolonialization. Although bred by the countryside and essentially pastoral in culture, the transitional generation, nevertheless, has a commanding place in the economy and the civil service. Despite the ring of incongruity in the phrase, the long-urbanized Benaadiris-who resent the supremacy of the recently arrived pastoralists- complain of the “nation’s nomadic bureau~racy.”

With a measure of precision and articulateness that often astonishes literary academics, the pastoral Somalis cultivate their oral poetry and classify it into a precise range of forms and genres. The technical term for poetry in Somali is Maanso, although Gabay, a less adequate word referring to only one popular form of Maanso, is more commonly used. The pastoralists classify their Maanso verse into at least six forms, each of which has a particular name and definite melody to which it is chanted or recited. The six forms of Maanso are Gabay, Geeraar, Jiifto, Weeglo, Guuraw and Buraambur.l0 The criteria for classifying the six types of poetry into distinct forms emanate not only from melodic variations but also from variations in theme. The pastoral Somalis also classify their Maanso verse by genre and identify by name at least fifteen divergent themes that a poet may treat in his work.

Form and genre, in ordinary as well as literary usage, are confusing terms; and, hence, it may be helpful to define the sense in which the terms are used in this essay. Briefly, I speak of form to refer to the manner in which a poem is composed-its word arrangement- as distinct from what the poem is about. Genre is used to indicate the substance, subject matter,.content, or theme of a poem, as opposed to its style. Thus, in relation to form, namely, the six-part division, we speak of such things as rhythm, balance (Miizaan), alliteration, syllabic arrangement, and the diction of the language employed. In relation to genre, we are referring to the thought or theme of the poem. Form and theme are thus independent of each other and, theoretically, any form may be used as a vehicle for the treatment of any theme. In practice, however, certain forms tend to give expression to certain themes. The Geeraar form, for example, has been called the  “war song.”

Read More:Gabay-Hayir A Somali Mock

Prof Said S. Samatar

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