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Opposing Influences of Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Somali Literature

By Maxamed Daahir Afrax, PhD


All writers begin with the literary tradition they inherit, no matter what they do to it, and they write for an audience educated to respond in particular ways. What is significant about the first novels is that writers used materials and techniques from older literary forms to provoke a new kind of response. Later in the genre’s development, when the audience knew how to respond in a new way, elements from more traditional kinds of literature gradually disappeared. Kongsberg[1]

Dr. Maxamed Daahir Afrax

What Kongsberg has observed above, in his study of the development of the English novel, is also observable in the development and the nature of contemporary Somali literature. As stated above, one striking feature of contemporary Somali literature is the use of materials and techniques derived from older forms of Somali oral culture. Dramatists, poets and fiction writers all employ this kind of familiar elements in treating topical issues of immediate relevance to the social and political realities of modern Somali society, a characteristic feature which modern Somali literature shares with other literary traditions elsewhere in Africa; e.g. the Yoruba Travelling Theatre in Nigeria (Ogumbiyi 1982; Etherton 1982; Fiebach 1996); Hausa theatre in Niger; (Beik, 1987) and the Concert Party in several West African countries (Kerr 1995).

The union of these two seemingly contrasting sets of elements (traditional and modern) is what gives the Somali literature under discussion its characteristic feature of being an art in transition. It should also be seen as an art in transition in the sense that it represents the experience of a society in transition; or, in other words, this form of literature came as the cultural expression of a moment of transition in the development of Somali society.

As representatives of both sides of this moment of transition, the new literary creators  struggle to establish an equilibrium between the old/the familiar and the new in a balanced combination acceptable to their – also transitional – recipients.  In the words of poet/playwright Siciid Saalax Axmed, who uses a familiar Somali metaphor: ‘we know our guests (i.e. audience), we are aware of their changing taste, we therefore offer them a new meal served in there own old plates’[2]

Here, I must hasten to point out that not all Somali playwrights or poets do this as consciously as does Siciid Saalax, a graduate and educator, or someone like Wole Soyinka who purposefully ‘scouts the Yoruba oral narrative tradition to derive a figure who would represent the painful dualities of existence and the revolutionary urge to grapple persistently with the mess of society and menace of existence.’ (Okpewho, 1983:2)  

As a matter of fact, Siciid Saalax represents a minority of Somali playwrights with formal education up to university level; and he belongs more to the few script-based theatre practitioners than to the majority dramatists who largely rely on traditional oral methods of production and who generally maintain stronger links with tradition. The majority are people who spent a part of their early lives in a rural environment where they cherished the Somali traditional culture and then moved to the city and became part and parcel of a new reality characterised by conflicting values and social contradictions. On the one hand, these literary creators are firmly tethered to their traditional roots and on the other, they have to be responsive to the needs and pressures of the day-to-day life  in a half-traditional urban setting of which they are now an integral part.

Hence, the transitional characteristic of the post-independence Somali drama must be understood against this background, i.e. as emanating from the nature of its practitioners being themselves transitional artists, as well as from the inspiration of the prevailing general conditions, but not as the result of any conscious plan or long-term strategy.

What has been said about the Somali dramatists of the post-independence period is also applicable to the poets and fiction writers belonging to the same era; for the simple reason that they, like the dramatists, operate under the influence of tradition and modern urban life, as we shall see shortly.

It is relevant to note here that the practice of employing materials and techniques inherited from the past, to deal with issues relevant to the present, is itself inherited from Somali traditional oral literature. Almost all forms of oral literature, such as poetry, prose narratives and proverbs, have used materials derived from earlier works or inspired by established Somali heritage. Different forms of Somali literature, (both old and new) also tend to be interdependent, in the sense that they utilise each other in an interweaving fashion, as will be illustrated shortly. For instance, poets make extensive use of proverbs, while on the other hand, most proverbs are structured in a poetic form, using such poetic techniques as alliteration and metric patterns. Drama too relies on poetry and proverbs to convey its central messages.

Read more: Opposing Influences of Tradition and Modernity in Contemporary Somali Literature

Maxamed Daahir Afrax, PhD
Email: [email protected]


Maxamed Daahir Afrax/Mohamed Dahir Afrah is a prolific writer, journalist and researcher who widely writes on Somali culture and society in Somali, English and Arabic. He holds a PhD in African Studies from the University of London. A former MP and cabinet minister in Somalia’s TNG, Afrax now serves as the President of the Intergovernmental Academy of Somali Language and as Honorary President of the Somali-speaking Centre of Pen International which he founded in London in 1996. He is also founder-editor of Hal-abuur International Journal of Somali Literature and Culture and a contributor to WardheerNews.

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