Next month, January 26th, is the 24th year of civil unrest in Somalia. What people thought was a temporary hiccup, became the future.
I’m the first generation of Somalis born abroad. When my parents came to Sweden, they thought they’d move back when I turned 5. I just turned 25.
I’ve spent years studying the Somali language and culture, effectively as an outsider. Even though I share the looks, I don’t quite embody the spirit of true ‘ Soomaalinimo’. It’s often pointed out to me that I’m black on the outside, white on the inside. Somalis don’t have a tangible identity as such; it’s more like a puzzle whose picture becomes clear when put together. Up until 1972, the Somali language had no official writing system. It was mainly spoken, and as such spoken word was the sole vessel that carried the whole history and culture. It’s something you can only witness, experience. You won’t gauge it by reading books about it, because there are very few of them.
Anyway, I digress. A recent video leaked of a Somali artist in which he derides some tribes , and this sparked immense public furore. Apparently, he was secretly recorded poking fun at certain somali tribes and said some pretty derogatory stuff. A comment war broke out in Facebook and I saw a side to Somalis that I rarely see; a passionate and tempered one. Somalis are usually languid and laid back, but talk about tribe and it’s on. It’s caused huge rifts and contributed to the civil war. There’s no Somalinism, so to speak- a collective identity that glues its people together- rather, people identify with their immediate qabiils.¹
The topic of qabiil is a heavily charged one and it’s taboo to speak of it in public. The few times I’ve brought it up in public were the most tensed and awkward. The nervousness that permeated the air and how people were squirming and fidgeting was an interesting phenomena to observe. It’s interesting because behind closed doors, tribe is a favourite topic and it’s usually discussed within biased and bigoted parameters. The hush hushed conversations betray a staunch bitterness and resentment that is swept under the rug in the public eye. It’s very much the elephant in the room.
The Facebook comments mimicked life in the same way; people were either urging others to forget about qabyaalad ² and that it’s useless and caused a lot of harm, or they were haughtily defending the tribes that were bashed by the artist.
What is denied comes back to haunt. In my opinion – and it’s not worth much as an outsider- qabyaalad is a conversation that needs to be had in public to heal people’s hearts and bring closure. It’s foolish to think that a social construct like a government would eradicate this deep-seated disease that lies in the hearts of most Somalis. It’s gullible and hypocritical. If we cannot love one another in private, what makes us think we’ll do so in public? What makes us think that lip service would do away with the trauma and ptsd more than two decades of violence and unrest has caused? This is an issue that is not being dealt with and as long as it’s ignored, every attempt at rebuilding Somalia will inevitably fail, as has been the case.
People attribute tribalism to the cause of the civil war, but that is a facile argument that fails to take into consideration that things don’t blow up over night due to a singular factor. There clearly was a slow build-up of resentment and class divide based on the ‘superiority’ of a tribe, usually quantified by the size of its members and these intricacies need to be scrutinized and studied in order to resolve them.
Not too long ago I saw Facebook video ( I really find these hilarious) of a ranting Somali woman who was bashing another younger woman for saying that Somali men aren’t as romantic as Westerners. This woman obviously felt her Somali identity threatened, because she launched a scathing attack on all non-Somalis in a blatant show of xenophobia and arrogance. She said that “all ajnabis³ are bound to either abuse you or end up killing you with a knife or break stuff when they throw a tantrum as they were taught growing up with alcoholic parents. They stink and it’s wrong to put the wrong idea in young Somali girls’ minds who are looking to get married. Somali men are the best in the world, and none are better than them.”
Though I found her wild allegations hilarious, it is deeply disturbing to see that the same hatred that created tribalism, was rearing its’ ugly head in xenophobia and prejudice. I realized that tribalism, xenophobia, racism- it was all different names for the same problem; fear shrouded in hatred.
You can’t selectively hate some and love others. It’s not even about others, it’s about the fact that you want to create a false sense of security by projecting fears and uncomfortable feelings onto others. It’s a failed attempt at changing the environment and people so as to change the inner landscape. It’s a form of escapism.
Whenever I bring these issues up, I’m immediately dismissed as being naive and too young to understand. I understand more than most because I have the advantage of being objective. The same reason that purportedly prevents me from understanding the true nature of this issue, is the one that makes me understand it perfectly. I’m not viewing this through a lens of fear and traumatic flashbacks. I’m viewing it through a clear lens of love.
¹ Qabiil: Patrilineal clan.
² Qabyaalad: tribalistic bigotry
³ Ajnabi: Non-Somali