When I say “Somali,” what do you think?

So when I say “Somali,” what do you think of?
If you are anything like the majority of people in the Western world, you likely think of war, pirates and Islam.

Even in my time becoming acquainted with the Somali people over the last several years, and the dinner table lessons they have taught me, I have found myself severely lacking in an been basic understanding of the world’s neighbors, the Somali people.

During our time in the Jig-Jiga region, a professional Somali man who works for the prominent Somali television station shared, “Most Westerners won’t come here. They are afraid or think we are something that we are not. There are rich traditions and cultures here, and beautiful stories to be told.” I agree.

The Somali Region is a large portion of the Horn of Africa where the Somali people have lived for generations. It stretches into five nations including Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti. They are made up five major clans that come from five “founding fathers,” so to speak, who are said to have Arab decent. In addition to these five clans, there are large numbers of other clans that also reside in the land, including the Mai Mai and Wazigua which come from Bantu decent. They also self-identify as Somali and share characteristics to be sure, but have distinct languages and cultures. Those residing in the Jig-Jiga are from the five clans of the Somali people mentioned initially.

When told that we were traveling in the region to learn Somali culture, there were two almost definite responses they shared with us: Camels and Nomads.

The heritage of the Somali people is that of herding camel. Due to the need for leaves to feed the camels, the Somalis entire culture was built around a nomadic lifestyle. For example, the homes are constructed with the ability to deconstruct and load them on a camel.

However, the nomadic nature of the Somali people is not resigned to the past or the herding of camels. It is vocalized as a part of their identity. “We Somali, we are nomads. We will always wish to be somewhere else and may leave any time.” These were words repeated over and over in various forms with a large toothy grin of glee accompanying it during our time here.

The nomadic spirit often affects their occupations in the urban centers where many of them now reside. Even the businesses found lining the streets are family owned, few employees and arranged with the ability to pick up and move at any point.

The camels are far more important than simply their heritage as well. The meat is prized to be as the best steak to be found and the primary meat at most restaurants of renown. The milk, with it smoky flavor, is attributed magical-type powers to help with illness and strengthen the body. The camels are the choice item for a bride price as well. “100 Camels for a wife… If not, he doesn’t love her,” they say. (An average camel runs at about $1000 US! And we think engagement rings are expensive.)

As they find themselves now on the streets of the US (almost everyone here has a relative in some western nation), their nomadic nature has not left many of them. Several from the “diaspora” came up to chat with us at various restaurants and the like, talking of their times with their people and the continued nomadic spirit even after 13 years in US. While this spirit does not reside in all the Somali people, it certainly is proudly shared by many.

More to come…

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