What traditions and customs are there in Somalia?
In this article we conceive the customs and traditions of Somalia.
Food in daily life
Milk from camels, goats and cows is an important food for Somali herders and nomadic families. Young men tending herds of camels during the rainy season can drink up to ten quarts of milk a day.
Aging camels may be slaughtered for their meat, especially when guests are expected for a celebration, and the greasy camel’s hump is considered a delicacy.
Meat, including liver, from sheep and goats is also popular, but the meat is served only a few times a month, usually on special occasions.
Durra (sorghum), honey, dates, rice and tea are other staples for nomads. Farmers in southern Somalia grow maize, beans, sorghum, millet, pumpkin, and some other vegetables and fruits. Boiled millet and rice are staples, but the rice must be imported.
The most popular bread is muufo, a flatbread made from ground cornmeal. Somalis season their food with butter and ghee, the clear liquid extracted from melted butter. They also sweeten their food with sugar, sorghum or honey. A remnant of the Italian occupation in the south is the love of pasta and marinara sauce.
Although fish abound in the waters off the Somali coast, Somalis generally do not like fish. In accordance with the Muslim faith, they do not eat pork or drink alcohol. Milk, tea, coffee and water are the favorite drinks. Carbonated drinks are available in the cities.
Among nomads and farmers, cooking is usually done over a wood or charcoal fire in the open air or in a communal hut, because the houses are large enough for sleeping. The grain is ground by hand, using primitive tools.
Restaurants are popular in cities, but women rarely dined out with men until the late 1990s. Arabic cuisine is popular in many restaurants, and Italian in others. Especially in Mogadishu, international restaurants serve Chinese, European, and sometimes American food.
At home it is customary for women to serve the men first and then eat with their children after the men have finished. Rural Somalis eat by scooping food out of a bowl with the first three fingers of the right hand or a spoon (as in many other Muslim and African cultures, the left hand is considered impure because it is used to wash the body).
A rolled up banana leaf can also be used for scooping. Urban Somalis may use cutlery when dining, but many still enjoy eating with their fingers.
Food customs on ceremonial occasions
Weddings, births, circumcisions, and Islamic and secular holidays require celebrations with food. Families sacrifice animals, bake bread, and prepare food for guests and the poor, who are often invited to participate in the celebration.
Somali marriages have traditionally been seen as a bond not only between a man and a woman, but also between clans and families.
Until very recently, most Somali marriages were arranged, usually between an elderly man with some form of wealth and the father of a young woman he wished to marry. These customs are still valid in many rural areas of the 21st century.
The man pays a bride price, usually in cattle or money, to the woman’s family. The Samaal traditionally marry outside their family lineage, or, if within the lineage, separated from the man by six or more generations. Saab follows the Arab tradition of marrying within the father’s family lineage, with first cousins often marrying.
A Somali bride often lives with her husband’s family after marriage, with her own parents taking care of the house and household goods. However, she retains her last name.
Weddings are joyous occasions, but the couple often sign an agreement giving the bride a certain amount of property in the event of a divorce, which is common in Somalia. Her husband holds her property in trust for her. Tradition requires the wife to relinquish the right to her property if she initiates a divorce.
Islamic law allows a man to have up to four wives if he can support them and their children on an equal footing. If a man repeats three times to his wife: “I divorce you,” the couple is considered divorced. However, the wife is given a grace period of three months, in case she is pregnant.
Today, many urban Somalis choose a mate based on love and common interests rather than agree to an arranged marriage.
In the Somali language, soo maal, a common greeting of welcome, refers to the act of milking, offering a guest the opportunity to milk an animal and get something to drink. Somalis offer milk tea and burn incense to welcome visitors.
Somalis greet each other by saying: “Maalin wanaagsan” (Good morning) or “Nabad myah?”. (How are you?). Men of the same clan family share a long handshake. Women greet each other informally and may hug and kiss each other on the cheek.
Members of unrelated clan families do not shake hands or exchange intimacies. Somalis also use certain hand gestures of Arabs to communicate.
Religion is one of the main influences in the life of Somalis. They are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi’ite rite, with a strong interest in Sufi spiritualism, characterized by chanting, spinning, chewing qat, (a narcotic leaf), and falling into a trance as a way of communicating with Allah. They also include worship of the Somali saints in religious worship.
Added to the daily practice of Islam is the belief in mortal spirits called jinas, who are said to descend from a fallen heavenly spirit. According to popular beliefs, jinn can cause misfortune and illness or can help humans.
Somalis believe that the poor, weak or injured have special spiritual powers given by Allah, so Somalis are always kind to the less fortunate in the hope that they will not use this power for evil against them.
Unlike other Muslims, Somalis believe that both their religious and secular leaders have the power to bless and curse the people. This power, which is believed to have been given to him by Allah, is called baraka.
Baraka is believed to remain in the graves of Somali saints and to help cure illnesses and solve other problems during a visit to the grave. Islamic teachers and mosque officials make up a large part of religious practitioners (Islam has no priests).
Somali followers of Sufism, known as dervishes, devote themselves to a religious life by preaching Islam and renouncing all their possessions. Sufis are also known for the farming communities and religious centers they established in southern Somalia, called jamaat.
Among nomads, a respected male leader or religious devout may be named as a beast. His duties are to lead prayers and perform ritual sacrifices on religious festivals and special occasions. He also learns folk astronomy, which is used for healing, divination, and to determine migration times.
Other religious practitioners are the Yibir clan of the Saab. Jibir practitioners are called upon to exorcise spirits and restore health, good fortune, or prosperity to individuals through prayers and ceremonies, including animal sacrifice.
Rituals and sacred places
In all Somali cities and towns there are mosques. The nomads worship wherever they are, with men and women praying and studying the Koran separately. According to Islam, Somalis must pray five times a day, facing Mecca.
They should recite the creed of Islam and observe zakat, or give to the poor, if they can. They should make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once and observe the Ramadan fast.
The tombs of the Somali holy men or sheikhs, revered as saints, have become national shrines. Pilgrims visit on the saint’s annual feast day, usually in the month of his birth, when his power is believed to be strongest.
Religious holidays include the Islamic holidays of Ramadan (the month of fasting); Id al-Fitr (the Little Feast); the First of Muharram (when an angel is said to shake the tree of life and death); Maulid an-Nabi (The Birth of the Prophet Muhammad); and Id al-Adha (which commemorates the story of Abraham and his son Ishmael).
Islamic holidays are celebrated at different times of the year according to the Islamic calendar. Holidays are celebrated with feasting and storytelling, visiting graves, giving to the poor, parades, plays, and ceremonies.
Death and the afterlife
Somalis hold the Muslim view that every person will be judged by Allah in the afterlife. They also believe that a tree that represents all Muslims grows on the border between Earth and Heaven (some believe that the border is on the Moon). Each person is represented by a leaf on the tree.
When an angel shakes the tree on the first day of the new year, in the Islamic month of Muharram, it is said that those whose leaves fall off will die in the following year. Muslims also believe that a person who dies fasting during Ramadan is especially blessed by Allah.
When a Somali dies, there are parties and celebrations, like when he is born. According to Islamic practice, a Somali wife must mourn the death of her husband in her home for four months and ten days.
Somalis celebrate Independence Day on June 26, the date British Somaliland gained its independence in 1960. They celebrate the Founding of the Republic on July 1. In early August they celebrate a secular New Year celebration called Dab-Shid (Fire Lighting) when they light a stick and jump over the fire.
The arts and humanities
Somalia has long been known as a nation of poets. A people with few possessions and no written language until the 1970s, the Somalis developed an oral tradition of poetry and storytelling, which has been passed down from generation to generation.
Many of these poems and stories were written in the late 20th century. A popular new genre of song on the radio in the late 20th century was heello, borrowed from Somali poetry.
Some of the themes in Somali poetry are clan history, philosophy and politics, as well as praise or ridicule of humans or animals. Probably the best known Somali poet is the spiritual and military leader Muhammad Abdullah Hasań, leader of the Muslim dervishes.
Islamic poetry is also a Somali tradition; many poets were great religious leaders and are now considered saints. Somali Islamic poetry is written in Arabic, often in the form of a sentence.
Although Somali poets have been writing since at least the 12th century, the best known Somali Islamic poets of recent times are Seylici (d. 1882), “Sheik Suufi” (d. 1905), and Sheik Uweys Maxamed (1869-1905).).
Somali Islamic prose written in Arabic is called manqabah. Writers record the actions and virtues of Somali sheikhs, or religious leaders, some with miraculous powers. Somalis also read Arabic religious classics.
The modern Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah (born 1945) has become internationally famous for his novels on African women’s issues and the struggle for human rights in post-colonial Africa. His novels include From a Crooked Rib (1970), Maps (1986), and Gifts (1992). He was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998.
In the late 20th century, Somali plays were performed at the National Theater in Mogadishu and in small theaters in other cities. Somalis began writing plays under the influence of British and Italian settlers.
Somali plays are now written in Somali, Arabic, English and Italian. A well-known modern Somali playwright is Hassan Mumin (“Leopard Among the Women,” 1974; “Contes de Djibouti,” 1980).
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