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Somalia is a ‘nation of poets’

Images of Somalia in the West speak to its war-torn history, but the country has a deeply rooted poetic tradition.

Need To Know recently sat down with Somalia-born hip-hop artist, K’Naan. K’Naan was born in Mogadishu but was forced to leave Somalia with the outbreak of civil war in 1991. K’Naan and his family eventually settled in Toronto where he learned English and began to rap about his experiences both in Somalia and as an immigrant.

The interview, which will be broadcast on Need to Know later this month, is a fascinating look at K’Naan’s art and experience. But one thing he said was especially interesting. According to K’Naan, in Somalia, “everything revolves around [poetry]. Conflict resolution is written in poetry … our laws are. Everything about Somali people, the only way we know how to communicate is poetry.”

When most of us in the West think of Somalia, the images that might come to mind first are starving children, “Blackhawk Down” and pirate ships. Indeed, those images have been the reality for many Somalis since the federal government’s collapse in 1991. However, Somalia is also known as “a nation of poets.” The Somali language was given an official alphabet for the first time in 1972 but many Somalis can recite poetry that is centuries old. As such, the most common way of experiencing Somali poetry is through listening rather than reading.

To find out more about the importance of poetry in Somali culture, Need to Know spoke with Said Samatar, a professor of history at Rutgers University. He is the author of four books and 20 essays on African history and literature. He is also the managing editor of the The Horn of Africa, a Rutgers journal.

Gloria Teal: Can you describe the role that poetry plays in traditional Somali life?

Said Samatar: People speak of Somalia as a nation of poets. Our poetic heritage is intimately connected with people’s daily lives. Richard Burton, an early English explorer to Somalia said, “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.” The pastoral poetic tradition is reflected even in modern words. For instance, the Somali word for express mail delivery, warfin, is also the word for a slingshot used to kill birds because one is slingshoting the mail out into the world.

Teal: Why is poetry so important in Somali culture?

Samatar: Poetry is the vehicle by which Somalis ask the three eternal questions: Where do I come from? Who am I? And where do I go from here? Somali poetry is not art for art’s sake. In the West poetry is purely aesthetic but in Somalia, it’s always art for a cause. If you translate and chant Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ to a Somali audience they would ask what the poet’s motivation was, what point he was trying to make. Somali poetry is didactic, not purely aesthetic.

Teal: What sort of power does a poet have in Somali society?

Samatar: The poet serves as the personal relations person for his clan. In poetry, he can present his clan’s case most persuasively. The poet is capable of stirring up the most violent passions of his clan into a lethal war but is also capable of cooling those passions for peace.

Teal: What role do you see poetry playing in the resolution of Somali’s current conflict?

Samatar: The war has destroyed Somalis’ most precious asset, its poetry. One of the greatest tragedies of the current conflict is that Somalis’ ability to produce poetry has been greatly diminished. Traditionally, there were huge poetic contests throughout the country. If we can restore those contests, that will go a long way towards resolving the conflict.

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