Georgi Kapchits

     Nin maqan tebiddii waa nin jooga ceebtii!


















Notes on the 8th International Congress of Somali Studies (Hargeisa. July 3-13, 2001)


            The Somalis affirm that the ancestors of the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin lived in the Horn of Africa. They came from the arab tribe, and that is why his great-grand father, brought to Russia when a child, was named Peter the Great's arap. 2 In Hargeisa I was reminded of it by clever and charming Abdulkadir Haji Ismail Jirdeh, who combines a passionate love of poetry with the prosaic work of the speaker of the local parliament. We met in the house of the Head of Hargeisa University, Sheikh Ali Ibrahim, who arranged a party in honour of the participants of the Congress. Standing on the flat roof and sipping orange juice (there is a dry law in Somaliland) we were talking about everything, and of course, about poetry, which in the country of poets goes without saying. By that time I had spoken enough Somali and was conversing in Russian with pleasure - my interlocutor remembered perfectly well the language he learnt in Odessa once upon a time. It turned out that he paid the highest tribute to the second genius of Russia, Michael Lermontov, and knew his poem "Demon" by heart:

                        His way above the sinful earth
                        The melancholy Demon winged
                        And memories of happier days
                        About his exiled spirit thronged… 3

            I believed it and looked at the sky. The Demon was not there, but in exchange there was shining the Moon, at which another Russian poet, Nicholas Gumilyov, gazed from these parts eighty-three years ago:

                        I remember night and sandy land,
                        I remember the Moon so low in the sky…4


            Gumilyov was crazy about Africa and did not miss a chance to visit it. One can judge by the titles of his verses about the routes of his journeys: "Niger", "Dahomey", "Zambezi", "Madagascar", "Liberia", "Egypt", "Sudan", Abyssinia", "Galla", "The Somali peninsula". What was seen by the poet in the land of Somalis (these two words rhyme in Russian in the genitive case) made a strong impression on him:

                        There are no people as formidable as Somalis,
                        There is no land as dreary as this…

            The poem, which is filled with grief and tragic foreboding, staggers one by its gloomy tone. Either the poet foresaw the ordeals, which fell to the lot of Somalis in their recent history, or he felt his own imminent end. "The Peninsula" was written post-factum, when the life of Gumilyov was drawing to its close - in 1921 he was shot by the Bolsheviks. However, sorrow is peculiar to poets. They are sages, but as is known, in much wisdom is much vexation. 5

            This feeling, resulting from unhappy love, shortened the life of the talented Ilmi Bounderi:

                        O my king among poets!
                        You who were driven onward to destruction
By your sorrows, by your helpless anger… 6

            But poets equally die of happy love. "I will listen [to you] with delight and die of love and sorrow…" So the Russian bard and poet (of Georgian origin) Bulat Okudzhava sang.

            Nevertheless nothing human is alien to the poets with their more subtle soulful organization than that of other people. They can be easily carried away (the introductory words of the great Hadrawi for my thirty-minute paper lasted, for example, forty minutes) and they like to joke (when one of the Hargeisa newspapers published our double portrait, but by mistake called me Johnson, the poet wrote under the photograph: Waxaan ka xumahay inuu ila fadhiyo Kapchits, which means I am sorry THAT (not BUT!) it is Kapchits who is sitting with me).

            The gathering in Hargeisa was blessed by the presence of yet another classic poet (Garriye), which seems to be natural for the country one half of the population of which are poets while the other half consider themselves to be so. The lust of Somalis for expressing themselves in verse, which was noted by Burton already in 1854 ("The country teems with poets …"7 ) irrespective of the modern geography, has not been scientifically explained so far. According to my hypothesis, the point is the Somali air, which is akin to the ether8 glorified by the Greeks. It equally tells upon aliens. Having inhaled it, Bogumil W. Andrzejewski, outstanding scholar and well-known Polish poet9 , one of the best of men, was moved to study and translate Somali poetry.

            And what about my friend John Johnson, the author of the bestseller "Heellooy, Heelleellooy…" and other works on the theory of Somali verse? His paper about the poetic traditions of the Somalis and the peoples speaking the Mande language I would attribute to the genre of a poem in prose. The final part of the paper was breathed upon by a real poetical inspiration: "The metrical templates of classical Somali poetry are so complex that they tend to eliminate all but the most predictable minor variations based on faulty memory and sometimes the "corrective" manipulation of reciter/memorizer. Add the range of acceptable topics for any given genre, and a musical structure which sometimes actually participates in the meter, and one is able to understand how the goal of verbatim memorization becomes the norm of this tradition. Given the complexity of plot, Mande poets have…developed intricate formulas and themes with which to remember their lines and memory is not the dominating factor in longer, narrative poetry. Given simpler metrical templates for other kinds of oral poetry, both societies solve the problem of oral composition in a similar manner, not so differently from the Shakespearian actor mentioned earlier."10

            Another friend of mine, Charles Geshekter, in Hargeisa and during the trip to Borama, Berbera, Gabiley and Sheikh did not part with a note-book in which he was permanently writing something. I have no doubt that this member of the international secret society of humorists was all the time composing limericks. Lee Cassanelli in general talked in verse, which explains why I understood him worse than other Americans at the Congress. There are suspicions, based on indirect signs (an absent smile, a faraway look) with respect to Richard Ford and Virginia Luling.

            And I myself in the one-eyed people's country11 became like everybody else. After having swallowed a sip of ether and taken a piece of camel meat (in the house of the former resident of Kiev Ali Yusuf Ahmed) I wrote three poems. In the first I likened Edna12 to Etna, but did not lose sight of their difference: the energy of the lady is constructive and constant while that of Vulcan is destructive and rarely reminiscent of itself. In the second poem I corrected the historical mistake by substituting the name of Geshekter for Geschichtler13 , since I considered it would go well with the scientist who devoted his talent to the investigation of Somalia's past. In the third poem I confessed that I had always envied Andre Gide, who, according to his words, became a nomad to touch voluptuously everything which roams. The fourth poem remained unfinished: the plane had scarcely left Somali airspace when the inspiration abandoned me. To finish writing I have to come back.


            The Congress was devoted to the problems of peace, governance and reconstruction. As a whole, the papers (around a hundred in number) applied to the following themes:
            Conflict resolution and peace building;
            Post-war economic reconstruction;
            Culture and language in the context of peace and reconciliation;
            The Somali Diaspora in political, cultural and technological development;
            Clan representation and civil society;
            The role of women in reconciliation and reconstruction;
            Human rights issues;
            Environmental problems;
            Health and education;
            Governance and democratization.

            A truism stated by the Russian virtual writer of the 19th century Kuz'ma Prutkov14 , goes: "It is impossible to embrace the unembracable". Within the limits of one article it is impossible to reflect all the variety of ideas expressed in Hargeisa. Moreover, it is not necessary, since the majority of papers will be published in the Proceedings of the Congress. Therefore I will mention or cite (not laying claim to the objectivity of choice) mainly those which I had occasion to hear (beside plenary sessions there were many specialized ones) or which were given me by their authors. It seems convenient to arrange the material according to its inner chronology: lessons of the past, interpretation of the present, variants of the future (although, naturally, many works do not easily fit the Procrustean bed of this scheme).

            "The Concentration and Dispersal of Power in 20th Century Somalia: From Colonialism and Independence to State Collapse and Diaspora" by Charles Geshekter identifies three features of the late 20th century international order into which the collapse of the Somali state must fit: 1) the nature of the nation state whose composition, stability and future as an agent of progress had become highly problematic; 2) the appearance of an assertive ethnicity that engulfed a wide range of Somali sub-cultures; and 3) supra-national influences including international labour migrations, seekers of political asylum and removal of barriers to free trade. With the end of the Cold War, Somalia lost its geo-political allure for the first time in the 20th century. The state collapsed in 1991 when international aid drip-lines were pulled out and centralizing institutions vanished. Suffering and mayhem marked a subsequent "economy of death." In the independent Somaliland Republic and autonomous region of Puntland, Somalis are experimenting with dispersed political structures that combine traditional principles and written constitutions in innovative ways that differ from the centralized systems of European colonialism and that of independent Somalia. With political power dispersed at the start of the 21st century, many Somalis seem prepared to locate themselves within lineage communities, at home or overseas, rather than to advocate a single civic state nationalism based on the rights and obligations of a single common citizenship. Reviving the centralized state in Somalia would restore an institution crucial to the modern world, but one that oppressed Somalis and accentuated divisions among them. Since the Horn remains an area of limited resources and wealth, law and order management seem once again best handled through dispersed local institutions.

            Virginia Luling in "Notes of a stranger" informed the gathering about her recently published book "Somali Sultanate". The book describes the town of Afgooye - or Geledi as it was formerly known. She describes it as a political entity before the colonial period, and then sees how it changed and yet preserved its key institutions first under Italian colonisation, then after the independence of Somalia, later under the 'Scientific Socialist' regime of Siyaad Barre, and finally into the violence and political fragmentation that has followed his fall. According to the author, the study of such a community can be part of a general re-evaluation of traditional and indigenous institutions in the modern context. As happened throughout Somalia, the old political institutions of Sultan and akhyaar have not simply faded away to be replaced by modern forms of government, but turned out to be necessary resource and a defence against anarchy. A community like that of Geledi or Afgooye shows a traditional emphasis on locality and federation, rather than descent, and this has continued to work up to the present day. Such a model of consensus, mutual tolerance and compromise is a part of Somali tradition to be drawn on, just as much as is that of constant competition and potential feud, which has become the international image of Somalia over the last ten years.

            Hussein M. Adam in "Formation and recognition of states: Somaliland in contrast with Eritrea" regards Somaliland as a relatively homogeneous society, which is able to evolve its modern polity through an adaptation of relatively uniform tradition of religion, institutions, laws, language and attitudes. The country is experiencing an Islamic revivalism but not radical fundamentalism due to the lack of mature, charismatic fundamentalist leaders and, even more important, due to the potency of the clan factor in Somali politics. Somaliland must be brought to learn that democracy involves more than power sharing procedures: there is the need to evolve policies and institutions that can combat poverty, facilitate women's emancipation, children's welfare, minority rights, regulating the unbridle private markets as well as tackle and resolve other substantive issues. The issue of recognition and non-recognition aside, Eritrea and Somaliland have their special experiences to offer each other and to offer others in Africa who are willing to learn. Eritrea's and to lesser extent Somaliland's claims to self-determination are grounded on a historic consciousness of oppression. Unlike Biafra and Katanga, Eritrea and Somaliland also have stronger juridical claims: each had existed for eighty years or more as a distinct colonial territory.

            In "Conflict prevention and peace building in Africa" John L. Hirsch underlines the profound violence that was inflicted on Hargeisa by Siyad Barre in the late eighties, and the great challenge which the people of Somaliland continue to confront more than a decade later. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, regional wars in Central and West Africa as well as the war in Sudan and violence in different parts of Somalia underscore the continuing instability on much of the continent. The former diplomat regards moving towards a culture of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as the key to preventing ethnic and communal violence.

            Without peace there can be no development and without development there can be no peace, claim Richard Ford and Adan Yusuf Abokor in "Using participatory tools for peace building in a decentralized Somaliland: New Models for African Governance". In their opinion, Somaliland offers different models of governance structures, combining traditional and modern practices in ways that carve out new modes of management, power sharing and decision-making. In the absence of central government planning and investment and implementation capabilities in many of these situations, alternative modes of governance and planning seem appropriate. An example drawn from the village of Dararweyne, 35 kilometres northeast of Hargeisa, offers lessons about a community finding ways to solve its own problems, setting precedents for the de facto decentralization that will almost certainly be part of Africa's 21st century governance. First, peace building needs to start and be maintained at very local levels. Second, tools for carrying out such local peace building and development are known and can easily be assembled in training programs and policy initiatives. Third, local peace building and action planning can be most effectively used in a decentralized environment in which people have a sense of ownership of the process and the product. Fourth, no matter how good the leaders and how strong the plans, development will not go forward unless there are strong community institutions and methods in place to maintain peace, dialogue, trust, cooperation, and mutual assistance. The researchers offer to activate the Somali Diaspora youth. For modest funding, there could be a Somali Diaspora Peace Corps that would bring the young and talented recent university graduates to their homelands where they could work for one or two years.

            Problems of Diaspora were widely discussed at the Congress. Historical and comparative evidence suggest that the involvement of various diasporas in their homelands can vary considerably over time, argues Lee Cassanelli in "Diaspora and development: some historical and comparative patterns". The nature and effectiveness of the involvement depends on both diasporic and homeland factors. The ability of diaspora communities to contribute to homeland development depends in part on their ability to organize themselves. Overseas emigres need not speak with one voice to be effective educators to their host country governments and citizens, nor to involve themselves responsibly in local politics or lobbying. By taking these initiatives (as Cubans, Jews, and Irish immigrants to the United States have done-whatever one thinks of their ideologies), the diasporas can play a significant role in shaping international opinion and thus in indirectly influencing homeland affairs. Similarly, a homeland government's ability to mobilize the skills and resources of its overseas communities depends partly on its sensitivity to issues that matter to Diaspora communities, but also partly on its ability to govern fairly and effectively. A vigorous and open homeland government can encourage members of the diaspora to invest both ideas and resources back home, and makes it easier for them to socialize their children - frequently born abroad and therefore subject to new ideas and identities - toward the same goals and values.

            The exodus of the most productive inhabitants was one of the grave consequences of the devastating civil war experienced by Somalia, claims Abdulkadir Osman Farah. He estimates that almost 90% of Somali college graduates are now living in exile ("The Somalis and the Danish NGO: Reconciling integration with rehabilitation and reconstruction"). Mainly due to the "mixture of legislative restrictions and reluctance", a substantial part of the 15,000 Somali refugees in Denmark is not able to cope with its "different and complex" society. Gudrun Kroner witnesses that similar problems are facing Somali refugees in other countries. She analyses differences and similarities of the attitude towards the newcomers in Christian Austria and Muslin Egypt ("Identity construction and living conditions of Somali refugees in various countries"). Marja Tiilikainen has used the method of narrative interviews for investigation of "female ways of being Muslims in Diaspora". In the paper "Diaspora and everyday Islam: Somali women in Finland" she regards religion as a unifying factor between Somalis in this Nordic country. Islam gives Somali women hope for peace, unity and reconciliation. It explains the nature of suffering and helps to alleviate it. For some women the Muslim identity has become more important than their being Somalis.

            In his book "Yesterday, Tomorrow. Voices from the Somali Diaspora" Nuruddin Farah asks a Somali man living in Britain to define a refugee. The man answers: 'I recall one of my daughters asking her mother, my wife, what her first delivery was like. She replied that it being a stillbirth, it was the worst pain she had ever experienced in her life, a pain so acute, she explained that it pierced her body, entered the perimeters of her mind, numbing it. And when the pain was gone, what did it feel like, our daughter wanted to know. The pain dissolved like burning gas vanishing in the air around it. If she woke up with the pain returning and lodging itself in her eternal memory, it was because she felt the loss of the stillborn, buried without her getting to know him. A pain for nothing, the pain we suffered.' And the man continues, 'Because we set Somalia aflame, in pursuit of a personal gain, all of us have lost something. This collective loss, the nation's, is indescribable.'

            Khalif Hassan Farah in "The role of Islam in peace building and conflict resolution in Somalia" reminds us that the traditional response of the practicing Muslims to social traumas like this is to be explained in terms of a perceived sin that has caused society to stray from the "straight path of truth" and consequently to receive Allah's punishment. The way to regain Allah's favour is to repent collectively and rededicate society in accordance with Allah's divine precepts. The paper goes on to say that during the ten years of continued factional fighting with the absence of effective governance institutions and with lawlessness and anarchy, Islamic groups emerged as a major social and political force with regard to maintaining security, providing vital social services and reviving spiritual renewal. The role of Islamic groups has been more prominent in those regions where political groups failed to set up institutions for governance such as Mogadishu, and the Central and Southern regions.

            Fowsia Abdulkadir in "Can clan representation contribute to rebuilding Somalia in the 21st century?" focuses critical analysis on the appropriateness of clan representation in the context of Somalia in the aftermath of the decade-long civil war. In an attempt to answer the question in the title of the paper she reflects on the manner in which clan representation functioned before the European colonization and after the gaining of independence.

            Within the framework of the discussion about human rights Hussein Mohamed Muse's "Background information of the Somali Bantu community in Somalia" attracted general attention. According to the author's data, the Bantu minorities live in nine regions (Hiiran, Middle Shabeelle, Banadir, Bay, Bakool, Gedo, Lower Shabelle, Middle Jubba and Lower Jubba) and their estimated number makes up about 35% of the Somali population. They are farmers, fishermen and technicians as well as domestic and urban service providers. The non-Somali speaking Bantu are Waziguwa who speak Kiziguwa, Bajuni who speak Kibajuni and Barava speaking Chinini. The paper highlighting the historical background of the Bantu in Somalia and their present day hardships, ends with an "Appeal to rescue the Bantu people in Somalia", which goes: "As many of you might already be aware, the Bantu people in Somalia have endured suffering and continue to do so. The situation seems likely to worsen if urgent relief does not come. Therefore, we hereby submit an emergency call to come to the rescue of this abandoned people. There is a need for help in almost all aspects of life: socio-economic, empowerment, education and reconstruction issues. Education is, in our opinion, the only weapon our people could apply to defend themselves. Thus we need scholarships, training opportunities, both international and internal sponsorship. Finally, for the sake of humanity, we count on you."

            Sure enough there were papers on important economic and health issues, the majority of which, however, might be well understood only by specialists. Pascal Joannes, for example, in "The Berbera corridor" discussed the port capacity, the use of bagging machines, distances, road conditions, transport costs and so on, while Dr. Adam Musa reported on "the extent of associated complications and factors contributing to the application of high potency topical corticosteroids (Betnovate/Dermovate) among female attendants in the dermatology clinic of Hargeisa". Nevertheless at least one paper attracted the sympathetic attention of all the audience. It was Edna Adan Ismail's "Medical and psychological complications of female genital mutilation".

            In conclusion, some words about the "eternal" issues: language, poetry and folklore. The participants of the corresponding panel were not many, but it was more than compensated by the presence among their number of Mohamed Warsame Hadrawi, Mohamed Hashi Garriye and John W. Johnson who were mentioned in the first part of the notes. Salah Hashi Arab reported on the development of an advanced Somali Dictionary of 45,000 words, Mohamed Haji Rabi discussed some features of Somali syntax and Ahmed Abbas Ahmed focused on Hadrawi's poetry as a source of humanistic thinking. My paper "Towards the paremiological minimum of the Somali language" revealed the results of the field experiment which had two goals: 1) To discover how many proverbs and which of them are still widely used in Somali culture; 2) To find out what the proverb knowledge in the Somali culture depends upon. The experiment allowed the establishment of a list of 226 proverbs actively known by the majority of the informants, one of which goes: Many words cannot fill a pitcher.


            The young and not yet recognized state did its best to ensure the organizational and intellectual success of the Congress. And it succeeded. At the presentation of the foreign participants I reminded the audience of the Somali folk-tale about a traveller who spent a night in the hut of a nomad. It was a time of drought and the nomad had little food, but he treated the guest generously, giving him something to eat and the best mat to sleep on. In the morning, before taking his leave, the traveller said to the nomad: "Kind man, you are poor but generous and hospitable, and I want to reward you. Help me to decide: should I give you five things or should I speak about you in five places?" "Speak about me in five places" - answered the nomad.

            I promised the hosts of the Congress that I would speak about their generosity and hospitality in five places. This is the first one.

            The author is grateful to Sheila Andrzejewski for checking his English.

"Horn of Africa" Vol. IXX, 2001

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[1] The word "country" here means Somaliland. But the author has to confess that sometimes all the lands inhabited by Somalis merge in his apolitical conscience into one Somaliya. In these particular cases the word "country" acquires somewhat broader interpretation.
[2] Official opinion considers (not bothering about arguments) that Abraham (Abreha) was born in the Abyssinian province of Tigre. As for the word arap in old Russian it meant an African.
[3] M.Lermontov. An Eastern Legend. Literature of the 19th century. [Izdatel':] Friends and Partners. Ed./transl: Natasha Bulashova, Greg Cole. 2001. 
[4] Nikolay Gumilyov. Stikhotvoreniya i poemi. Moskva, 1989. Translation of these and the following lines from Gumilyov are by the author of this article.
[5] Ecclesiastes,1:18.
[6] Maxamed Ibraahim "Hadraawi". At the Grave of Cilmi Bowndheri. In: "Somali Poetry". Translated by B.W.Andrzejewski and Sheila Andrzejewski. Indiana, 1993.
[7] R. Burton. First Footsteps in East Africa. London, 1894, Vol.1.
[8] In ancient Greek mythology it is the upper layer of the air, clean and transparent - the residence of the Gods.
[9] The outstanding Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in the Preface to Andrzejewski's collection "Podroz do krajow legendarnich" ("Travel to legendary countries") wrote: "As I see it, the picture of the poetry of our century would not be complete without Bogumil Andrzejewski".
[10] John Wm.Johnson. "A comparison of the oral poetic styles of performance between Somali and Mande traditions: toward a unified theory of oral poetic composition".
[11] The first part of the Somali proverb If you come to the one-eyed people's country pull out your eye.
[12] Edna Adam - one of the organizers of the Congress, its soul and blazing motivator.
[13] A historian (German).
[14] The collective pseudonym of three real poets.





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