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The Somali People
(Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia)

Population: 4,000,000 (plus 500,000 in Kenya)
Religion: Islam
Status: 0.01% Christian



Location: The Somali people group inhabits almost the entire Horn area of Africa.  The majority of the Somali people live in the country of Somalia.  Somali are also the principle inhabitants of the Ogaadeen (Ogaden) region of Southeastern Ethiopia.  Somalis also live in the southern half of the country of Djibouti, and in the North Eastern Province of Kenya.

The Digil and Rahawiin (Reewiin) clans, who speak the Maay language, and the Jiiddu and Tunni, speaking their Maay-related languages, are also part of the broader Somali clan structure and political alliances.  These clans include an additional 1.5 million people whose distinct characteristics warrant classifying them as separate ethnic groups.

History:  Firm evidence for the history of the Somali people dates back to only about AD 1000.  [Ahmed, Ali Jimale, Ed.  The Invention of Somalia (New Jersey, U.S.A.:  The Red Sea Press, Inc., 1995), p. 233-256.[

There are folk genealogies tracing certain Somali clans to the Arabian Peninsula and associating their ancestors with the Sharifs, the family of prophet Mohammed.  Linguistic, cultural and historical evidence, however, indicates they came originally from the southern highlands of what is now Ethiopia.  The basis of such claims to Arab origin may lie in trading and marriage alliance relations with old Arab colonies on the Somali coast.  Anthropological studies indicate the Digil-Rahawiin (Maay-speaking) peoples represent the earliest migration group and also the most southern.

The Somali peoples were never under any unified political structure.  Sporadic attempts such as the Gareen dynasty from the Ajuuraan in Central/Southern Somalia in the 1500s (Cassanelli 1992) and the Bartire around Jigjiga, Ethiopia, in the late 1700s were overthrown violently by other clans.

The clans, with various genealogical ties, or political or military alliances,  provided a broad, loose identity.  In the colonial era, the various European powers easily established a hegemony, then a dominance over various divisions of the Somali peoples.  The British, French and Italian Somalilands roughly followed geographical areas of clan alliances or federations and actually helped limit clashes between different clans.

In 1960 Britain and Italy combined their territories into a unified independent Somalia. The French territory remained separate and gained independence in 1977 as Djibouti.

Identity:  The Somalis are most closely related to the Rendille and the Afar, and distantly related to the Oromos, all Eastern Cushite peoples.  Somalis are not a unitary people group, but a grouping of broad clan federations divided by language and by clan conflicts.  Although all Somalis profess strong allegiance to Islam, they hold stronger primary loyalties to self, family and clan, in that order.

Language:  The Somali language is a member of the Eastern Cushite family of languages.  Forms of this language are spoken in Djibouti, Ogaadeen (Ethiopia) and the northern areas of Somalia, as well as in Kenya.  The language situation, however, is quite complex.  Linguists analyze several languages among the Somali peoples which are not mutually intelligible.

The Rahawiin people and most of the Digil federation, living the lower Jubba Valley and the Baay-Bakool plateau of the Shebeelle Valley, speak Maay, while the speech of the Jiiddu and Tunni clans are classified as separate languages.  Most Garre in Somalia speak Garre as a mother tongue, but Maay is the mother tongue of some.  The Garre language is close to Boni.  (Most Garre and Ajuuraan in Kenya speak an Oromo language named after them:  Garre-Ajuuraan.)

The Debarre clan of the Garre also speak their own language, more closely related to Maay.  Many Somalis speak various languages as a second language.  Clans are genealogically based and cut across language lines.

Comparative language studies show that Maay, Tunni and Jiiddu retain older vocabulary and structure than "standard Somali" language forms.  After independence, Arabic served as an official lingua franca, and the only written language.  However, Arabic is not commonly spoken and written Somali has been taught in school since an official Latin orthography was chosen in 1972.  This orthography is also used in Ethiopia since 1993 or 1994.

Political Situation:  The Somali clans were nomadic, though they maintained established boundaries for the herding area of each clan and sub-clan. There was never any established political system which encompassed all the Somali people.

When the Oromo people began spreading out in their turn from the Ethiopian southern highlands, the Somali clans did resist their encroachments on recognized Somali settlement and herding areas.  Nevertheless the actual borders were somewhat vague and flexible, and military clashes were common among the Somali clans themselves.

In the colonial period, the French established a presence in the northern Red sea areas of the Somali area.  The Italians grabbed the largest portion, including the actual "horn" of the Red Sea/Indian Ocean area, going well inland.

The Italians negotiated additional sovereignty with local leaders over the southern areas from Mogadishu to Ras Komboni, inland to the Jubba River.  In 1925 the British ceded a section of Kenya colony west of the Jubba to the current Kenya border, to Italy.  The Ogaadeen/Hawd area of British Somaliland was ceded to Ethiopia after WW II, settling a firm border between Ethiopia and British Somaliland.  This separated the Ogaadeen clan from other clans.

There has always been tension and rivalry between the clans, growing to military conflicts at times.  This was diminished under colonial administration, but flared up again at times after independence and the unification of British and Italian territories for the first time in history.  After the total breakdown of order in the civil war of the 1990's, the north (former British Somaliland) restored order and peace shortly, while Mogadishu and the southern areas continue in self destruction.

Customs:  These nomadic, pastoral people have a culture primarily centered around camels with a few cattle and goats in the more productive areas.  Women and young children care for sheep and goats while the young men and boys are responsible for herding the highly esteemed camels.

In a land that has an average rainfall of less than four inches a year the Somalis' lives are consumed with finding water and grazing land for their livestock.  Formerly, the diet consisted almost entirely of milk and milk products but now includes maize meal and rice for most.

In highland areas with adequate rainfall, agriculture has developed in the past few generations, including vegetable and fruit gardens, as well as grains.  Sorghum is an important grain, grown in the northwest and south and along the river valleys and cowpeas are important in the south.  The Abgaal and Murusade Hawiye along coastal central Somalia also practice agropastoralism with sorghum, cowpeas and some maize.

Families live in portable huts; each wife has her separate hut made of bent saplings and woven mats.  Villages consist of a group of huts for related families arranged in a circle or semi-circle with cattle pens in the centre.  Home building and home making are the women's responsibility.

Modern life in the city of Mogadishu, Somalia, is ravaged by clan rivalry.  No one cares if a member of another clan starves.  As many as 30,000 automatic weapons are held by men and boys who steal food meant for the relief of those who are starving.  Some of them sell the food to support their drug habit of chewing qaad (khat) leaves.  Khat, or miraa, a mild stimulant promoting sleeplessness and talkativeness, is a social pastime.

The Somalis love poetry and have a rich oral literature.  Children are taught history and tradition through poetry.  The Somalis have remarkable memories and often chant folk tales to entertain themselves on long night walks.

A man is allowed four wives under Islamic law and polygamy is widely practiced.  Divorce is the prerogative of men only and is easy and common among the Somali.  In case of divorce the children are divided by gender, boys to the father and girls to the mother.

Religion: The Somalis accepted Islam in the 1400's.  Some historians think it was as early as the 1200's.  Their commitment to Islam has led to the development of legendary claims of lineages in the Arabian Peninsula, but these claims are not supported by linguistic evidence and other oral traditions.

Some Somalis at times refer themselves as Arabs, yet they consider themselves superior to the Yemeni Arabs who live among them.  These people staunchly profess unwavering commitment to Islam, but the Islamic teaching of unity is superseded by clan loyalties and destructive philosophy of individualism.

The following spirit possession cults are practiced by the Somali peoples:  Borane, Mingis, Wadaaddo and Saar.  These all involve dances, efforts to placate spirits, and specialists who are paid by possessed people or families.  Most of these are related to other Cushitic people, but also to the Amharic (mingis is an Amharic word).  It is reported that possessed people often speak in Oromo.

At the same time Islamic fundamentalism has been gaining ground over the traditional Sufi mystical orders, the Axmediya, Qaadiriya and Saalaxiya.  Fundamentalists have established NGOs and brought financial aid from Muslim organizations in Sudan, South Africa, North America, Europe, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudia Arabia and Iran.  Reformers have opposed the veneration of saints and Muhammed and ecstatic rituals.  Traditionalists often react violently to the attempts at change.

Christianity: Efforts at Christian mission have met with little success.  The Somali are a very proud group and associate Christianity with people whom they regard as inferior.  There are only a few hundred Somali Christians worldwide.  Somali Christians are despised.

Much contact work has been done by Christians working in medical, aid and literacy ministries in refugee camps in Kenya, where some Somalis have been interested and responsive.  The gospel is most clear to them when it is presented in Biblical poetic stories. The entire Bible is available in standard Somali.  Somali literacy is about 25%.  Radio broadcasts and taped Christian messages are more successful, attested by mail responses to the broadcasts.  Somali- language Bible correspondence courses have had some modest success.

Related People Profiles on this Site
The Afar People
The Digil-Rahawiin People of Somalia
The Gosha People
The Rendille People
The Sakuye People
The Somali Bantu Peoples
The Somali of Kenya

Other Related Articles on this Site
Colour, Race and Genetics in the Horn of Africa
The Sabeans and Other Ancient Genetics and Tongues: Distinguishing Fact from Legend and Modern from Ancient
The Kore of Kenya Maasai or Somali?
Models of Assimilation: Evaluating Ethnic Characteristics
Race and Ethnicity in the Horn of Africa


     Ahmed, Ali Jimale, ed.  The Invention of Somalia. New Jersey:  The Red Sea Press, Inc., 1995.

     Biber, Douglas.  "Dramatic Roles in Central Somali Narrative Discourse," Studies in African Linguistics.  Vol. 15, No. 1, April 1984.

     Cassanelli, Lee V.  The Shaping of Somali Society:  Reconstructing the History of a Pastoral People, 1600-1900.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

     Ehret, Christopher and Mohamed Nuuh Ali.  "Somali Classification," Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Somali Studies, Linguistics and Literature.  Hamburg:  Helmut Buske Verlag, 1983.

    "French Somalia,"  The World and Its Peoples:  Africa North and East 2.  New York:  Greystone Press, 1969.

    Hanley, G.  Warriors and Strangers.  London:  Hamish Hamilton, 1971.

    Kjaerland, Gunnar.  Culture Change Among the Nomadic Borana of South Ethiopia.  California:  Fuller Theological Seminary (unpublished dissertation), June 1977.

    Laitin, D. D. and S. S. Samatar.  Somalia, Nation in Search of a State.  Boulder:  Westview, 1987.

    Lamberti, Marcello.  Map of Somali Dialects in the Somali Democratic Republic.  Hamburg, Germany:  Helmut Beske Verlag Hamburg, 1986.

    Lawrence, M.  New Wind in a Dry Land (Prophet's Camel Bell).  NY:  A. A. Knopf, 1964.

    Lewis, I. M.  Peoples of the Horn of Africa.  London:  Int'l African Institute, 1969 (reprinted, Haan Press, 1995).

    Menkhaus, Kenneth J.  Rural Transformation and the Roots of Under Development in Somalia's Lower Jubba Valley.  Columbia:  University of South Carolina (unpublished dissertation), 1989.

     Saeed, John I.  "Central Somali--A Grammatical Outline,"  Monographic Journals of the Near East.  October 1982.

     Schlee, Günther.  Identities on the Move:  Clanship and Pastoralism in Northern Kenya.  Nairobi, Kenya:  Gideon S. Were Press, 1994.

Orville Boyd Jenkins
Thanks to an anonymous contributor who has lived in Somalia and among Somalis for decades, for his critical reading and helpful suggestions.
August 1996
Last updated 2 March 2022

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1996, 2005, 2014 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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