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The Somali of Kenya

More About the Somali People:      Somaliland Net

Religion:       Is lam (mostly various Sufi orders)
Population:      500,000 in Kenya(1996)
Registry of Peoples code:  Somali:  109392
Registry of Languages code (Ethnologue):  Somali:  som



Location: The Somali of Kenya are part of a much larger people group which 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, the country of Djibouti, and the North Eastern Province of Kenya.  There are perhaps 6 million Somalis, including the Digil-Rahawiin.

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,  have 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.

Identity:  Somalis are not a unitary people group, but a grouping of broad clan federations since they are divided by language and by clan conflicts.  Although all Somalis profess strong allegiance to Islam the traditional clan rivalries claim a higher allegiance.  Clan identity is maintained even when groups come to speak non-Somali languages.

In reference to the outside world, however, there is still a sense of broader identity as Somalis.  Many people of Somali ethnic origin who now speak other languages may still identify themselves as Somali to outsiders.  Some people who formerly spoke Somali languages, like the Sakuye and Gabbra, no longer consider themselves part of the Somali peoples.

Language:  The Somali language is a member of the Eastern Cushite family of languages.  The language situation, however, is quite complex.  Linguists analyze several languages among the Somali peoples which are not mutually intelligible.  70-80% of Somali in Kenya speak various mutually-intelligible dialects of standard Somali.  But others speak Maay (a language related to Somali) or Garre-Ajuuraan (an Oromo language close to Borana) as a mother tongue.  Many Somalis speak various languages as a second language.

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, borders of lands ruled by France, Britain, Italy and Ethiopia were drawn across land where the Somali peoples lived.

The Italians ruled the southern area of Somali bordering the old Kenya Colony, and in 1925 the British ceded a section of Kenya colony 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.  These borders have been maintained to the present, with Ethiopia and Kenya defending the territories in their colonial borders from attacks by Siad Barre who attempted to reclaim the "Greater Somalia" of pre-colonial times.

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.

Clans are the basic point of cultural and political identity for Somalis.  Clans are genealogically based and cut across language lines.  The following chart shows how the Somali of Kenya are divided:

Hawiye:  Murale--found in Mandera District.
           & nbsp;  Ajuuraan--found in Wajir, Marsabit and Isiolo.

Hawiye Allies:  Garre--found in Moyale, Mandera and Wajir.
           & nbsp;            Degoodiya--found in Wajir, some in Mandera, a few in Garissa, Marsabit and Moyale.

Daarood-Ogaadeen--found in Wajir and Garissa District.

Daarood-Harti--found in Nairobi, Mombasa and towns throughout Kenya, including towns of North Eastern.

Isxaaq (non Daarood, non Hawiye)--found in Nairobi, Mombasa and other towns, and towns of North Eastern.

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.

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.

Men herd and protect the camels and cattle (cattle mainly in area south of Garissa and camels mainly to the north), women take the responsibility of milking the animals, food preparation and family nurture.

Many refugees from Somalia in Nairobi and Mombasa are involved in innovative commercial ventures.  Kenyan Somalis are small town merchants in Maasai and Turkana areas.  The Somalis love to chew qaad (khat), also called miraa, a mild stimulant.  In Kenya, many Somalis are longhaul transport drivers and chew miraa to stay awake on long trips.  Miraa is also a social pastime.  The Somalis love poetry and have a rich oral tradition in poetry.

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 1400s or, according to some scholars, even the 1200s.  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 may refer themselves as Arabs.  These people staunchly profess unwavering commitment to Islam, but the Islamic teaching of unity is superseded by clan loyalties and destructive philosophy of individualism.

In recent years, the Borana "Ayaana" possession cult has been growing in Mandera and Wajir districts.  At the same time Islamic fundamentalism has been gaining ground over the traditional Sufi mystical orders.

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 against 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.  In Somalia sources report that about 0.01% of the Somalis are Christian.  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 Poeples

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.

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

    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.

    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.

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

     Orville Boyd Jenkins
     An Anonymous Contributor
     August 1996
     Updated 15 April 2002
     Last edited 2 March 2022

Copyright © 1996, 2006, 2022 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.
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