For a couple of months, I have been drawn to poetry coming from Somalia and the reason is simple: Somalis are a people who are faced with daily struggles that many African countries have already gone through at independence. For many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, much of our best poetry and most-studied poets were born in the pre-independence era, writing their struggles and pouring their hearts in the art. The world has branded Somalia the most failed state but for us in the arts, we had better recognise Somalia for the goldmine it is when it comes to poetry and general literature because really, Somalis are in that phase that births literature with heart.
Somalian script existed before the Arabic conquest. At this link, you can see a picture of an early tablet, which indicates Wadaad writing of the Somalis. Omniglot explains and illustrates further here. In history, Somalia stands with Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia as the early-settled and most historically-relevant countries in Africa. Somalia has some of the earliest pyramids. Let me not digress to history. I’m celebrating Somalian art.
Long ago in 2010, I listened to K’naan do the World Cup theme song and was pleased to know he was from Somalia. Because traditional media does not hype the art side of Somalia, I thought K’naan may have been a rare breed of Somali who probably had no connection to the country from infancy. Don’t listen to what they tell you in the news. K’naan is a poet who spent his first 13 years in Somalia. Like many other Somalis, war forced his family out of Mogadishu to New York and later to Canada. His aunt Magool was purportedly a great Somali singer and his grandfather was a poet. He was born into a family of artists but I forgot about K’naan after the World Cup theme song Waving Flag died down.
What got me interested in Somali poetry again was Warsan Shire’s winning of this year’s inaugural Brunel Poetry Prize for African poetry. Her winning entries took my breath away and at the same time, reminded me of what I felt about Somalia during the World Cup. Somalia has art. I haven’t discovered enough of it yet but certainly Somalia has art. Much of it is shrouded in Arabic but for the few who have shared their art in English, the distinction is clear. What is happening in Somalia is deep consciousness and a protest movement that is silently but effectively carrying freedom messages across to the oppressors in the country, generation after generation, both in performance poetry of an ancient oral tradition that predates modernity, and written word. Read any Somali poet and you will read protest. Just like those poems of the 50s and 60s and 70s that spread across much of Western and Eastern Africa against oppressive regimes.
There have been a few stand-out poets that I should mention. The greatest-living Somali poet is called ‘Hadraawi’ (real name Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame). He has been called The Somali Shakespeare in many places and reading a few of his works has made me see why. I hope to review one of his poems soon but in the meantime, read this one titled Has Love been Blood-Written. I’m not reproducing it on this post because of its length.
The next poet you should definitely take note of is ‘Gaarriye’ (real name Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac). I will have to thank my new-found Somali poet and blogger friend, Dahaba for introducing Gaarriye to me. From her blog, read this poem by Gaarriye titled “Arrogance”. Unfortunately, Gaarriye died in a Norwegian hospital in September last year at 64 years. I am looking for his world-acclaimed poem titled “Hagarlaawe” (The Charitable) and perhaps I will attempt a review of it too if it’s not too long.
Finally, follow Warsan Shire’s works, who, just a few weeks ago, was made the first Young Poet Laureate of the city of London: the Somali winner of the Brunel Poetry Prize, yes that Warsan!
I will leave you with this short farewell poem written by Somali poet, Sufi Sheikh, and anti-colonial warrior Sayyid Mahammed ‘Abdille Hassan for a departing friend in the 19th Century and originally shared in a beautiful article on this same topic written by Rahma Bavelaar.
Now you depart, and though your way may lead
Through airless forests thick with hagar trees,
Places steeped in heat, stifling and dry,
Where breath comes hard, and no fresh breeze can reach
Yet may God place a shield of coolest air
Between your body and the assailant sun.
And in a random scorching flame of wind
That parches the painful throat, and sears the flesh,
May God, in His compassion, let you find
The great-boughed tree that will protect and shade
This article has been somewhat long and thank you for tarrying to the end of it. From the time you have read it, I hope I have lit a little flame in your poetic heart that will make you henceforth see Somalia as a country alive with art and heart, irrespective of what economics and politics tell us about it. There is a country alive in the east. Her name is Somalia.