When Somalia is mentioned, many of us automatically conjure up images of malnourished or starving children, internal strife and war. For many of us, our understanding and knowledge of the East African country is limited to what we see on television and for the most part, the images are often very depressing. This representation of Somalia as a poor destitute country has been heightened by the recent drought that has caused the deaths of thousands and has forced many to flee their homes in search of food.
While the media coverage surrounding the plight of those affect by the drought is warranted, it is important for us to recognize that Somalia is more than just a nation of famished people. It is characterized by a rich and vibrant culture and history and is home to some of the most prophetic and community oriented people on this globe.
As ironic as it may seem, the word Somalia has it’s orijin in the Arabic meaning “wealthy owner of animals.” That is because Somalia was once known for its rich and vast livestock, such of camels, which were used for meat and milk. Additionally, despite its current economic situation, Somali empires, such as the Sultanate of Adal and the Gobroon Dynasty, dominated trade during the middle ages and was central to the world commerce.
Somalis are also known for their love of poetry and this as propelled them to becoming what is often referred to as a “nation of poets.” Integral to this is their strong tradition of storytelling, which enables the speaker to eloquently tell a story while captivating the full attention of his/her audience. According to Somali born Canadian artiste K’Naan in a 2010 interview with PBS, “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.” Additionally, in the same interview, Rutgers University professor Said Samatar explained that poetry is an integral part of Somali culture because it 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?”
In essence, poetry is the means by which the people of Somalia carry on and celebrate their rich culture and history. Marcus Garvey once declared that “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Despite the unfortunate and uncontrollable circumstances such as the recent drought which has contributed to the plight of many people in Somalia today, they still posses what many nations strive to attain – a strong sense of who they are as a people and nation.
While images of starving Somali children are posted on television screens and billboards to bring awareness of their plight and to evoke in us a sense of need to urgency to help these children, we cannot deny that they also help to contribute to the stigmatization of Somali people. While it’s important to us to raise awareness of the plight of many in Somalia, it is just as important for us to display and celebrate their rich culture and society and for us to recognize that it’s more than a nation of starving people, it’s also a nation of poets.