The Somali Nomad and the White Man in Abdirahman Mirreh’s “The White Man,” Nuruddin Farah’s “America, Her Bra!,” and Rashid Mohamed Jabane’s “The Sound of Lions”

These three texts explore the complex relationship between the Somali nomad and the White Man in relation to the issues of values, traditions, space, and education, among many others. The relationship between the Somali nomad and the White Man dates back to the early days of colonization when the Italians, British, and French settled in Greater Somalia—Italian Somaliland, British Somaliland, Djibouti (French Somaliland), NFD (Kenya), and Ogaden. The texts under study written between 1991and 2001 reflect on how the Somali nomad interacted with the White Man within a space that the former considered to be his domain and his privilege.

The first text to be examined is Abdirahman Mirreh’s poem entitled “The White Man,” written in Oslo in 1991. It is worth noting here that this poem was published in two different variations in A Gob Tree beside the Hargeisa Wadi (1995) and in From an Acacia Landscape (1996) and that some lines were altered or completely omitted from one version or the other. This article opts to use the 1996 edition because it is the latest version of the poem.

The White Man,” is a treatise on the history of the thorny relationship between the White colonizer and the Africans, namely the Somali nomad. The poem scrutinizes the relationship in its many facets including religion, power dynamics, and economic reality. The persona in the poem starts by calling into question the White Man’s supposed religious superiority over the natives:

First you came

with the Bible,

mirrors, beads.

You built churches

with my forest wood,

stone and sweat.

Then you forbade me

to worship my gods

or visit my ancestors’ shrines.

It is largely agreed upon that the basic elements of Somali traditional moral order are kinship and Islam (Samatar 110). To challenge one of these two foundations is synonymous of wilfully attempting to destroy that which makes the Somali culture. The poem refers to two stages in the White colonizer’s religious domination over the natives: flexible and hard techniques. At the beginning, the White Man came with the words of salvation and the rosary beads which are two non-violent instruments of indoctrination. In utilizing the indigenous materials in building his religious structures, the colonizer gave them a native imprint that would help them to assimilate better in the new environment, and, in utilizing the natives in the building process, the White Man creates an association between the structures of religious domination and the natives, strengthening his agenda of controlling the religious scene. This soft strategy is followed by a harsher and deeper attack on the natives’ religious identity by banning them from practicing their own indigenous religions. It is here that the White Man’s sense of superiorly manifests itself. It is no longer about a co-existence between two or more different religious perceptions and traditions but rather about the domination of one religion over others.

In his short story “America, Her Bra!” (2001), Nuruddin Farah evokes the same theme of forced change on the natives by the White Man. This story’s original title “Land Beyond” gives a better description of the conflict that arises when “in Kallafo, the river was a prominent feature, dividing our [Somalis’] part of town and the part where the provincial authority was [including] the American compound” (62). The river, part of nature as it is, is made into an imaginary line separating two worlds: that of the locals and the foreigners. It is the “land beyond” that fascinates the native children, driving them to cross the river into the American compound. At the end of this short story, the reader learns that “two youths were enrolled in the American missionary school as students, and as soon after that they became the new converts at the chapel” (62). Much like in Mirreh’s poem, the new religion is softly indoctrinated through education and schools. French thinker Michel Foucault writes that “surprising[ly] prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons” (“Governmentality” 228). In this respect, Abdul Bemath writes about two incidents that outraged Mohamed Abdul Hassan the Sayyid: first, when Somalis studying in the missionary schools told him that they “belonged to the clan of the fathers,” and, second, when a Somali school boy told him that his name was “John Abdullah”; Bemath argues that the Sayyid’s outrage “was the anger of the indigenous intelligentsia against cultural assimilation by Europeans via mission schools” (39). If anything, the White Man’s emphasis on appropriating the natives into Christianity is, to use the words of a Mennonite Missionary in Somalia Omar Eby, about “the small wedge the Spirit is driving into the Islamic Somali community” (5)—something to which The Sayyid, a devout Muslim, was totally hostile. In the case of the Somalis, the power of the White Man was enforced not only through schools but also through the army, as in the first-time use of airplanes in East Africa to bomb Mohamed Abdul Hassan the Sayyid, and detention centers for punishing the rebels and for programming the Somalis into accepting the White Man’s dogma as the right and appropriate one.

The Somali nomads “may not have thought of [them]selves as newly constructed hicks” but they could attest to the fact that their “way of life [is] being altered by forces” they “could not dimly comprehend” (Farah 61). In fact, the forced change under the colonial forces was reinforced under the régime of Siad Barre, as examined by Omar Osman Rabeh in “The Somali Nomad” (1983). Somalia, like almost every other country, was moving into consolidating its population into well-regularized spaces as to facilitate the advance of education, economy, and healthcare; this did not, in fact, correspond to the nomads’ innate desire for movement and freedom.

Nonetheless, this forced change did not stop at the level of religion, as seen in Mirreh’s poem. The change targeted intimate aspects of the nomads’ lives including dietary changes: “We [Somalis] were abandoning our eating habits, giving up our daily intake of milk and meat-based diets” (Farah 61). A change in diet does not only impact the food the Somali consumes but, indeed, alters an entire way of life; knowing that the Somali’s intake of milk and meat usually comes from his herd, one is secure enough to assume that the herds, which had previously “provided him with milk, meat, skin, transport and sometimes currency” (Rabeh 63), were no longer needed because of the shift in eating habits and, indeed, in means of transportation. In forcing the nomad to change his habits, a swift and subtle change took the nomad from the open space of the countryside to the smaller and closed space of the city where he would have to earn money to survive—something he had never done before. A nomad was then forced to learn about the notion of “productivity,” that is, physical work as a means to earn money for food, housing and clothes; Omar Osman Rabeh indicates that the notion of productivity, which the nomad “has no notion of” (63), would require the nomad to abandon his freedom—as a person roaming the open spaces—which is the essence of what makes a nomad a nomad. Before the White Man, the nomad used the skin of his animals to make clothes or covers for his dwelling, but now he was forced into using “garments till then unknown to [him], like underpants, socks, and handkerchiefs” (Farah 61). His entire way of life was slowly vanishing and becoming a memory to be nostalgic about.

The clash between the Somali nomad and the White Man further intensified when the very element of pride for the Somali was attacked: the land. The nomad lives off the land where he dwells, roams, and briefly inhabits. For the nomad, the land is not about individual ownership but, actually, about a shared temporary management of resources whereby a nomad can access the land without fear of repercussions.

In Mirreh’s poem, the land’s dispute is centered on the possession of what lies beneath the surface: “diamonds, gold, silver// and all the rest” (47). The White colonizer not only controlled the people of the land but, equally as important, the “wealth//beneath the earth” (47). The White Colonizer perceived the Somalis as being “out of place” in their understanding of the land and its ownership and were also seen as “blurr[ing] the boundary between the ‘native’ and ‘non-native,’” that is, between what the colonizer owns and what is left for the Somalis (Weitzberg 11). If and when the Somali nomad does not abide by the distinction between the possessions of the White Man and the meager possession left to the natives, a violent clash between the two occured in which, given his imperial powers, the White Man had the upper hand in inflicting pain on the locals:

and when I rebelled

against your brutality

you hanged me from a tree

lashed my body with a whip

until my flesh was torn,

until my blood soaked the soil. (Mirreh 46).

Though the land and its wealth is rightfully the Somalis to claim and possess, the White Colonizer did not acknowledge such postulation and perceived in any demand for economic justice a sort of challenge to the entire colonial system. Opposing economic brutality entailed physical brutality that equated demand for justice with death whereby the Somali would have to choose between relinquishing his rights or jeopardizing his own safety and life. As the blood of the Somali soaked into the soil, the union between the natives and their lands was only achieved in the very act of suffering and, potentially, death: a union written in blood.

Similar to the death-punishment in Mirreh’s “The White Man,” Rashid Mahamed Jabane’s “The Sound of the Lions” (1992) whose events can be roughly located within The Northern Frontier District (NFD) in colonial Kenya, tackles the issue of collective punishment of the Somalis by the White Man. The story, revolving around the struggle over land between the “pesky Somalis” and “a self-declared conservationist,” is essentially about the Somalis’ quest for regaining their ancestral land from a White Man supported by the local colonial government. As the story evolves, Somalis trying to unveil the killer their “white calf” are themselves shot dead by the conservationist: “Darmaan collapsed to the ground and Soofe with a cry rushed to his fallen brother. But even as he held the blood-stained body, he saw his two cousins collapsing next to him, gaping crimson holes in their bodies” (89). The Somalis, only equipped with “spears,” found themselves in the position of being twice-victimized: first, when they lost their calf, and, second, when they were killed by the White Man’s “rifle” even though they were demanding their rights; since the power dynamics were favoring the conservationist, Soofe, the only surviving Somali, “bewildered and terrified,” “flee[s] deeper into the bush” (89), leaving behind him the bodies of his family members.

Rashid Mohamed Jabane’s “The Sound of Lions,” which is loosely based on the life of George Adamson (1906 –1989)—known as “Baba ya Simba,” Swahili for “Father of Lions”—traces the complex nature uniting the Somalis and a conservationist; in this environment, the struggle evolves into a struggle of priorities, that is, each party involved has its own concerns. In the case of this conflict, the struggle is not totally about two settlers’ struggle over land but rather over land use: either to keep it for pasture or as a wildlife reserve.

The White Man, a widower with no children, thinks of the lions as “his children” (86) who need his protection; among the lions, the conservationist is essentially “their lord and master, giving them huge cuts of meat” (87). The White Man’s love for his lions is equal to his “hate [for] the locals” (87), who still claim “their ancestral lands” now turned into his “game reserve” (87). As Mirreh puts it in a statement by the Somali directed at the White Man, “yet you kept the//richness of my land//and the means of my//livelihood in your hands” (47).

The nomads, in need for pasture for their herds, “kept coming to their pastures and the government kept on pushing them out until the situation turned into an impasse” (87). As John Drysdale states in The Somali Dispute: “Somalis [are] nomadic people [. . .]—for whom there is one frontier only: the furthest limits to their pastures” (7). If the nomads do not acknowledge international borders in their quest for pasture, how would the White Man prohibit them from entering their very own land? The answer is straightforward: the nomads do not acknowledge any fences as long as there is pasture, especially if the land is theirs.

The grazing rights of the Somalis are not only infringed upon by the White Man’s self-imposed lion sanctuary but also by his lack of respect for the natives. His actions go beyond a simple conservationist effort to one in which he perceives the Somalis as animals to be hunted: “In his spare time, he trained his pride of lions to attack the locals on sight, and at night he released them to prey on camels and other livestock reared by the nomads” (87). The conservationist takes his approach towards Somalis to a cruel level where he takes pleasure in devastating their lives and livelihoods. It is no surprise, then, that Soofe came back to the reserve when “a distant memory whizzed before his mind and he saw Darmaan collapsing, full of blood” (92); in anact of revenge, not only on behalf of Darmaan but also on behalf of all nomads brutalized by the White Man, Soofe, now equipped with a Faal Rifle, “pressed the trigger, the impact of the bullet throwing the old man backwards. Soofe knew he [the conservationist] was dead” (92-3). As soon as the authorities were notified about the White Man’s death, a search for the culprits was initiated, resulting in the killing of Soofe and his kinsman Faaraax. The killing of the two Somalis is taken to a level as sadistic as The White Man’s training of lions to kill Somalis; the soldiers “picked up Faaraax and flew away with him [in a helicopter]. They discarded him from the far sky and he landed not very far from where Soofe’s body lay, his limbs twisting on impact” (93). The brutality, which the soldiers exhibit, can only be explained by the fact that it is Somalis per se not their actions that are being punished here; the killing of the conservationist was only a pretext for the soldiers to inflict as much pain on the Somalis as they can, which is similar to what they did before when they killed many people in “violent one-sided clashes” or when they “gang-raped” Keynaan’s betrothed (89).

As the story comes to a closure, in a twist of events, the White Man, who has spent his life protecting and feeding the lions, finds himself surrounded by “famished lions [. . .] licking the blood” (93), indicative that he has become their meal of the day. “Whatever remained of the old man” was given a funeral that indicates the shift of the struggle from one between the White Man and the local government, on one side, and the locals, on the other side, to one between the nomads and the local government. The story’s ending evokes of one of the major issues that African countries faced and still are facing: having to grapple with the remnants of the actions of the White Man, be it a colonizer, missionary, conservationist, or ideologue among others; border issues, ethnic conflicts, imposed frontiers, and forced policies by the White Man, even when he is not part of the African scene, over the Africans are still hindering the development in most of Africa.

Throughout these three texts, the relationship between the Somalis and the White Man has been examined as one filled with tension, contention, and clash. From the days of colonialism to the days of post-colonialism, the White Man perceives himself as the one with the upper-hand in the struggle over values, land, and wealth, reducing Somalis to a state of inferiority and backwardness. It was these assumptions by the White Man that were contested by Somalis in Mirreh’s “The White Man” and Jabane’s “The Sounds of Lions,” in which Somalis defy the White Man and his suppositions, arguing that Somalis and their values have as much merit as those of the White Man, if not more.

Helmi Ben Meriem is a researcher of Somali literature at the University of Sousse, Tunisia, where he is finishing his PhD dissertation under the direction of American fiction writer and professor of Anglophone studies, Edward Sklepowich.

Works Cited List:

Bemath, Abdul. “The Sayyid and Saalihiya Tariqa: Reformist, Anticolonial Hero in Somalia.” In the Shadow of Conquest: Islam in Colonial Northeast Africa. Ed. Said Sheikh Samater. New Jersey: The Red Sea Press, 1992. Print. 33-47.

Drysdale, John. 1964. The Somali Dispute. London: Pall Mall Press Ltd., 1964. Print.

Eby, Omar. 1965. Sense and Incense. Scottsdale: Herald Press, 1965. Print.

Farah, Nuruddin. 2001. “America, Her Bra!” Timbuktu, Timbuktu: A Selection of Works from the Caine Prize for African Writing 2001. Cape Town: Jacana, 2001. Print. 61-2.

Jabane, Rashid Mahamed. 1992. “The Sounds of Lions.” UFAHAMU: A Journal of African Studies, Vol. 20. Issue 2. 1992. Los Angeles: University of California, 1989. Web. 14 January 2015. 86-94.

Mirreh, Abdirahman. 1991. “The White Man.” From an Acacia Tree. 1996. Ipswich: HAAN Publishing, 1996. Print. 46-8.

Rabeh, Omar Osman. 1983. “The Somali Nomad.” Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Somali Studies (University of Hamburg, August 1-6, 1983). Volume 2: Aspects of Development. Ed. Thomas Labahn. Hamburg: Helmut Buske, 1984. 57-69.

Samatar, Ahmed Ismail. “The Curse of Allah: Civic Disembowelment and the Collapse of the State in Somalia.” The Somali Challenge: From Catastrophe to Renewal? Ed. Ahmed Ismail Samatar. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994. Print. 95-146.

Weitzberg, Keren. 2017. We Do Not Have Borders: Greater Somalia and the Predicaments of Belonging in Kenya. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2017. Print.