A BBC-Marconi Type A microphone
Photo: witnessesofwords.com

‘Gathering round the speakers’—the act of family members at home or customers at a local teashop huddling over a radio set—to catch the latest news was, for much of the twentieth century, a uniquely memorable Somali pastime. In his memoir, the seasoned diplomat Mohamed Osman Omar noted how even in the depths of the nomadic areas, herdsmen would carry small transistor radios on their shoulders. It was hardly surprising then—in spite of the limited educational opportunities afforded to him—that, almost unlike his peers on the continent, a Somali nomad or farmer could speak about world politics with self-assuredness and verve, skills sharpened in group conversation, discussing items of news in the earlier broadcast.

This summer, the BBC Somali Service—first broadcast on 18 July 1957—celebrated its sixtieth. For long, the Service had an inimitable reputation as a reliable source. As the saying went, if the BBC hasn’t reported it, it can’t be true! As the Service marks sixty years of its existence—spanning three years of colonial rule, three decades of an independent Somalia and now, almost three decades since the civil war broke out—it seems an ideal time to take stock. The headline points to the age-old question about the Service and how it was has been ‘received’ by its target audience. Is it fair, as some have done, to dismiss the Service as simply being the British Colonial Office—or later, the Foreign Office—grinning from behind a microphone? Readers may, of course, recall that a Somali president, in a pithy wordsplay on the Corporation’s initials, is alleged to have sardonically labelled it ‘Been Been Sheeg’.

Delving into the archives and utilising previously unseen broadcast reports, this article explores the early beginnings of the Service and how its emergence reflected the wider regional and global political forces trying to make themselves heard in the Horn. The Suez Crisis of 1956 has been seen as an key moment in the British involvement in the Middle East, read b y many as the end of British predominance in the region. Besides its geopolitical significance, it served as an important trigger in the world of broadcasting.

A war of words

Almost since the birth of radio, the airwaves have been used as a political weapon. The Germans and the Russians had been pioneers in this area. Soon after the Russian Revolution of 1917, messages were being directed abroad by the new administration to explain the motivation behind the event. Within two decades, broadcasting to the Arab world was undertaken on behalf of the Axis with the Fascist government in Italy, from 1935, using a radio station in Bari, southern Italy, to carry out a bitter campaign against British “imperialism”. After Suez, in order to counter what the British to be the anti-British, inflammatory broadcasts, the hours of the BBC Arabic Service were increased and the Corporation began broadcasting in three African languages: Hausa (for West Africa), Swahili for East Africa and Somali. And so the Somali Service was born. In diversifying its language output, the Service then was reaching newer audiences. In so doing, it presented an antidote to some of the inflammatory and politicised broadcasts from Cairo.

If Britain could be accused of having certain aims it wanted to see fulfilled in Africa, then Egypt, itself a regional power, was little different. The Service’s main rival, Radio Cairo’s Sawt al- Arab [The Voice of the Arabs] preceded it by four years, having also—incidentally—first broadcast in July. Sawt soon found its Somali voice, when its Somali section was established. It was a product of its time, the era of decolonisation, and as a result, its anchors (perhaps inadvertently) spread the message of Nasserism, which often hid behind an admixture of pan-Arabism, socialism and anticolonialism. (We shall leave the debate of whether Somalis are Arabs for another issue but suffice it to say that, at the time, Somalis were considered Arabs particularly by the Egyptians.)

The British were rightly concerned. One Sawt broadcast (19 June 1957), for instance, claimed to its Somali listeners that the proposed Legislative Assembly in British Somaliland would be ‘inconsistent with democratic procedures’ since the very formation of the assembly would be ‘under the thumb of the British governor’. A later Cairene broadcast (14 November 1957) reminded the ‘esteemed listeners’ of how Europeans had hindered Somalis’ progress, before recalling—not without some misplaced self-congratulation— that the Somali peninsula had, prior to Partition, been ruled by Egypt, ‘which was primarily responsible for [its] progress [and] for the establishment of a good government’.

One anecdote might help put one at ease, illustrating as it does the premium the BBC placed on impartiality. A young man applying for a job in Bush House (not necessarily the Somali Service) was asked how he would treat a news item which reflected badly on Britain. ‘I would judge it only on its news value’, he said, adding after a seemingly long ominous pause: ‘That may be the wrong answer, but that’s what I should do’. He duly got the job.

On Sawt, there continued talk of “conspiracies” by “colonial consulates” against the Somali people and their impending independence; the presence of imperialist lackeys and even allegations that there was a fifth column at work in the nationalist movement, supported by funds from the “colonial powers”. This may all seem fanciful but for the British, Cairo’s coverage prompted it to act and establish a rival broadcaster. Both Somali Services of Sawt and the BBC shared similarities. For example, as noted before, both were first broadcast in July—in 1953 and 1957 respectively and both, in their first decade at least were staffed by Somali students in Cairo and London respectively.

But between them, there are also stark differences. While Sawt appears to have disappeared into a mist, the BBC Somali Service lives on. To the present author—having not only surveyed written records of radio broadcasts but also interacted both with former broadcasters and loyal listeners of the BBC Somali Service—there is little doubt that the Service has survived, where Sawt has not, because it discovered the magic formula. Unlike Sawt, which focused almost exclusively on politics, colonialism and intrigue, its BBC opposite number diversified its output. Programmes such as ‘Todobaadka iyo Afrika’, ‘Qubanaha’ and ‘Fanka’ became iconic in their celebration of Somali culture and music. And so, to return to that image of ‘gathering around the speakers’ with which I begin. Sitting around the family radio set at home, or a loudspeaker at a local cafe, Somalis not only use the opportunity to discuss current affairs and politics. They also delve into music, poetry and culture.

(Gathering round the speakers, published by Haan Publishers, is the title of Suleiman Mohamoud Adam’s book on the history of Somali broadcasting, 1941-1966.)