It’s oft-repeated, perhaps ad nauseam, that traditionally most Somalis are nomads. Nomads, by nature, pass their days itinerant. This journeying is guided not necessarily by the pursuit of a given destination, but circumstance—the search for pasture, for a well or other sources of water, for fresh arable land.

Some commentators, reflecting on the various paths emigrating Somalis have pursued around the world have merely brought this characterisation up-to-date with the post-1990 reality through the apt descriptor, ‘international’. The argument goes: Somalis, as nomads, used to travel within the confines of a certain geographical space but in this age of the global village, they traverse the globe with the same nomadic instinct—this time, in pursuit of safety and security—as they previously trekked in search of pastures for their livestock.

This notion of constant travel might be a useful prism through which to understand Somali history from a longue durée perspective. The French historian, Fernand Braudel, wrote about different types of ‘histories’: the ephemeral and contingent on the one hand and the decisive and structural on the other. The resultant task is to take these two histories (literally, narratives) ‘in the same grasp: the history that moves from one moment to the next, riveting to the eye of the beholder by the mere fact of its shifts and dramas and an underlying history, saying little, almost unsuspected by its actors or observers, but a history which nonetheless persists, no matter what may happen against all the wear and tear of time’ (1). As such, there is a transition from the merely event-driven, short-term histories, the courte durée to the longue durée. The latter, characterised not by change but continuity, gives rise to a mentalité, a self-contained characteristic way of thinking, feeling and living.

Interviewing oral informants as part of research for my undergraduate dissertation, I found these sentiments—the mentalité of modernity acting alongside and interacting with the mentalité of tradition—ever-present in their recollections. Although historians and social scientists are increasingly wary of sharply delineating terms such as tradition and modernity, the use of first-hand historical information can help to highlight instances where such a contradistinction is meaningful.

Tradition is understood, for instance, as customs, practices or beliefs which have been passed down from generation to generation. ‘Modernity’, on the other hand, is understood in two interrelated ways: firstly, as the departure from the ‘traditional’ and secondly and related to that, ‘modernity’ is represented by certain norms and institutions replacing or eliding previous ones such individualism (over communalism) and the rise of the nation-state where imperialism once ruled.

As Anthony Giddens observed, ‘modernity’ is used as a shorthand term for modern society, which itself has three main characteristics. Of concern to us here are two out of the three: a) a set of economic institutions that relate to industrial production and a market economy and b) a range of political institutions that support the nation-state and mass democracy (2). Charles Baudelaire, who coined the term modernité in one of his essays, used it to represent ‘the fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis’ (3).

To capture the dynamic symbiosis between the two, therefore, it is more helpful to treat tradition and modernity less as stagnant absolutes and more as abstract, wide-ranging worldviews and perspectives, whose constituent parts—at times, understood as clan/kinship networks, communalism, agrarianism in the case of the former; urbanisation, mass democracy and industrialisation—can exist to varying extents in different places, even at the exclusion of its sister components.

Modernity meant different things to different people. In late-/post-colonial Somalia, to some it meant speaking a foreign language—even those with the most minimal Italian would drop the odd Italian word into their conversations to identify themselves as part of the elite while to others it meant adopting a new culture: sitting down in coffee shops reading English-language publications such as Dalka or War Somali Sidihi, a cup of coffee at hand. As John Drysdale recalled, ‘the elegance of a collar and tie’—thoroughly European forms of dress—’persisted’ in postcolonial Mogadishu (4). Kinship networks were not totally overwritten and the shifts in how people identified themselves and others were more subtle. With the commercialisation of the economy and the opportunities for capital accumulation (as opposed to the old limited household and livestock economy), people began to see themselves in new but not entirely alien ways.

Seen in this way, a level of nuance can be brought to the more conventional periodisation of twentieth-century Somali history. The noteworthy dates and events of 1943 and 1960, for instance—the former seen as an important date in political awakening, with the founding of the Somali Youth League (SYL) and the latter, the dawn of independence—can be understood within this wider framework of a ‘transitional society’, moving from old norms to new forms. New histories that place the concept of transition and travel at the heart of the inquiry are bound to yield more interesting insights.

In order to endow his Somali audience with an appreciation for the value of the anti-colonial independence movement, the iconic bard Timadde (‘Timacadde’) characterised the nation-state as a milch-camel, the animal reared by the majority of Somalis.

Deploying the image of the camel—symbolic in the nomad’s mind of prosperity—effectively twinned independence with the promise of plenty. Just a few years after the end of colonialism and the start of self-rule, this same trope was adopted to signify dissatisfaction, when the (occasionally wild) expectations placed upon independence were to remain unmet. One such rendition came through the words of another poet in c.1962, who giving vent to particular regional grievances, lamented how ‘Of all worldly possessions, [he] owned only a she-camel’ [Maandeeq, importantly, the name given to the she-camel by ‘Timacadde’] which had now become lost to him (5). High expectations, like his camel, disappeared into thin air.

Perhaps in hindsight, rather than focusing on the camel as symbolic of plenty, poets and public alike should begin to extol the virtues of this beast as a trusty mount, able to brave the arid country and to survive for prolonged periods with little drink or grazing. Like the Somali people, traversing the divide between colonialism and independence, subjugation and self-rule, the camel is on a journey. In three years, Somalia will mark sixty years since the two regions—one formerly under the Italian, the other the British—became free from the imperialist yoke and united as a republic. Then, as now, one can only be sure that everyone—both in Somalia and beyond—are very interested in where and how Maandeeq will go next.



(1) Davidson, B., Africa in Modern History: The Search for a New Society (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1987), p. 23.

(2) Giddens, A., Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 94.

(3) Baudelaire, C., ed. and trans. J. Mayne, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, London: Phaidon Press, p. 13.

(4) Drysdale, J., ‘Reflections, 1943-1963’ in Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics: Essays in Honour of I. M. Lewis, ed. M. V. Hoehne and V. Luling, London: Hurst, 2010, p. 27.

(5) Johnson, J. W., Heelloy: Modern Poetry and Songs of the Somalia, London: Haan, 1998, p. 131.


This article appeared in the first issue, 1 July 2017.