This article was prompted by the request of one of our readers asking about the name Somalia.
Readers may well recall the memorable scenes of Alice in the Wonderland. I refer of course to the encounter between the young Alice and the Caterpillar. Reasonably enough—or unreasonably, as the reader may judge moments into the conversation—they begin by identifying each other. ‘Who are you?’ asks the Caterpillar of Alice. Rather shyly, she responds, ‘I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must changed several times since then’.
The Caterpillar persisted. ‘You!’ said the Caterpillar contemptuously. ‘Who are you?’ Unhelpfully, the conversation has gone full circle to where we began. Deflecting the question—displaying true signs of being clueless at a seemingly straightforward query, in this tale in the literary nonsense genre—Alice quipped, ‘I think you ought to tell me who you are first’.
That feeling—of waking from a stupor—and feeling a bit different is perhaps not unique to Alice. Whole nations and societies can feel this too. Indeed, in his sequel Through the Looking- Glass, Lewis Carroll this time detailed the confrontation between the young girl and a rather large Egg. Exasperated after so much apparent prevarication on the part of the Egg, she objected: ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. ‘The answer is’, responds Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all’. In other words, it is the master—the more powerful party—who defines the terms and sets the boundaries.
This fact is all to familiar for the Somali people. In the late-nineteenth century, their home on the eastern Horn of the African continent was, as is wellknown, divided into five at the behest of the European colonial powers meeting at the Berlin Conference. As Somali people would lament, then just as well as now, these boundaries were little more than haphazard: dividing people who, generally speaking, shared (almost if not entirely) a common language and a cultural heritage. When in the next century, the Continent would be graced by ‘Winds of Change’, inaugurating self-governing states in the place of colonies, in 1960, it would be only two out of these five Somali territories which would unite to form the new Somali Republic. As ever, it was the decisions of the master—the departed coloniser nations—which would mean, as Somali premier Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke lamented in 1962 that Somalis in the Republic would have as their neighbours their fellow Somalis, differentiated from them by little else but lines on the map.
Now, when so many years have passed since those events, many attempts have been made to write a history of the Somali people. The state of the field certainly feels a far cry from October 1965. In that month’s issue of Dalka, the young Sulleman Mohamoud Aden, a history graduate then working as a civil servant in Mogadishu, in a book review of I. M. Lewis’ The Modern History of Somaliland, commended it for being “probably the most complete to date”, fulfilling a “great need”.
Subsequent histories, however, have enjoyed varying levels of success, often written by non-historians (perhaps taking after Lewis’ own lead, himself an anthropologist!), in consequence, often putting into circulation or even pedalling popular misconceptions. Although, as the phrase goes, the facts do speak for themselves, this is only the case when the exponent has the necessary grasp and presents the information in a coherent and lucid way. (On a side note, it was pleasing to hear, in a recent conversation with a Somali politician, who was a member of the opposition in the 1960s, that he is working on a memoir.)
One significant misconception, now in wide circulation, is around the name Somalia. Who coined it? When and how was it first used? Which boundaries marked it on the map? The name Somalia—as signifying a geographical space—was in popular use in Italian, Somali and Arabic in colonial times and subsequently. It was only the British, perhaps because they called their territorial holding British Somaliland, who referred to the Italian-controlled south as Italian Somaliland.
To appreciate how the name Somalia came to be popularised, in that exact form, we need to briefly look back into history. In 1899, Rudyard Kipling published a poem titled ‘The White Man’s Burden’, which was understood as morally justifying imperialist expansion. A whole philosophy arose around this ‘Burden’, exhorting Europeans to spread ‘The Three Cs of Colonialism’, namely, civilisation, Christianity and commerce. Before making advances on a territory to colonise it, explorers would be sent to survey it, collecting valuable ethnographic and topographic information. (Interestingly, these ‘discoverers’ or ‘explorers’ played a role comparable to the “sahan”, the scout sent forth by the reer [the camp] to explore better grazing areas before any relocation is undertaken by a party of nomads.)
Readers may also be interested to note that in 1325, when the fabled jurist and traveller Ibn Battuta visited Mogadishu, a large, thriving town, he was dazzled by the show of opulence and hospitality. He noted how, besides serving ‘side-dishes, stews of chicken, meat, fish and vegetables’, the locals ‘cook unripe bananas in fresh milk, and serve them as a sauce’. (Almost eight centuries on, little appears to have changed, with the Somali’s partiality for the tropical fruit well-known.)
The documents they produced as part of their travels helps us date the early uses of the name Somalia and its precursor, Somali. Somali—being a demonym, that is, the name used for the inhabitants of a particular area—was in use before Somalia. The European explorers then labelled the eastern Horn of the African continent on their maps, with slight variations, as Somali or Somal, after the people they came across there. The Arabs had been using the name ‘Soomaal’ for even longer than their European counterparts, going back many centuries, a notable example being in a sixteenth century war chronicle.
From there, it was a small leap from labelling a territory on a map by the name of the people who lived there to that name ‘sticking’. On the explorer’s map, then, the eastern Horn went from ‘Somal’ or ‘Somali’ to Somalia. By the turn of the twentieth century, the name ‘Somalia’ was in popular use, at least among European travellers and colonial officers. One extant document from 1908, an official decree produced by the Italians, is a good example of how early Somalia was being used.
A map produced by the Italian Foreign Ministry from four years later, in 1912, is labelled L’amministrazione Italiana nella SOMALIA [The Italian Administration in Somalia]; its depiction stretching from Kismayo [Chisimaio] to Hobyo [Obbia]. It is clear then that although the name Somalia was in use at this time, officially designating an Italian colony, the Italians had not made their advance further north, beyond what is now central Somalia.
In the colonial era, differences in language mattered. With the start of European colonisation of the region in the late-nineteenth century and subsequently, the British used the names Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland, whereas the Italians used the corresponding names, Somalia italiana and Somalia inglese. Variations on the same names were also prevalent: to the French, for instance, they were known as Somalie anglaise and Somalie italienne.
Fast forward to 1960. The ten years set for the Italian tutelary administration in the south had drawn to a close. Thus, the Somali Republic was formed out of the Union of both Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland. The name, the Somali Republic, then was inaugurated in 1960, with independence, becoming the official name of the newly-unified country. But for all intents and purposes, the country was more popularly known as Somalia. Between 1912 and 1960, the same name now came to represent a much greater geographical expanse. This reflected two developments: the Italians’ northerly advances, which took in more and more of the Horn and secondly, the union between the two former colonial territories in 1960. By July 1960, then, the name Somalia denoted the territory from Ras Kamboni to Aluula and Bereeda, the two towns on the northeasternmost tip of the newborn republic, to Hargeisa, Berbera and Zeila.
The common misunderstanding is to think that in 1960, the country formed out of the union, was not called Somalia. For as the linguist and scholar, Mohamed Diriye Abdullahi, pointed out Somalia is quite simply ‘a popular name for the Somali Republic’. And while the popular name has remained unchanged for all that time, the official name has been refashioned a number of times. After the civilian administration was overthrown in 1969, reflecting the socialist inclinations of the new government, the official name was altered to the Somali Democratic Republic. Now, with federation on the books, it has become the Somali Federal Republic. All the while, the country has been called Somalia.
In other words, the official name points to the form of government in a country while its popular name is a geographic signifier, its proper name. The official name of a country—the longer version—is only ever invoked to remove any possible ambiguity. A good example would be the Congos. One—the Democratic Republic of Congo, known for short as the DRC—was formerly a Belgian colony; the other, the Republic of Congo, a French one. Of course, here, one can appreciate the purpose of calling a spade a spade for one would otherwise risk confusing one’s audience as to which republic they were referring.
In all other cases, the one-word name suffices. By analogy, there’s little need, upon first meeting someone, in listing one’s abtirsi when first names seem to do the job well enough. So France, instead of the French Republic; Iran, instead of the Islamic Republic of Iran; China and only ever rarely, the People’s Republic of China (PRC); Russia, rather than the Russian Federation; Ethiopia, rather than the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. So, to return to the question of the headline: what really is in a name? It was Juliet, in Shakespeare’s play, who, lovestruck, claimed it mattered little that Romeo was from her family’s rival household, the Montagues. From a window overlooking the family orchard, she calls out: ‘What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, / By any other word would smell as sweet’. The names of things, in Juliet’s eyes, did not change their essence: Romeo, by any other name, would still be the object of her adoration. Love is, as they say, truly blind.
It is clear that the legacy of colonialism casts its shadow over the Somali people. This can be seen most starkly in the colonial language inherited in different parts of the Horn. In the Protectorate, formerly administered by the British and where English was the colonial language in use, the names British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland are most familiar. Head due south, into the former Italian colony where Italian was the main colonial language in use, and the names Somalia italiana and Somalia inglese were in circulation.
There is a Somali adage which declares, ‘Magac bilaash uma baxo’—in other words, a name carries meaning, in pointing to and capturing the essence of that which it denotes. Now, in the twenty-first century, alongside the many pressing questions of the age, people are increasingly asking: ‘Are we postcolonial yet?’ After all, what does self-governance (autonomy) amount to, if not accompanied by the sharpening of one’s critical and intellectual faculties and the ability to appreciate the nuance of each and every word they deploy?
For, now, when one writes about contemporary history and politics using the names Somalia and Somaliland, they run the risk of falling into a sort of tautology. These names, by their very nature, carry history, pointing as they do to the different colonial legacies and colonial languages which bequeathed them. Fifty-seven years on from independence, perhaps we’re still lost in translation.