For centuries, Somali children have grown up listening to their parents and relatives reciting poetry such that even today, many can recite poetry that is centuries old. Those familiar with Somalia, its history and its lyrical upbringing of children have thus called it a “Nation of Poets”.
Poetry permeates Somali society, and has been used to pass down history, values and teachings, as well as to tackle problems in the community and in life. In Somalia, in the words of poet and rapper K’naan, “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.” According to renowned Somali professor Said Sheikh Samatar, form and content are equally important in Somali poetry, and that just a glance at Somali society reveals “the remarkable influence of the poetic in the Somali cultural and political scene.” Poetry has been used to wage war and to negotiate peace. Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan — revolutionary, anti-colonial freedom fighter, Father of the Somali nation — is known to have used his poetry to unify and inspire Somalis in the fight against the British and Italians.
The poetic tradition of Somalia is “reflected even in modern words,” says Professor Samatar, “For instance, the Somali word for express mail delivery, warfin, is also the word for a slingshot used to kill birds because one is slingshoting the mail out into the world.” Although the tradition lives on in families and in society, as well as through the likes of Hadrawi (“The Somali Shakespeare”), K’naan and the poet Warsan Shire, the war in Somalia has been devastating for the “Nation of Poets”, their lives and their poetry. The huge poetic contests that used to be held throughout the country are no more. Many Somalis hope that their lyrical tradition and skill will someday help to broker peace and rebuild their poetic nation.
By Rahim Mawji