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By Zainab Mohamed Jama
I would like to discuss in this paper some of the poetry composed by a group of' Somali women who were active in the independence struggle in Somalia during the 1940s and 1950s. The poems discussed here are not well known in Somalia as is the case generally for poetry composed by women. Somali women are estimated to be more than half of the general population. Yet their poetry concerning matters of political interest such as clan politics, the nationalist struggle, moderngovernment politics and civil war is not in wide circulation.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first and most important is the lack of female reciters in Somali society. There is no special class of poets or reciters in Somali culture. Usually a poet or a reciter has another way of earning his living. But while men have male reciters who follow their favourite poets' compositions, memorise them and recite these poems to audiences, there are no women who play a similar role. This is not because women are not interested in this occupation or hobby, but because Somali culture and the Somali way of life impose a number of restrictions on women. Men travel freely and this freedom of movement, particularly in nomadic areas is intimately bound up with the way oral poetry itself is transmitted. Men can carry it with them over vast distances. But in Somali tradition women's movements and travel are more restricted than that of men. If a woman travels to other areas than that of her family or husband's family she must have a very good reason for doing so. Over the centuries and generations there have been women who composed poetry on political and other serious matters. There is, though, always this severely limiting factor: the reluctance or downright refusal of men to recite and therefore pass on poetry composed by women. Thus women's poetry rarely passes beyond the composer and perhaps a few close friends or relatives, and as a result does not survive as long as that of their male contemporaries. In spite of this one may hear names of famous poetesses of the past, for example, the legendary queen Arrawelo, Muheeya Ali, wife of a well-known poet by the name of Ali Duuh and one of the daughters of Sayid Mohamed Abdulle Hassan, alias Mad Mullah.
In this century one group of poetesses who deserve wide recognition are a group of Somali women who were members of the Somali Youth League (S.Y.L.) during the 1940s and 1950s. The S.Y.L. was active in the struggle for independenceparticularly in the South of Somalia which was colonised by Italy.
In the 1940s Somali women were joining the nationalist movement both in the north and the south of the Somali territories with the same enthusiasm as their male colleagues, and were taking their share not only in the actual struggle for liberation but also in composing poetry on the theme of nationalism. It is to this body of poetry that I will now turn. In addition to the poetry by members of the S.Y.L., poems composed by Fadumo Hersi Abbane who was involved in the struggle fo liberation in the North of Somalia, will also be looked at.
These women made use of the occasion of public gatherings and rallies organised and made possible by the independence movements, which allowed them to recite their poetry to male or mixed audiences. Yet here too, because of the reasons mentioned earlier, their poetry never received enough public recognition let alone publication. I met the group of S.Y.L. poetesses in 1987, in Mogadishu, Somalia and I recorded what they could remember of their poems, not forgetting that they composed and recited their poetry orally and that they are all illiterate. Most of the S.Y.L. members composed their poem in the female genre of buraanbur, but Fadumo Hersi Abbane also employed the male styles of classical poetry. The classification of Somali classical poetry is generally based on two factors: the way the poem is chanted and the rhythmic pattern of words. There are four types of classical poetry which are best fitted to address matters of serious interest: the gabay, the geeraar, the jiifto chanted by men, and the buraanbur which is chanted differently by women (Andrzejewski and Lewis 1964).
The buraanbur is usually shorter than the gabay and usually it has lines of between 10 to 20 syllables. But both the buraanbur and the male forms of classical poetry have to follow strict rules of alliteration. Only identical initial consonants or vowels are regarded as alliterative with one another and no substitution by similar sounds is admissible.Furthermore, this strict rule of alliteration is applied throughout the whole poem. In addition to classical poetry, there is light poetry which is sung accompanied by music or clapping and chorus. In the mid 1940s a new genre bridged the gap between the two styles of Somali poetry. This genre, which was very popular about the time the struggle for nationalism was in progress, was characterised by short lines (sometimes one or two lines only) which was unusual for Somali poetry at that time. The balwo form which was broadcast by the then newly opened Somali radio (Radio Hargeisa), made use of the imagery, symbolism and allusion which is known for the classical genre, but also drew some of the characteristics of the light poetry such as the lively rhythms (Johnson 1974).
The S.Y.L. women members employed the buraanbur type of classical poetry, as well as the short style which the balwo form is identified with, which was popular at that time. Their poetry came out of a number of situations linked to their novel activities in the nationalist struggle. The style of poetry they adopted depended on several factors such as the time available for composition, the length of the poem and more importantly the occasion. Events such as public meetings and other gatherings called for the buraanbur genre as they gave the poetess the opportunity to publicise her compositions.
However, as they were involved in real day-to-day situations which needed more dialogue and communication, they sometimespreferred to employ the balwo type, short concise poems of one, two or three lines, to put across their messages. They adopted the short style particularly when they had limited time, or no time at all, to compose and rehearse their compositions at leisure. At such times they improvised most of their poems. Their themes varied from encouragement, boasting about victories, and grief when they lost colleagues and friends, to poetic curses on their enemies.
The group of the S.Y.L. women members whom I met were: Halimo Godane, Halimo Shiil, Barni Warsame and Timiro Ukash. I recorded and translated a number of their poems, some of which will be cited here as examples. Sometimes the poems were performed in meetings, and at times the poetry was a vehicle tor conscientising other less daring women. For example, on one occasion Halimo Shiil was given a warning by a concerned friend who saw her active involvement in the independence struggle as dangerous and said to her: 'Be careful; if you were to die now, remember you wouldn't leave any children behind.' Halimo composed a short buraanbur in answer to her friend. Here is her poem with a translation in English. The Somali alphabet is read the same way as the Latin, except for 'c' (which sounds like 'a') and 'x' (the nearest sound to which is 'h'):
1.Aniga geeri iyo nololi way ii gudboonyihiin.
[For me death and life are the same.]
2.Gotaan bean geadhnay isticmaarka inaan gubnaa,
[We have decided to bum the colonialists.]
3.Shardou naga guuro geashaanka waa la hayn.
[until they leave (us) we will keep the shield. ]
4.Guhaad iyo ciil nin qaba yea wax gaysan jiray,
[The angry one who is being scolded for not avenging takes action,]
5.Shardou naga guuro gaashaanka wee lay hayn .
[until they leave (us) we will keep the shield.]
In this short poem, as the occasion demanded a prompt answer, Halimo wanted to say quickly in verse to her friend what her feelings were about the struggle, and how important it was to her, so much so that she did not care if she died for the cause. Halimo Godane, one of the first women to join the S.Y.L., sustained abuse even from fellow women for her activities in the struggle. She composed a buraanbur for those women who did not sympathise with the cause. The original poem was about 20 lines but she could only remember 9 lines. Unaided by a written script or by professional reciters her memory had failed with age. Halimo was already in her late seventies and in poor health when she recited some of her poems to me.
In this buraanbur Halimo Godane is trying to persuade the other women who were either unsympathetic or who did not have faith in the independence struggle to join the movement. Here is a translation of her poem:
The planes which make the deafening noise and the weapons that explode.
Those nations (who make them) achieved it the hard way.
And we too must remember this.
Men are dying of sleeplessness, as they don't come home any more.
They are working all night so that we succeed.
We decided to stand by their side.
So, Somali girls tighten up your skirts.
Don't let us divide and let the infidels buy us.
Until we hit the target, we must not rest.
On one occasion when Halimo Shiil was touring with another colleague in the rural areas for the purpose of persuading others to join the S.Y.L., one of the ladies they met asked them: 'How can we talk about independence when we can't even
manufacture anything?' They responded with this buraanbur:
Our land has everything: stones, trees and fertile sand.
In our land pure coconut and maize can grow
And we also can put our (dhafaruur) fruits in a bottle.
We can give it a brand name and put it in a shop for sale.
Halimo Shiil and her colleague were trying to say: 'We have the resources, and the technology will come if we try.' Halimo Godane also composed poems similar in theme to the above, to encourage Somalis and appeal to their patriotism. Here is an
Our land is full of silver and natural gas.
Its wealth is being taken away by infidels who came in trucks.
O Somalis hurry up before they finish it.
Our land which is full of silver and natural gas,
Is being taken away by infidels who came in trucks,
And we have nothing. All our territories are buried with gold,
Diamond and pearls are as abundant as the trees,
Before they pass us by and take it, hurry up Somalis.
While the struggle for independence was continuing, there was also fighting between rival Somali clans in some of the nomadic areas where there is frequently conflict about tribal grazing lands and water. Halimo Godane composed a buraanbur in which she appeals to the warring parties to stop fighting. The following few lines are from her poem:
Women are made widows every season.
Their heroes are eaten away by vultures.
O Somalis stop fighting before things get worse.
In the valleys and the areas with good grazing,
The camels which used to roam there can no longer graze,
O Somalis stop fighting before things get worse.
On other occasions Halimo Godane and her colleagues marked important events with short poems of two or three lines. They composed several short poems to mark an incident which took place when a Commission sent by the four Allied Powers arrived in Mogadishu in January 1948. Its brief was to decide the future of Southern Somalia which had come under British Military administration after Italy was defeated in the Second World War. The Commission asked the British administration to grant permission to the S.Y.L. to hold a large public rally in support of the visit.
On that same morning and without authorisation, the Italian community and their supporters, armed with all sorts of weapons, came out in force and tried to break up the demonstration. The two sides clashed and a number of people from both sides lost their lives. Some of the S.Y.L. leaders and members were arrested or deported to remote rural areas. Halimo Godane composed this poem to show her sorrow:
The men who were put in the trucks to be deported,
Our leaders who were arrested,
The official ban on gatherings,
O God, the King, may the British lose their dignity.
The above is an example of the poems which the poetesses composed during the period they were involved in the struggle for independence, both to express their sorrow and to give each other moral support, or simply to commemorate an occasion which was the case in the following poem by Barni Warsame:
The men arrested by force,
They have not committed any crime,
And they had no business with them.
It is because they fought for their rights they have been detained today,
O Somalis fight for your country.
There are many examples of this type of short poem, but they cannot all be cited here. However, as one can see from the above examples the poetesses were influenced by the balwo style of poetry which was popular during that time. With the ease of travel and communication which came when most of the Somali territories came under the British administration, and with the help of the radio which was transmitting the newly invented balwo genre, the S.Y.L. women had more access to this new invention and they adopted the short style of the balwo as well as its lively rhythms.
The Allied Powers Commission, having studied the situation in Southern Somalia, went back to report its findings. There were rumours that the Commission would recommend that Southern Somalia, governed by a British Military administration after Italy's defeat in the Second World War, be handed back to Italy for trusteeship. This angered the nationalist movement and its supporters. A delegation led by the secretary of the S.Y.L went to the United Nations to lobby delegates there, but a counter group orchestrated and financed by the Italians also sent their representative to the United Nations to promote the Italian cause (Lewis 1980). Halimo Godane and Barni Warsame composed a buraanbur/duet about those who collaborated with the colonialists and particularly their representatives at the United Nations. This buraanbur has unique characteristics: it is made up of several themes. At times the two poetesses brag and boast about the League and its successes, and at other times they shower slander and abuse on their enemies. It is also interesting to see how the two authors address each other, using praise names probably to make the words more poetic. But the most striking feature about this buraanbur is its use of the power of curse. Curse - or 'kuhan' as it is known in Somali - is a very powerful weapon when used in poetry, particularly when it is used by the oppressed and the wronged party. On this occasion the poetesses cursed those who collaborated with the Italians and betrayed their brothers and sisters. The following lines are from this poem:
The one who collaborates with the Italians, may you never see heaven,
May God never show you the face of his Prophet,
May your whole body be infected with a disease.
Kaaha, daughter of Mohamed, those cowards,
It is the fact that they were shaking and panicky as God made them,
And the fact that they had to be carried off the chair (at the U.N.) gives me pleasure.
The envious ones who went there to do us harm,
As if they were married (to the Italian) and they had to be shy,
As if they should feel shame whenever he approaches them in person,
We prayed to God that they pay for their wrongs.
Prison was another important source of women's poetry. Most of the women I met had some kind of experience of detention, prison sentences, physical and psychological torture or other kinds of humiliating experiences. Timiro Ukash was among a large number of S.Y.L. members who were rounded up in Kismayo in 1952. They had participated in an unauthorised demonstration organised by the group in protest against the return of Southern Somalia to Italian trusteeship. They were in detention without trial for 13 months after which time some of them were sentenced to life imprisonment. Others were given sentences between 3 and 24 years.
Timiro served a number of years in a high security prison in Kismayo. She was pregnant when she was arrested and she was one of several women to give birth in prison. Timiro composed poetry on nationalism while she was serving her prison sentence. The following is one of her poems:
Let them start war and lock us away,
Let them bum us with fire and bullets men and women,
The few who are left will attain independence.
Dahabo daughter of Musa la fellow prisonerJ don't you ever despair,
Let them make us porters and treat us like dirt,
Let them treat the wise men of the League like Hujuris
[people who do menial jobs].
Until the independence which we have struggled for is realised we will not be upset by what the Italians are doing,
May the Italians be destroyed and nothing left of them.
May they explode by bombs and be torn to pieces.
May they be sacrificed for the flag of the League.
Say amen that God answers my prayers.
Timiro's poem shows that no matter how badly they were treated, first by the Italian and then by the British Colonial authorities in Southern Somalia, they still managed to continue their struggle and keep their morale high.
While the S.Y.L. members were in prison there were occasions when the men themselves composed in the female buraanbur form. After lengthy persuasion Aden Artan who was serving a sentence of 24 years at Kismayo prison at that time, agreed to recite for me some of those buraanbur composed by Mr. Mohamoud Osman (Haynwade). It is interesting to note that even to an all female audience Aden began his recitation by first apologising saying: 'Buraanbur is a female style but there are times when men compose in this form.'
I believe that had there been any men present at that recitation, Aden would not have dared recite these buraanburs for fear of being seen by other men as naago shaneeye, 'the one who likes to talk to women or keeps the company of women'. Urban Somali men who have been influenced by Islamic customs do not usually talk to women about topics outside the home and children. When it comes to politics men discuss matters exclusively among themselves. Yet this poem composed by Haynwade,
and recited by Aden, acknowledges the role in politics played by young Somali women during the nationalist struggle:
O God; the King, all of us are in jail.
We have been imprisoned by the Italians who are always provoking us.
They have not left behind any of the girls who used to walk in grace.
They have killed millions, and taken possession of our headquarters.
If a muslim cries (for a cause), he attains his goal,
O God, the King, only you can pass us this hurdle.
Haynwade also composed the following two humorous poems in the buranbur genre. These poems were for the S.Y.L. women whom he teases for not behaving in a womanly fashion:
Young girls always talk a lot.
I have got a grievance against you girls.
If you don't lower your speech,
Who will marry you, since we men are suspicious of you.
The loud voices we used to hear, and those girls who play,
Their outspokenness has caused restrictions.
You have disgraced yourselves and the men are very angry,
Why don't you be quiet so that you get self respect?
Even though I was told that these poems were intended as a joke it still shows how the women were patronised by their malecolleagues who never accepted them as equals in the fight for liberation. Another interesting point would be whether Aden Artan would have bothered to memorise these poems in the first place if the composer had been a female.
While these events were taking place in the South, there were women participating in the struggle for independence in the North of Somalia which was a British Protectorate. One such woman was Fadumo Hersi Abbane, a member of the Somali National Society (S.N.S.). From the mid-forties until independence, Fadumo performed poetry to male or mixed audiences at the off~cial gatherings of the society. She adopted varied poetic styles for her compositions. The following lines are from a poem of 27 lines in which she compares the colonials with a hungry lion which comes out from its own surroundings to hunt people for food:
The colonials have expanded
They have become bigger and stronger.
They keep passing us from side to side,
Like a roaring lion, which has been hungry for days,
And could not stay in the mountains and plains.
They take away a person every day.
Fadumo would compose most of her poems in the male geeraar style. Then, after composition, she would recite them at public gatherings and meetings. She probably opted for this style because the subject matter of geeraar is traditionally war and conflict. Perhaps another reason for adopting this style would be to get her message across easily to male audiences. In this same poem Fadumo talks about prison to encourage Somalis not to be afraid of it, as she herself was detained several times:
By God we are not afraid,
For we are used to jail.
There is a blanket for a cover,
Another to use as a pillow,
Two sets of clothes to wear
A bath for washing, A big yard for walks,
Plenty of warm tea,
And millet meal to fill one's stomach.
Fadumo composed dozens of poems in the male genre and performed them to male audiences. Her poetry did not, however, get the publication it deserved, simply because it was composed by a woman. On the one hand Fadumo, like other Somali women, was caught by the deep-rooted male attitude of not reciting any poetry by a female - as it would mean putting one's self down to do so. On the other hand, because of her public performances of poetry she suffered from the cultural taboo of punishing women who do not behave according to the 'good conduct' expected of women. Fadumo and the group of S.Y.L. members whose poetry is cited in this paper, as well as many others whose names are not mentioned, have all sacrificed a lot in their personal lives. As Somalia is a predominantly Muslim country, the expected role of a woman is to stay at home and look after her husband and children if married, or after her family if single. Most Somali women are illiterate. Traditionally the main training a girl receives is that which will enhance what is perceived as her major function in life, namely that of being a wife. Any woman who crosses the prescribed line faces the risk of being ostracised by the community.
Those who chose to join the independence movements were severely criticised by family, friends and the general public. Some of the married women who joined the liberation movements were divorced as a result. Those who were unmarried at the time had to carry the stigma of being 'loose women', and some were even disowned by their parents.
A large number of women who were single when they joined the nationalist movement never married, as no prospective husbands came forward to ask for their hands. For example, Fadumo Hersi Abbane only married much later in her life, when she was past the age of having children, and to a man much younger than herself; the men of her generation would never have approved of her conduct.
Poetry by the above-mentioned Somali women continued even after the North and the South of Somalia attained independence and united. They composed more poems on the theme of nationalism since some of the Somali territories are still colonised. They also composed and recited poetry on other issues of public interest.
So far only the oral transmission of poetry has been discussed. With regard to transmission in writing, the Somali orthography was only written down in 1972. Since then a number of scholars and traditionalists have attempted to make collections of oral traditions and poetry, including women's work songs and children's lullabies, but very little effort has been made in terms of recording women's poetry on the more serious matters such as the struggle for nationalism. It seems the collectors have so far been more interested in those poems or songs which reflect only the perceived roles of women.
However, the acceptance of a written script has not really affected the composition and transmission of poetry, which is still done orally, as it has been for generations. Since a large number of Somalis are nomadic by tradition, they rely on the oral transmission of poetry. In addition, most of the rural people as well as a large percentage of the urban population are illiterate. But even for the urban community who may be able to read and write, oral transmission is still the common way of publicising poetry. Hadrawi, one of the most popular Somali poets of our time, may compose his poems in writing, but his poetry is recited orally by his admirers and listened to by people using cassettes or videotapes.
Having said that, it is still beyond dispute that the Somali script has helped a lot in preserving literature which was originally composed orally and it should be more useful to poetry by women which does not get the publicity it needs through the male memorisers and reciters. Perhaps one way of solving this desperate situation would be for more women to be engaged in collecting and recording poetry composed by women while the poems are still remembered by the composers, their relatives or friends. Otherwise women's poetry will continue to die with the authors.