|By Anisa Hagi-Mohamed & Nimo Abdi Warfa
Our home country Somalia is often referred to as the Nation of Poets. This statement rings true as our culture revolves around oral traditions such as stories, poetry and proverbs. Not surprisingly, we both have a great passion for poetry. This poetry runs in our blood, literally. Our family tree has several poets among them Maxamed Cumar Dage who was well known in Somalia. We recite them by heart and recite them. Somalia, although currently suffering and has been for so long, has a long tradition of poetry that inspires many young ones who have not even seen their country, nor have they grown up there. Amidst their nation which faces brutality, chaotic wars, murderers and massacres of many comes the light of poetry and it’s poets. This poetry is so rich and beautiful. There is talk of tribe, beauty, love and religion. There is mention of morals, values and our history as a people. Many metaphors are common to be seen in Somali poetry to paint a picture for the ones hearing the poetry to visualize what is being said. Somali poetry differs from one to the other. Some are to encourage people to fight for a cause and others about love. Some of the poetry is about the homeland that the poet is from, i.e. city, or region, and yet others are about anything one can think of.
Many of our kinsmen are poetic and express whatever they want to say or do in verses of poetry. One example of this is the following poetic verse: “Halgan dhaawac loogama hakado, dhimasho yeelkeede”, the translation of this verse is, “Don’t hinder from war due to a wound, and death does not matter”, meaning that one should not stay behind when his people are fighting because of a wound. Furthermore, the thought of dying should not make it a matter that prevents one from fighting.
This poetry which has been passed down orally for generations can now be shared and appreciated by all people because of technology such as the internet. I hope through this article we can increase your knowledge about poetry in Somalia, it’s history and its importance to us a people.
Regarding the history, poetry has been integral to Somali life for a very long time, perhaps as long as the Somali people have existed. This oral tradition has been used by people from all spheres of life in Somalia. From the Bedouin camel herder, city dweller, government official, scholar and common man alike. The 19th century British explorer Richard Francis Burton, who visited the Somalia, said in one of his books: ”The country teems with poets, every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines – the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions. Every chief in the country must have a panegyric to be sung by his clan, and the great patronize light literature by keeping a poet.”
Poetry is used as a means to communicate feelings, morals and values as a tool to preserve history. Somali poetry has always been recited orally; t has been listened to more than read. In fact, the Somali language was only written in official script form in 1972. There have been several books with compilations of Somali poems, but most poetry continued as before in oral form; recited, memorized and performed. Even though Somalia is known as the Nation of Poets, not everyone who is Somali is a poet. As with every people, there are some who excel in this field and others who just appreciate it. There are more Somali men who are poets but also some women. Women are known for Buranbuur, a type of Somali poetry which usually consists of praises for a person, clan, etc. There are also different types of Somali poetry.
Poetry continues to be loved by every Somali, even those who have sought refuge in other lands, as their home continues to be in turmoil. Parents still listen to poetry and encourage their children to learn them. Grandfathers sit in coffee shops with friends and reflect over old times; reciting lines of poetry from back home. Poetry is their connection to their culture, traditions, history and country.
Why is poetry so important to Somalis? Although nation of Somalia endures much to discuss, and although it keeps hitting a dry well whenever it’s hope arises a little, her people still stand strong with every last strength through their faith which helps them endure the pain and their livelihood; Poetry seems to just flow from their hearts and lips, and it plays as a healer in ways. Additionally, in Somali poetry there is much to be learnt from. When listening carefully to how the poets recite their poems, we learn new lessons about life just from their words. Even when we listen to the poetry verses over and over again, we do not get bored, but rather listen attentively. Poetry is also a form of reviving one’s language. It’s a unique gift which helps one endure any sadness, grief or misery. Most Somali poems are thoughtful, inciting, remindful, and very well put together to the extent that you’d think you’re listening to generations upon generations of stories.
Poetry gives us hope, and reminds us of who we truly are and what we should look forward to in the future. It’s not simple rhymes and the like but very heartwarming, deep and thoughtful, and not only that but gives you an image of what home was like before the war. It helps one see the Somalia that was once peaceful and prosperous. Poetry is one of the keys that keeps us going, and God Willing, we will remain as the “Nation of Poets” that bring hope to our country from near and afar. Somalia is our pride, our land, our home, our beauty, and InshAllah it will forever remain in our hearts.
Somalia has many famous poets amongst them are Maxamed. Cumar Dage, Dhoodaan, Sayyid Maxamed Abdallah Hassan (also known as the ‘Mad Mullah’), C.B.C Qamaan, Raage Ugaas and Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame ‘Hadrawi’ (titled the ‘Somali Shakespeare’) amongst many others.
To give a taste to those whom read this, here is part of a poem called Seer by Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’:
In my cradle I heard the women sing
‘In the name of God, “Yaasin”’:
this is how we begin,
with the dance step and the dance.
I was playing ‘biito biiti’,
this is how Gaarriye grew.
I suckled on hearsay, drank in lore:
‘A cloud in the east means rest your feet,
the rain will trek to us.’
Dear friend, dear Burhaan, I was taught
there are two types of poem:
that which tells you how things are
and that with another agenda –
the people know which is which.
When she brought me up, Biliso said,
‘If a poem is a farm
then how things truly are, that’s water;
the best words for the best thoughts,
that’s how it begins.
Justice is your only compost,
life itself is what you hoe:
just squeeze truth from what happens
and in its own time it will sprout.
‘Whether a poem brings forth seeds
depends on how it’s tended and by whom –
the spot in which it’s planted;
depending on who needs it and for what
its husk is hulled or boiled.
‘A poem is the measure for
that trek beneath the draining sun
each generation adds to;
when you have to stand and fight
it shows you where to point the gun.
‘It guides you like a conch shell horn,
the call of the large camel bell;
it is the words’ own bugle.
It is the finest matting, woven for a bride,
the one the song calls ‘Refuser of poor suitors’.
It’s not sold for coppers,
it’s not for praising the powerful;
to put a price on it, any price,
cheapens it and is forbidden.
‘It’s riding bareback on an unbroken horse –
you don’t hobble its heels.
Those who fear for their hides
and won’t ride without a saddle,
those lacking in the craft, can’t get near this:
lies have nothing to do with it.
Poetry is a woman you do not betray,
to abuse her beauty is a sin.’
[Literal translation by Martin Orwin/Final translated version by W N Herbert]
Albiet translations cannot compare to the original language, the beauty of the poem is captured. There are various translated poems like this which can be found in books or online but the majority of poems are only in Somalia. In the future we hope to start a project to transcribe and translate famous poems so that Somalis and Non-Somalis alike can benefit.
We hope through this article your knowledge has increased of poetry, and it’s importance in our Somalia, our home, our love and forever to be. Our words alone cannot do justice to this beautiful art, but we hope it has ignited a spark of interest and greater appreciation for both Somali and Non-Somali alike.
Anisa Hagi-Mohamed &
Nimo Abdi Warfa