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Spotlight on Culture

People that call this area Home

New Americans

Refugees from other areas of the world


Cultural Profile of their country of origin- Somalia

The People, their culture and traditions

In culture, language, and way of life, the people of Somalia, northeastern Kenya, the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and the southern part of Djibouti are largely one homogeneous group. The Somali people make up the overwhelming majority of Somalia’s population.

They are divided into numerous clans, which are groups that trace their common ancestry back to a single father. These clans, which in turn are subdivided into numerous subclans, combine at a higher level to form clan families. The clan families inhabiting the interfluvial area of southern Somalia are the Rahanwayn and the Digil, which together are known as the Sab. These hierarchical descent groups are a central fact of Somali life. In Somali society, clans serve as a source of great solidarity as well as conflict. Clans combine forces for protection, access to water and good land, and political power. The Somali clan organization is an unstable system, characterized by changing alliances and temporary coalitions.

Mainly farmers and agro-pastoralists, the Sab include both original inhabitants and numerous Somali groups that have immigrated into this climatically favourable area. Other clan families are the Daarood of northeastern Somalia, the Ogaden, and the border region between Somalia and Kenya; the Hawiye, chiefly inhabiting the area on both sides of the middle Shabeelle and south-central Somalia; and the Isaaq, who live in the central and western parts of northern Somalia. In addition, there are the Dir, living in the northwestern corner of the country but also dispersed throughout southern Somalia, and the Tunni, occupying the stretch of coast between Marca and Kismaayo. Toward the Kenyan border the narrow coastal strip and offshore islands are inhabited by the Bagiunis, a Swahili fishing people.

One economically significant minority is the several tens of thousands of Arabs, mainly of Yemenite origin. Another economically important minority is the Bantu population, which is mainly responsible for the profitable irrigation agriculture practiced on the lower and middle reaches of the Jubba and Shabeelle rivers. Many Bantu are the descendants of former slaves, and socially they are regarded as inferior by other groups in Somalia. The result is a strict social distinction between the “noble” Somali of nomadic descent and the Bantu groups. There is also a small Italian population in Somalia.

Somali Issa people, early 1900's

For Somalis who are settled or partly settled farmers, the village and its headman assume social and political importance. In rural areas, links to the cities remain strong with rural relatives caring for livestock owned by the urbanites.

For all Somalis, the family is the ultimate source of personal security and identity. Somali typically live in nuclear families but living with extended families is also commonly accepted. Households are usually monogamous; in polygamous households (1/5 of all families); wives usually have their own residences and are responsible for different economic activities. Traditionally, marriages were arranged.

Somali culture is male centered, at least in public, although women play important economic roles in both farming and herding businesses in the cities. There is gender segregation with men and women separated in most spheres of life. Handshakes are only appropriate between individuals of the same sex, for example.

Somali youth, early 1900's

Since pride is important in Somali society, the ability to use language to save face is essential. Whether used as a challenge, a courting technique, or political rhetoric, poetry and song remain a vital part of Somali culture. Among women, hand and foot painting, using henna and khidaab dyes, is a popular. Its application often signifies happy occasions, such as a marriage or the birth of a baby.

Somalia has a rich oral tradition, as seen on this PBS video. Every Somali is a walking repository of the country’s stories, myths, traditions, and genealogies. Although Islam is the predominant religion, indigenous beliefs remain strong and are often syncretized with those of the Qurʾān to provide a belief system unique to the country. Somali mythology dates to pre-Islamic times and includes belief in jinn, supernatural spirits, and ghouls (ghūls), treacherous shape-changing spirits, who are said to inhabit significant features of the landscape, including wells, crossroads, and burial grounds. Also extremely important is astrology, which is thought to provide divinations of the days ahead; some Somalis believe that the appearance of certain stars, constellations, and eclipses can presage everything from the coming of rain to a massacre.

Stay tuned for more information on Somalia, and more places and their people in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.


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