Ideas & Debate

Somali traditions defy the vagaries of modern living

A Somali hut
A Somali hut. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It is 4pm, in Balambala village, Garissa, the sun is setting with its rays penetrating through the thin leaves and thorns of acacia trees, Deqow Ali is leading a herd of more than 50 goats and camels into his compound.

In his community when one owns a large herd of livestock like Mr Ali does, he is regarded as a wealthy person.

As he describes his daily routine, his wife Barwaqa Adow offers us a cup of tea with milk from the camel she has just prepared. She is responsible for the milking of the goats and camels.

Mr Ali says as a routine, he wakes up every day at 3am to take the goats and camels for grazing, a man’s duty according to the Somali culture. He then leaves the livestock with the children who look after them until the evening when he leads the herd back home.

In his family, according to traditions, everyone is accorded their own tasks.


“Women and children take care of the sheep and goats, milk the animals and prepare food while the young men and boys are responsible for herding the highly esteemed camels,” he explains.

Somalis are grouped as a Cushitic tribe who live mostly in northeastern Kenya. They hail from the Ogaden region in southern Ethiopia.

Most of the Somali clan found in Kenya are Ajuran and Ogaden and their language is mainly Somali. Their nomadic way of life is by keeping a flock of camels, some goats, sheep and cows.

Clans are genealogically based and cut across language lines, the Hawiye, Degoodiya, Ajuuraan, Isxaaq and Ogaadeen who are also mostly found in Nairobi, Mombasa and parts of northeastern Kenya.

The 45-year-old man, who was brought up according to the Somali traditions, explains that in the past their staple food was meat, milk and kunjai (pounded flour) but later they started eating pasta and rice. In the small village, the families live in portable huts.

Whenever there is drought they shift locations, the same happens when it rains heavily. Most of the huts are arranged according to families forming homesteads.

“If one has more than one wife then each wife has her separate hut made of bent saplings and woven mats. Villages consist of a group of huts for related families arranged in a circle or semicircle with cattle pens in the centre.

“Home building and homemaking are the women’s responsibility,” explains Ms Adow.

Nowadays, almost 80 per cent speak standard Somali language but others speak Maay, which is related to Somali or Garre-Ajuraan — the Oromo language).

Their daughter recently got married in a colourful traditional wedding.

Ms Adow says weddings are one of the most important expressions of the Somali culture.

“Wedding symbolises not only the union of two souls but also creates a bond between the two families,” she says.

Ms Adow explains that there is a proverb in the Somali language that says “luck is when opportunity meets preparation” and that’s how they refer to couples who are getting married.

Unlike most weddings where there is a slightly longer gap between the engagement period and the actual wedding, the Meher (engagement) usually takes place a few days before the wedding and at times on the same day.

However, it’s not easy on the groom side as he is supposed to shower the family of the bride with gifts.

Mr Ali and his relatives had to receive from his now son-in-law gifts including a young camel, money wrapped in expensive cloth and 20 camels as a dowry payment.

“There are major four gifts the groom should give. Gabaati, a young camel usually brought by the groom and his father when they come to ask for hand in marriage. Yarad, a present given on the day of engagement to appreciate the hand in marriage (normally it includes the money). Sooryo is money given to the male members of the bride’s family either brothers or cousins. And finally, the engagement where the groom brings camels in the form of dowry,” he explains.

But the culture is slowly fading. Initially, a bride would be given about 100 camels just for a hand in marriage but now the groom can part with as little as 10 camels as dowry.

“Without the payment of dowry there is no wedding that will take place, so the bride is supposed to be clear on what she wants and the groom is bound to pay,” said Mr Omar Abdullahi, a member of the council elders at the village.

Most of the weddings are done before sunset in places where everyone is invited on a set date. Women show up in their colourful dresses (baati).

Songs and praise

They are large, with most of them glittered, shiny and made of silk. The dresses are so large that the women tuck them on one side when they dance and sing.

They then escort the bride towards a hut that has been specially constructed for the newly-wed couple while clapping and ululating as they beat the drums.

The groom stands at an equal distance on the other side of the hut. In the company of all other men present, he slowly makes his way to the hut, where the bride is with men chanting songs of praise.

The bride moves towards the hut under long sheets held over her head by the women. She is still supposed to be shrouded in mystery as she enters the hut unseen. The rest of the women assemble outside the hut, leaving adequate space for the approaching gentlemen.

The men then arrive, led by the tribal chiefs and revered elders on either side of the groom like a swarm of bees.

Inside the hut, the newly-wed couple undergoes rituals.

Using a light piece of cloth each woman places a cloth over the bride’s head which symbolises blessings and wishing her well in her marriage. This, however, depends on the region where the occasion takes place several days after the wedding. Same to the dances, which differ depending on the clan.

But the bride and groom do not always have to be from different families. Mr Ali said it is possible for cousins to marry each other.

“Depending on the clans, those marrying each other can be related through their parents. For example, the mother of the groom and the father to the bride could be from the same womb,” he explained.

In other communities, this would be regarded as a taboo.

Culture also allows a man to marry four wives. Under Islamic law, polygamy is widely practised.

Mr Abdullahi, the elder, says when things go wrong in a Somali marriage and divorce is needed, only men are allowed to ask for it as the head of the family.

“In such cases, the children are divided by gender, boys to the father and girls to the mother,” he says.