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Somali Culture, Tribe, People, Language, Religion and Tradition

Somali Culture

Kenya’s North Eastern Province is home to the Somali Culture of Kenya, a cushitic tribe found in larger numbers in the neighboring Somalia Republic and in Ethiopia.

Kenyan Somali Peoples number about half a million, and constitute the biggest tribe among all Kenya Cushitic tribes. Their territory, formerly known as the Northern Frontier Districts, has harsh dry climatic conditions with some areas which are full deserts.

Other Cushitic tribes in Kenya include the Borana, Rendile, Gabbra and the Galla. Regardless of regional distribution all Somalis speak the same language, practice the same religion – virtually all belong to the “Shafi i Rite” of the Sunni faction of Islam – and eat the same food – with only minor deviations. Though there is a small Somali Bantu population, descendants from various East African populations, most of them converted to Islam.

Somali Tribe Women

Somali Tribe Women


Somali Tribe – Etymology

Samaale, the oldest common ancestor of several Somali clans, is generally regarded as the source of the ethnonym Somali. The name “Somali” is, in turn, held to be derived from the words soo and maal, which together mean “go and milk” — a reference to the ubiquitous pastoralism of the Somali people. Another plausible etymology proposes that the term Somali is derived from the Arabic for “wealthy” (dhawamaal), again referring to Somali riches in livestock.

An Ancient Chinese document from the 9th century CE referred to the northern Somalia coast — which was then part of a broader region in Northeast Africa known as Barbara, in reference to the area’s Berber (Hamitic) inhabitants — as Po-pa-li. The first clear written reference of the sobriquet Somali, however, dates back to the 15th century. During the wars between the Sultanate of Ifat based at Zeila and the Solomonic Dynasty, the Abyssinian Emperor had one of his court officials compose a hymn celebrating a military victory over the Sultan of Ifat’s eponymous troops.


Somali Tribe – History and Origin of the Somali

All Somali people are believed to have their origin in the Ogaden region in Southern Ethiopia. Today, Somalis are the only tribe found in their homeland country of Somalia republic. Members of this tribe are also found in the country of Djibouti.

Somaliland was originally colonized by the French, British and the Italians. In 1960, a unified and independent Somalia was formed after Italy and Britain joined their territories. The French territory however remained separate and gained independence later in 1977 to form the country of Djibouti.

Since the 90’s tension and rivalry has remained high among the various clans in the Somali republic as they fight for land and herding areas. Lack of political systems that take care of all Somalis has led to civil war, conflicts and destruction of Mogadishu and most of the southern parts of Somalia. Up to this day, there’s no lasting peace in the republic of Somalia. However, the Somali tribe in Kenya has maintained close historical ties with their kin in Somaliland.

Somali Culture – History

Ruins of the Adal Sultanate in Zeila, a kingdom led in the 16th century by Imam Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi (Ahmed Gurey).
Ancient rock paintings in Somalia which date back to 5000 years have been found in the northern part of the country, depicting early life in the territory. The most famous of these is the Laas Geel complex, which contains some of the earliest known rock art on the African continent and features many elaborate pastoralist sketches of animal and human figures. In other places, such as the northern Dhambalin region, a depiction of a man on a horse is postulated as being one of the earliest known examples of a mounted huntsman.

Inscriptions have been found beneath many of the rock paintings, but archaeologists have so far been unable to decipher this form of ancient writing. During the Stone age, the Doian culture and the Hargeisan culture flourished here with their respective industries and factories

According to an official Military Survey conducted during the colonial period, Hawiye clan members are by tradition believed to be descended from a forefather named Hawiya Irrir. Hawiya Irrir is held to be the brother of Dir. I.M. Lewis and many sources maintain that the Dir together with the Hawiye trace ancestry through Irir son of Samaale to Banu Hashim Arabian origins with Aqeel Abu Talib ibn Abd al-Muttalib.

The first written reference to the Hawiye dates back to a 13th-century document by the Arab geographer, Ibn Sa’id, who described Merca at the time as the “capital of Hawiye country”. The 12th century cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi may have referred to the Hawiye as well, as he called Merca the region of the “Hadiye”, which Herbert S. Lewis believes is a scribal error for “Hawiye”, as do Guilliani, Schleicher and Cerulli.

Somali Culture – Settlement and Commerce

Due to ancient pastoralist migrations and population movements across the Somali peninsula in search of water wells and grazing land over a period of thousand years, Hawiye clans today can be found inhabiting an area stretching from the fertile lands of southern Somalia between Barawa and Kismayo, to the regions surrounding Merka, Mogadishu and Warsheikh in the hinterland, west to the modern city of Beledweyne in the Hiran region, and north to the ancient port town of Hobyo in the arid central Mudug region.

Sub-clans of the Hawiye include the Degodia, about 40 percent of whom live in Ethiopia. When Arthur Donaldson Smith traveled through what is now Bare woreda in 1895, he found that the Degodia were neighbors of the Afgab clan, their territory stretching east to the Weyib and Dawa Rivers.

The economy of the Hawiye in the interior includes the predominant nomadic pastoralism, and to some extent, cultivation within agricultural settlements in the riverine area, as well as mercantile commerce along the urban coast. At various points throughout history, trade of modern and ancient commodities by the Hawiye through maritime routes included cattle skin, slaves, ivory and ambergris.

Somali Tribe – Religion & Culture

Islam has been the religion of the Somali people for such a long time that many Somali customs derive from this religion. Islamic influence is manifested in the Somali way of dressing, which is not very different from that of the Swahili people. But unlike the Swahili men who wear a small white cap on their head, the Somali men often wear a turban.

Polygamy is widely practiced among the Somali since Islamic laws allow a man to have as many as four wives. The women’s role is to take care of their homes and their husbands, while men watch over the camel flocks.

In their native North Eastern Province, Somalis practice a nomadic pastoralist way of life, keeping flocks of camels, some goats, sheep, and indigenous cow herds. Thus milk and meat are part of the Somali diet. Other food of the Somali people includes pasta, an acquired food from Somali’s colonial past by Italians.

Religious Beliefs and Practices

Almost all Somalis are Sunni Moslems. For those who practice Islam, religion has a much more comprehensive role in life than is typical in the Americas or Europe. Islam is a belief system, a culture, a structure for government, and a way of life. Thus in Somalia, attitudes, social customs, and gender roles are primarily based on Islamic tradition. For example, the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar month and begins numbering from the year Mohammed arrived in Medina; both this and the Julian calendar are officially recognized and used.

Islamic theology and religious practice is complex, and is the object of intense study and scholarship within the Islamic community. When Moslems try to convey the fundamental aspects of their religious beliefs to non-Moslems, they emphasize the belief in one God, Allah, and dedication to the study of the teachings of Allah’s prophets. The prophet Mohammed is central among these, though other respected prophets include the Biblical patriarch Abraham and Jesus. Moslems are quick to point out that while Mohammed is revered and his teachings form the core of Islamic thought and practice, he is not worshipped as God in the way that Christians worship Jesus.

Important religious holidays include Ramadan, Id al-Fitr, Id Arafa, and Moulid. Ramadan is the 9th month of the lunar calendar. During the 30 days of the holiday, people pray, fast and refrain from drinking during the day and eat only at night. An important aspect of this holiday for medical providers to be aware of, is that medications will often be taken only at nighttime. Pregnant women, people who are very ill, and children (usually interpreted as under 14 years old) are exempted from the fast. Some religious observance of Ramadan extends the fast for an additional 7 days.

Immediately following Ramadan is the holiday of Id al-Fitr which marks the end of the fast. This celebration involves big family gatherings and gifts for children. Id Arafa ( also called Id al-Adhuha) is the most important holiday of the calendar year. This is the time for making pilgrimages (hajjia) to Saudi Arabia. Moulid is another important holiday, occurring in the month after Ramadan. It commemorates the birth and death of the Prophet Mohammed.

Many religious holidays involve the ritual killing of a lamb or goat. In Seattle, families travel to a farm in Sumner, Washington, where they purchase the needed animal and perform the ritual slaughter. Islamic tradition forbids eating pork or drinking alcohol.

Somalis observe several secular holidays as well, these include a Memorial Day, Labor Day, an Independence Day (July 1) commemorating the 1960 independence and unification, and Mother’s Day.

For a short historical review about health care in Muslim experience, as well as current general information about Muslim people and their main observances and concerns in the Western health care system, see: Health Care in Islamic History and Experience

Somali Culture – Clan Structure

Certain clans are traditionally classed as noble clans, referring to their nomadic lifestyle in contrast to the sedentary Sab who are either agropastoralists or artisinal castes. The four noble clans are Darod, Dir, Hawiye and Isaaq. Of these, the Dir, Hawiye and Isaaq are regarded as descended from Irir Samaale, the likely source of the ethnonym Somali. The Darod have separate agnatic (paternal) traditions of descent through Abdirahman bin Isma’il al-Jabarti (Sheikh Darod). Sheikh Darod is, in turn, asserted to have married a woman from the Dir, thus establishing matrilateral ties with the Samaale main stem. Although often recognized as a sub-clan of the Dir, the Isaaq clan claims paternal descent from one Shaykh Ishaq ibn Ahmad al-Hashimi (Sheikh Isaaq). “Sab” is the term used to refer to minor Somali clans in contrast to “Samaale”. Both Samaale and Sab are the children of their father “Hiil” whose is the common ancestor all Somali clans.

Somali Culture – The tale of three big clans and three countries.

Somalia has been divided into three regions each with a separate president – and each from a different clan.
Territories like Puntland have even a lively cultural scene. Compared to the great majority of African countries, Somalia is one characterised largely by distinctive homogeneity.

Somali Culture –Darod – Together, but in separate ways

Awrtable, Dhulbahante, Dishiishe, Jidwaq, Leelkase, Majeerteen, Marehan, Mora’ase, Ogaden and Warsangali ,Dir, Issa,[19] Gadabuursi/Samaroon (Habar Makador, Habar ‘Affan),[9][20] Madahweyn or Madawini (Gurgura Garire, Gure),[9] Quranyow/Gorajno/Kuranyo-Garre,[12][14] Surre, Dabruube/Dabrui,[9] Barsug (Bursuk),[9] Magaadle, Madigan, Biimaal (Gaadsen), Bajimal/Bajumal[9]

Somali Culture – Hawiye – the Arab connection

Abgaal, Ujedein, Ajuran, Jijeele, Baadicadde, Gaaljecel, Degodia, Duduble, Sheekhaal, Habar Gidir, Hawadle, Murule, Murusade, Silcis, Wadalaan, Xaskul

Somali Culture – Isaaq – The first to want out

Arap, Ayoup, Garhajis (Eidagale and Habar Yoonis), Habar Awal (Sacad Muuse and Ciise Muuse), Habar Jeclo and Tol Jecle (Axmed Sheikh Isaxaaq)[21]
Rahanweyn, Digil, Dabarre, Jiddu, Garre, Tunni, Geledi, Mirifle Jilible, Hadame, Harin, Eelay, Jiron, Leysan.

Somali Culture – Minor clans

Ashraaf, Bravanese, Benadiri, Carab Salaax, Gabooyo, Madhiban, Muse clan, Reerow-Xassan, Sheekhaal, Tumaal, Yibir

Somali Culture – Language

The Somali tribe speaks Somali language, the only language spoken by the entire Somali people. However, variations and dialects of the Somali language are spoken by different clans living in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia as well as in Kenya. Among all Somali clans, linguistic skills including poetry and good speech are highly valued.

Somali and Arabic are the official languages of Somalia. The Somali language is the mother tongue of the Somalis, the nation’s most populous ethnic group. It is a member of the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic family.

In addition to Somali, Arabic, which is also an Afroasiatic tongue, is an official national language in Somalia. Many Somalis speak it due to centuries-old ties with the Arab world, the far-reaching influence of the Arabic media, and religious education.

English is widely used and taught. Italian used to be a major language, but its influence significantly diminished following independence. It is now most frequently heard among older generations. Other minority languages include Bravanese, a variant of the Bantu Swahili language that is spoken along the coast by the Bravanese people, as well as Bajuni, another Swahili dialect that is the mother tongue of the Bajuni ethnic minority group.
According to the 2010 revision of the UN’s World Population Prospects, the total population was 9,331,000 in 2010, compared to 2,264,000 in 1950. The proportion of children below the age of 15 in 2010 was 44.9%, 52.3% was between 15 and 65 years of age, while 2.7% was 65 years or older

Somali Culture – Somali Names

The most common names in Somalia are Mohamed, Abdi, Farah, Hussain, and any name(s) with Arabic root. Somalis also have gender-specific naming system, especially for women/girls. For instance, when you hear the name “Ayan” you instantly assume it is a female, while you assume male when you hear the name “Ayanle” as in my name here.

Our naming system were much different than today, up until recently, we named our children in a Somali-derived names. In the twentieth century, most Somalis names were almost always Somali. That is one of the reasons you often see older generation having Somali names. The introduction of naming Somali people to an Arabic names is a recent thing. Although, it wasn’t uncommon to see some Somalis with an Arabic names in that era, most of them were religious scholars and people who traveled to the Arab world.

The beauty of Somali-derived naming system was that you almost always guessed right what the person is and did before you met them. Before the Arabic names entered our naming system, most Somalis took the names of their occupation or what they are known for. If someone is known to be wise or funny, his/her name usually illustrated it. Likewise, if someone is known for deceit and debauchery, his name often gave it away.
For example, the name “Ubah” is a female name in Somali that indicates a beautiful woman. The name “Garaad” is also a Somali name, usually given to a man with an extraordinary intelligence. So, there was always differentiating factor between the genders and the quality of the people who possess these names. Needless to say, when you hear the name “Ubah” you automatically assume it is a beautiful girl, while when you hear “Garaad” you most assuredly assume someone with an Einstein-level intellect.

Somali Culture – Somali Food

Somali cuisine varies from region to region and is a fusion of different Somali culinary traditions, with some East African, Arab, Ethiopian, Yemeni, Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Italian influences. It is the product of Somalia’s tradition of trade and commerce. Some notable Somali delicacies include sabayad, lahoh/injera, halva, sambuusa, basbousa, and ful medames.


Somali Culture – Breakfast

Canjeero is a staple bread in Somali cuisine.

Breakfast (quraac) is an important meal for Somalis, who often start the day with some style of tea (shahie) or coffee (qaxwa). The tea is often in the form of haleeb shai (Yemeni milk tea) in the north. The main dish is typically a pancake-like bread (canjeero or canjeelo) similar to Ethiopian injera, but smaller and thinner. It might also be eaten with a stew (maraqe) or soup.

Canjeero is eaten in different ways. It may be broken into small pieces with ghee (subag) and sugar. For children, it is mixed with tea and sesame oil (macsaaro) until mushy. There may be a side dish of liver (usually beef), goat meat (hilib ari), diced beef cooked in a bed of soup (suqaar), or jerky (oodkac or muqmad), which consists of small dried pieces of beef, goat or camel meat, boiled in ghee.

Lahoh is a pancake-like bread originating in Somalia, Djibouti, and Yemen. It is often eaten along with honey and ghee, and washed down with a cup of tea. During lunch, lahoh is sometimes consumed with curry, soup, or stew.
Sabayad or Kimis is another type of flatbread similar to injera/lahoh, as well as the Indian paratha.

Polenta (mishaari) or porridge (boorash) with butter and sugar is eaten in the Mogadishu area. Elsewhere in the south, such as in the Merca region, special bread known as rooti abuukey with tea is preferred. This is also known as muufo, and is cooked in a special clay oven by sticking the mixture to the walls and waiting for it to fall off when done.

Flatbread referred to as rooti is consumed in the north. Nationally, a sweeter and greasy version of canjeero known as malawax (or malawah) is a staple of most home-cooked meals.


Somali Culture – Lunch

Baasto (pasta) made of spaghetti and digaag (chicken) take-out from a Somali restaurant

Lunch (qado) is often an elaborated main dish of pasta (baasto) or rice (bariis) spiced with cumin (kamuun), cardamom (heyl), cloves (qaranfuul), and sage (Salvia somalensis). The diffused use of pasta (baasto), such as spaghetti, comes from the Italians. It is frequently presented with a heavier stew than the Italian pasta sauce. As with the rice, it is often served with a banana.

Spaghetti can also be served with rice, forming a novelty dish referred to as “Federation”. The dish is usually served with equal (whole) portions of rice and spaghetti, split on either side of a large oval plate. It is then layered with assorted stewed meats and vegetables, served with salad and an optional banana. It has been suggested that the name of the dish is derived from the union of two dishes in Somalia and also from the size and quantity of the food. You will not find this dish served in the average Somali household, since it is uncommon to cook both rice and pasta in one meal. It is instead more common to order the dish from traditional Somali restaurants, where both rice and spaghetti are always readily available. Hence, its novelty status.

In the south, Iskudhexkaris, a hot pot of rice, vegetables and meat, is a regional staple. Beyond the many styles of stew (maraq), rice is usually served with meat and/or a banana on the side. In Mogadishu, steak (busteeki) and fish (kalluun/mallaay) are widely eaten.

Somalis commonly consume a soft cornmeal referred to as soor. It is mashed with fresh milk, butter and sugar, or presented with a hole in the middle filled with maraq.
A Somali camel meat and rice dish

A variation of the Indian chapati is the sabaayad/kamis. Like the rice, it is served with maraq and meat on the side. The sabaayad of Somalia is often somewhat sweet, and is cooked in a little oil.

Italian Polenta, called Sor in Somalia, is used in the Benadir area, mainly around Merca and Jowhar.

Popular drinks at lunch are balbeelmo (grapefruit), raqey (tamarind) and isbarmuunto (Lemonade). In Mogadishu, cambe (mango), zaytuun (guava) and laas (Lassi) are also common. In Hargeisa in the northwest, the preferred drinks are fiimto (Vimto) and tufaax (apple).


Somali Culture – Dinner

A bag of traditional Somali cambuulo (azuki beans)

Dinner (casho) in Somalia is served as late as 9 pm. During Ramadan, supper-time often follows Tarawih prayers, sometimes as late as 11 pm. Cambuulo, a common dinner dish, is made from well-cooked azuki beans mixed with butter and sugar. The beans, which on their own are referred to as digir, can take up to five hours to finish cooking when left on the stove at a low temperature. Qamadi (wheat) is also used; cracked or uncracked, it is cooked and served just like the azuki beans.

Rooti iyo xalwo, slices of bread served with a gelatinous confection, is another dinner dish. Muufo, a variation of cornbread, is a dish made of maize and is baked in a foorno (clay oven). It is eaten by cutting it into small pieces, topped with sesame oil (macsaro) and sugar, then mashed together with black tea.

Before sleeping, a glass of milk spiced with cardamom is often consumed.
Somali sambuusas (samosas) being prepared

Sambusa, the Somali variation of the Indian samosa, is a triangular snack that is commonly eaten throughout Somalia during the afur (iftar). The Somali version is spiced with hot chili pepper, and the main ingredient is often ground meat or fish. Bajiye, the Somali variation of the Indian pakora, is a snack eaten in southern Somalia. The Somali version is a mixture of maize, vegetables, meat and spices, which is then deep fried. It is eaten by dipping it in bisbaas (hot sauce). Kabaab is a snack eaten by southern Somalis. The Somali version is a mixture of ground meat, potatoes, onions and vegetables, which is then coated with flour and deep fried. Fruits such as mango (cambo), guava (Seytuun), banana (moos) and grapefruit (liinbanbeelmo) are eaten throughout the day as snacks.


Somali Culture – Sweets

Gashaato is a coconut-based confection, set here to a backdrop of the Somali national flag.
Xalwo (halwo) or halva is a staple of Somali cuisine.

Xalwo (halwo) or halva is a popular confection served during special occasions, such as Eid celebrations or wedding receptions. Xalwadii waad qarsatey! (“You hid your xalwo!”) is the phrase that follows a person who has eloped or has a small, private wedding. Xalwo is made from sugar, cornstarch, cardamom powder, nutmeg powder, and ghee. Peanuts are also sometimes added to enhance texture and flavor.
Gashaato, Kashaato or Qumbe, made from coconut, sugar and oil, which is spiced with cardamom, is a much-loved sweet. The sugar is brought to a boil with a bit of water, then the cardamom is added, followed by shredded coconut.
Lows iyo sisin is a favorite sweet in the south. It consists of a mixture of peanuts (lows) and sesame seeds (sisin) in a bed of caramel. The confection sticks together to form a delicious bar.
Jalaato, similar to the American popsicle, is made by freezing naturally sweet fruits with a stick in the middle. More recently in Mogadishu (Xamar), it has grown to include caano jalaato, which is made with milk and requires sugaring up. The word jalaato comes from gelato, which is Italian for “frozen”.
Buskut or Buskud comprises many different types of cookies, including very soft ones called daardaar (literally “touch-touch” due to its smooth, delicate texture).
Doolshe encompasses many delectable styles of cakes.
Icun is a sweet mostly eaten by southern Somalis. It is made from sugar and flour mixed with oil. People prefer to say Icun I calaangi caloosha I gee (Eat me, chew me, then take me to your stomach) when they see it. It is mainly eaten during weddings and Eid times, but southern Somalis always make it at home and eat it as part of a dessert.
Basbousa is a traditional Somali sweet cake. It is made from cooked semolina or farina soaked in simple syrup.

There are many sweets eaten during festive occasions, such as weddings, parties or Eid. Among these are baalbaaloow, shuushuumoow, bur hindi, bur tuug, and qumbe (coconut), the latter of which is made from coconuts mixed with sugar to form a bar.

Somali Culture – After-meal

A dabqaad incense burner

Somali people  traditionally perfume their homes after meals. Frankincense (luubaan) or a prepared incense (uunsi), known as bukhoor in the Arabian Peninsula, is placed on top of hot charcoal inside an incense burner or censer (a dabqaad). It then burns for about ten minutes. This keeps the house fragrant for hours. The burner is made from soapstone found in specific areas of Somalia.

Somali Rice Photo

Somali Rice Photo

Somali Culture – Lifestyle of Somali People in Kenya

Away from their native home in North Eastern Province, Somali people are today found in almost every major town in Kenya engaging in business. They are successful business entrepreneurs in major cities of Kenya.


Somali Culture – Clothing and Shelter

Somali Men

The culture of Somalia is an amalgamation of traditions in Somalia that were developed independently and through interaction with neighboring and far away civilizations, including other parts of Africa, Northeast Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, and Southeast Asia.

When not dressed in Westernized clothing such as jeans and t-shirts, Somali men typically wear the macawis (ma’awiis), which is a sarong-like garment worn around the waist and a large cloth wrapped around the upper part of their body. On their heads, they often wrap a colorful turban or wear the koofiyad, an embroidered taqiyah.

Due to Somalia’s proximity to and close ties with the Muslim world, many Somali men also wear the Thawb (khamiis in Somali), a long white garment common in the among Muslims.

Somali Women

During regular, day-to-day activities, women usually wear the guntiino, a long stretch of cloth tied over the shoulder and draped around the waist. The guntiino is traditionally made out of plain white fabric sometimes featuring with decorative borders, although nowadays alindi, a textile common in the Horn region and some parts of North Africa, is more frequently used. The garment can be worn in many different styles and with different fabrics.

For more formal settings such as weddings or religious celebrations like Eid, women wear the dirac, a long, light, diaphanous voile dress made of cotton or polyester fabric. It is worn over a full-length half-slip and a brassiere. Known as the gorgorad, the underskirt is made out of silk and serves as a key part of the overall outfit. The dirac is usually sparkly and very colorful, the most popular styles being those with gilded borders or threads. The fabric is typically acquired from Somali clothing stores in tandem with the gorgorad.

Married women tend to sport head-scarves referred to as shash, and also often cover their upper body with a shawl known as garbasaar. Unmarried or young women, however, do not always cover their heads. Traditional Muslim garb such as the jilbab is also commonly worn.

Additionally, Somali women have a long tradition of wearing gold and silver jewelry, particularly bangles. During weddings, the bride is frequently adorned in gold. Many Somali women by tradition also wear gold necklaces and anklets. The xirsi, an Islamic necklace likewise donned in Ethiopia and Yemen, is frequently worn.


Somali Culture – Circumcision

Circumcision is universally practiced for both males and females. It is viewed as a rite of passage, allowing a person to become a fully accepted adult member of the community. It is commonly viewed as necessary for marriage, as uncircumcised people are seen as unclean.

Male circumcision is performed at various times between birth and 5 years of age. It is accompanied by a celebration involving prayers and the ritual slaying of a goat. It is performed either by a traditional doctor or by a nurse or doctor in a hospital.

Female circumcision is a practice common in equatorial Africa that is unfamiliar to many Westerners. Included under the term “female circumcision” are several different procedures in which varying amounts of genital tissue are removed. This ranges from the removal of the clitoral hood, leaving the rest of the genitalia intact (known as “sunna” circumcision), to removal of the clitoris and anterior labia minora, to removal of the clitoris, the entire labia minora, part of the labia majora, and suturing of the labia majora, leaving a posterior opening for passage of urine and menstrual flow.

This latter procedure is known as infibulation, and is the most common form of female circumcision in Somalia. In Somalia, the procedure is usually performed by female family members but is also available in some hospitals. It is usually performed between birth and 5 years of age.

In the last twenty years much attention has been focused on the medical and psycho-social complications of female circumcision.  However most Somali women view circumcision as normal, expected, and desirable. It has become the center of a debate about potentially harmful traditional cultural practices, and as such, has become a complex and emotionally charged subject. For Somali women in the United States there are many concerns about how their circumcisions will be cared for during childbirth and about whether they will be able to have their daughters circumcised.
There are women in the Somali community in Seattle who are knowledgeable in how to perform infibulations, however, due to fear of legal reprisals have not performed them here. Western practitioners need to recognize that this is an important yet sensitive issue for Somali women, and strive to keep the lines of communication open in order to best serve the needs of their patients. See article by Hearst and Molnar, Female Genital Cutting.

Somali Culture – Wedding and Marriage

Gelbis is a Somali wedding celebration where the bride and the groom are taken to the streets, especially on horses or on cars with people singing and dancing in happy moods. Gelbis happens at night when the wedding is over and before the bride and the groom and their family dance and eat with each other. It mainly takes about at least two hours for Gelbis to finish and for the bride and groom to be brought to the house of the groom.
Somali wedding ceremonies are not primarily about the bride and groom; they are about the extended families. Whether the couple is present does not matter all that much, so long as the heads of the two families are in attendance.

The ceremony tends to occur at the father of the bride’s house. As many family members as are able will show up. If the groom cannot make it, he might call in and attend his wedding ceremony via phone, but as long as an older family member is there to represent him, his presence is not required. The bride is not expected to attend the ceremony. Her father is the one who acts on her behalf.

A proper Somali wedding has two parts, the ceremony (nikah) and the party (aroos). The ceremony is performed by a Muslim sheikh according to Islamic law. It is essentially a marriage contract between the family of the bride and the family of the groom. The main part of the contract covers the bride price that the groom and his family pay to the bride’s family, and the dowry (meher) that the groom will give to the bride as her personal possession. The bride price used to be paid in camels, but these days, cash is preferred. The dowry comes in the form of gold jewelry; apart from showing appreciation to the bride, it also acts as an insurance for her in case of a divorce.

Somali Culture – Marriage

Marriages can either be arranged or be a result of personal choice. The common age of marriage is around 14 or 15 years old. Men who can afford to do so, may have up to 4 wives, as is customary in Islamic tradition. However, not all wealthy men exercise this option. In urban areas, a man with multiple wives provides separate homes for his different families. Whether these families interact or not depends on the preference of the individuals involved. In rural areas, it is more common for a man with more than one wife to have a single household, where the families care for the farm or livestock together.

Somali Culture – Gender Roles

As in many Islamic cultures, adult men and women are separated in most spheres of life. Although some women in the cities hold jobs, the preferred role is for the husband to work and the wife to stay at home with the children. Female and male children participate in the same educational programs and literacy among women is relatively high.

Somali Culture – Family and Kinship Structure

There are several main clans in Somalia and many, many sub-clans. In certain regions of the country a single sub-clan will predominate, but as the Somalis are largely nomadic, it is more common for several sub-clans to live intermixed in a given area. Membership in a clan is determined by paternal lineage. Marriage between clans is common. When a woman marries a man of another clan, she becomes a member of that clan, though retains connection with her family and its clan.

Somali Culture – Extended Families

Living with extended families is the norm. Young adults who move to the city to go to school live with relatives rather than live alone. Similarly, people who do not marry tend to live with their extended families. Divorce does occur, though proceedings must be initiated by the husband.

Somali Culture – Somali People – Video


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