Maxamed Daahir Afrax explores how social and cultural components of Somali life can impact on peace and security. His article discusses how Somali poets, singers and actors have responded to the long crisis. He explains the importance of understanding war and peace in the Somali regions through a cultural lens and the power of culture in influencing attitudes to both.
In a society where skills of oratory are highly respected, speeches and verbal agreements can carry more weight than written peace accords.
Maxamed Daahir Afrax
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“Somalis are born talkers. Every elder is expected to be able to hold an audience for hours on end with a speech richly laced by judicious proverbs and quotations from famous poems and sayings.” Professor I. M. Lewis
In pre-colonial times Somalis valued highly the skill of oratorical eloquence. Successful orators would show their ability by making extensive use of oral literature such as poetry, proverbs and words of wisdom. Speeches needed to be formulated in poetic form or augmented with quotes from famous poems, as well as proverbs and allusion to commonly known stories.
The 19th century English explorer Richard Burton famously described Somalis as a ‘nation of poets’ in his classic work First Footsteps in East Africa. Poetry has traditionally been the principal medium through which Somalis define their identity, record their history, express their innermost feelings and communicate their views.
Drama and music
Poetry has been the basis on which other forms of oral cultural expression have developed, such as Somali theatre which emerged in post-independence Somalia as an important art form in Somali urban life. Somali theatre, which incorporates drama, music, dance, visual arts and short-lined modern poetry, became the main medium of expression for artists prior to the civil war and played an important political role.
Towards a culture for peace
In the early 1990s some Somali artists gave their support to particular factions fighting the civil war, thereby exacerbating clan chauvinism. However most of the better known Somali poets and other performing artists inside and outside the country have devoted their art and lives to the pursuit of peace and justice, denouncing the civil war and promoting stability.