Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Impact of Globalization on Somali Culture

Osmaniya or Ciismaniya alphabet, invented for ...Image via Wikipedia

Somalia, considered to be one of the world’s most homogenous nations, has not been exempt from the rapid wind of change currently engulfing the globe in the name of globalization. Since its inception in 1960 when it gained independence from Britain and Italy respectively after the merger of former British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland into what came to be known as the republic of Somalia, the impact of globalization on Somali culture has evidently been beneficial and detrimental in many aspects. The idea that a nation cannot progress economically without a strong central government does not coincide with the current upsurge in globalization where its impact is being felt in every corner of the world including the “stateless” nation of Somalia whose economy spiraled even with the absence of an effective central government.The immediate objective of this research is to uncover the negative and positive trends globalization has had on the Somali culture.

A Brief introduction of Somalia
Situated in the Horn of Africa, the Republic of Somalia has a land area of 637,540 square kilometers which makes it slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Texas. On a physical map Somalia resembles the figure seven or a rhino horn. Its terrain mostly consists of plateaus, plains, and highlands. Measuring 3,025km, Somalia has the longest coastline in the African continent followed by South Africa (2,798km). It is bordered by the tiny nation of Djibouti (inhabited by Somali-speaking people) to the northwest, the Gulf of Aden and Yemen to the north, Kenya to the southwest, the Indian Ocean to the East, and Ethiopia to the West. The population of Somalia was estimated by the United Nations in 2003 at 9,890,000 and is placed at number 80 in population terms among the 193 nations of the world.[1]

Somalia is endowed with unexploited mineral resources and vast maritime resources that have been a been source of contention since the collapse of the central government in 1991. The absence of a strong and effective government has left Somalia’s coastline prone to illegal fishing and dumping of toxic waste by foreign trawlers and the dreaded Mafia-an issue even voiced with deep concern by Mauritanian-born Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy for Somalia.[2] Somalia’s eastern coastline overlooking the Gulf of Aden has become a hotbed for piracy that brings in millions of dollars consequently rejuvenating the economy.[3] Even though Somalia is not in the list of oil producing countries, oil explorations carried out by Conoco, Amoco, Chevron, and Philips before the military junta fell strongly indicate it could possess significant exploitable reserves.[4] In modern times Somalia remains a strategically, economically, politically, culturally and religiously sensitive region.

Defining Globalization
The term globalization resonates with a novel and emerging global topic whose definition in the myriads of available international relations textbooks and dictionaries conjure up varieties of rudimentary connotations. Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Shannon N. Blanton, in their book, World Politics: Trend and Transformation, describe globalization as the integration of states, through increasing contact, communication, and trade, to create a common global culture for all humanity.[5] The creation of a common global culture could sound a worrisome anecdote for those whose strength of character rest on the preservation of local heritage and dynamic cultures.

Globalization and Somalia
Globalization has been around the world for a long time beginning with the interaction and integration of different societies through international trade and investment. Somalia’s proximity to the Middle East and North Africa made it a center for commerce in historical antiquity with Somali sailors and merchants trading in myrrh, frankincense, ivory, and spices with ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, Mycenaean, and Babylonians. Even though there could be similarities between Somalia’s previous era of globalization and the current one, today’s experience with globalization is to some degree more intense for Somalia and her trading partners.
Somalia’s trial with capitalism got off the ground immediately it gained independence when the nation’s leaders adopted democracy as the preferred form of governance for the country. That dream was shuttered by the arrival of a military government that changed the nation’s governing style to Leninist-Marxist ideology.
Somalia’s current political instability excludes it from exporting finished and unfinished products and goods to many countries because of trade barriers. However, Somalia is currently the United State’s 172nd trading partner with $65 million in total (two way) goods trade during 2008. It is also ineligible for trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). However, U.S. exports to Somali totaled $64 million in 2008 with exports mainly consisting of resins, nuts, and fruits.[6]
The excesses committed against Somalia’s educated elite who would have been the torchbearers of globalization by the military government that ruled Somalia between the years 1969 and 1991 imperiled the political, social, and economic welfare of the entire nation.
Crafted by an African economist, the phrase “African Disease” implies what is known in the west as “brain-drain” where multitudes of educated professionals migrate to the Americas and Europe in search of greener pastures. Somalia has never been an exception as it suffered the same fate as other African nations when the most educated and experienced left the country enmasse.

Colonial environment and Somali culture: Despite centuries of warfare with colonial encroachment, the Somali culture remained relatively free from external contamination unlike other African cultures that disappeared as a result of European colonial superiority. The Somali peripatetic way of life accelerated cultural cosmopolitanism, economic interdependence, mental modernization, and regional dominance making Somalis to inhabit the most expansive land that stretch from the Somali-inhabited region in Ethiopia to as far south as Kenya’s eastern and Northern provinces while in between traversing Djibouti and Somalia.

The division of Somalia into five regions depleted Somali cultural unanimity. The emperors who ruled the Ogaden region of Ethiopia exploited local Somali culture with the dominant Amharic national language infusing alien wordings into the Somali language. Likewise, Somalis in Kenya found their cultural and linguistic expansion interrupted by the elevation and imposition of Kiswahili as the nation’s lingua franca. In Djibouti, 114 years of French colonial rule retarded the Somali language. It was only in 1972 when the Somali language came into the glare of publicity after the official writing script developed by Shire Jama Ahmed became the unanimously accepted version in favor of the Latin and Osmaniya scripts-orthography invented in the early twentieth century by the Majeerteen poet and ruler, Osman Yusuf Kenadid.[7]

The Dynamism of Somali Culture
Somalia is a homogenous nation with a mix of rich culture. Somalis speak the same language which is Somali; they have one religion which is Islam, and they enjoy similar customs. It is the clan that determines one’s place in society. A small minority group, the Somali Bantu, considered the most vulnerable communities in Somalia, has been targeted for blanket resettlement in the US after suffering chronic discrimination and predatory attacks by ethnic Somalis.[8]

In the past two decades, Somali exposure to foreign ways of life greatly impacted previously existing inter-tribal relations among various groups. In some instances, improved intercommunication due to amalgamation of communal groups may be attributed to the alleviation of major barriers pertaining to intermarriage.
Clans that exclusively observed endogamous marriages due to customary restrictions have eased imposing constraints by allowing partners to partake in the formulation of exogamy thus leading to the creation of a wholly new concept of marital relationships never before seen in Somali culture.
Perhaps, the first European to venture into Somali territory who meticulously described the culture and language of the Somali people was Sir Richard Burton. About the people and their language, he wrote: “The country teems with “poets, poetasters, poetitos, and poetaccios:”
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 poetical expressions, whereas a false quantity or a prosaic phrase excite their violent indignation.[9]
Somalia has been described as a “nation of poets”. The most famous Somali poet was Seyyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan who was dubbed “mad mullah” by the British colonial administration in the late 1900s. Poetry and prose play great roles in Somali daily life even in this era of globalization where it is used as a means of communication.

Several major universities across the globe have taken the responsibility of either teaching or collecting materials related to the advancement of the Somali language. One such example is the University of Indiana in Bloomington which boosts a large collection on Somali literature deposited by the Somali Studies International Association. These materials were acquired by the university with support from the US Department of Education Title VI grant.[10] The University of Ohio has included the teaching of Somali into its African studies program. Steve Howard, who is director of the program, was recently honored with the president’s award by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the current president of the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia. He was also presented with a statuette reading, "Thank you for being a friend of the Somali community."[11] Several European countries teach the Somali language to Somali children. Higher institutions of learning such as the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) which is part of the University of London, the Swedish Academy in Uppsala, and Rome University have specialized study programs preserved for the Somali language.[12]

Improved Telecommunications
Somalia has seen dramatic improvement in communications. According to a study carried out in sub-Saharan Africa by Benjamin Powell who is an Assistant Professor of economics at Suffolk University and a senior economist with the Beacon Hill Institute, Somalia moved from the 29th place to the eighth in terms of telephone landlines use per 1,000 of population since it became stateless in 1991. It ranks 16th in phone mobile use, 11th in internet users, and it ranks 27th in households with televisions.
It takes three days for a telephone line to be installed; the bill for a monthly landline costs $10 with unlimited local calls and international calls cost 50 cents a minute.
Due to the explosion of internet cafes, web access costs 50 cents per minute. According to the economist, using a mobile phone in Somalia is “generally cheaper and clearer than a call from anywhere else in Africa”.[13] The nation’s three biggest mobile phone companies, Hormuud Telecom, Nationlink, and Telecom Somalia enjoy 1.8 million customers who enjoy some of the cheapest rates in the world.[14]

Positive Implications of Globalization on Somali Diaspora Culture
The thousands of Somalis who settled outside of Somalia’s borders tremendously altered the political, social, and economic landscape of the Somali nation by injecting millions of dollars in the form of remittances into a beleaguered, impoverished, and war-ravaged nation ultimately resulting in the opening of the gates of globalization. In its March 2009 report, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) office for Somalia, estimated that Somali Diaspora remittances to the Horn of Africa nation amounted to over $2 billion in remittance flows.[15] According to the authors of the UNDP report, Somali Diaspora organizations may be credited for supporting or establishing service delivery facilities by providing regular funding flows meant for the payment of salaries in schools or hospitals. The significance of globalization and international political economy necessitate the transfer of goods and services. Thus, improved social interaction, enhanced communication, abundance and accessibility of maritime routes within Somalia’s coastline allows Somali businessmen to balance supply and demand in almost every region of the country regardless of daily hostilities.

Depending on the size or intricacy of developmental assistance, various Diaspora groups fund multifarious schemes not only in the health and education sectors but in construction, feeding centers, orphanage homes, digging of water wells, farming, banking, manufacturing, fishing, and the transportation sector.

When the military junta was in power, Somalia had only one national university. Thanks to the generous contributions of the Somali Diaspora and international organizations currently Somalia has over a dozen universities with Mogadishu University ranked 40 among 100 African universities, according to an international evaluation of world universities.
Professions that were once frowned upon by Somalia’s previously closed society have now turned out to be popular especially among aspiring youth residing in North America, Europe, and Eurasia. Massive resettlement initiated by Western nations and other self-propelled emigrational movements or undertakings enabled the heralding of a plethora of talented writers, internationally-acclaimed supermodels, and reputable artists. Modest education, easy contact with agents and publishing houses, access to computers, the internet, and general media have elevated the bulk of books, documentaries, and films consequently broadening the number of fans and readers. In the unrecognized breakaway republic of Somaliland and in the eastern autonomous region of Puntland, the semblance of peace has triggered a progression of various competing air travel companies, foreign-funded educational institutions, maritime trade and investment.

Negative Effects of Globalization on Somali Culture
General anarchy in southern Somalia and the rise of religious militancy coupled with foreign interference in Somali sovereignty have set bad precedents and adversely impacted the lives of ordinary Somalis. The proliferation of small arms and unsecured borders has forced many young Somalis to take sides in every major or minor conflict. Children as young as ten years make the bulk of child soldiers. Islamists who have laid claim to a bigger part of southern and central Somalia have imposed stringent measures on schools funded by the Diaspora by placing a ban on the teaching of English and the Sciences. They have also slapped a ban on western-style haircuts, western fashion, and western manners; in their efforts to fight vice, all cinema halls and video dens remain closed indefinitely; all men are required to have their trousers above the ankle otherwise they risk flogging or imprisonment or both; owners of television and radio stations have been told to refrain from playing music or else risk arrest and to make matters worse, the local VOA and BBC transmissions have been taken off the air and their equipments transferred to other radio stations owned by the Islamists.

The rise of Islamic militancy has not only affected Somalia but has also become a major political force in the Arab-Muslim world thus fostering chaos in “failed” states such as Sudan, Afghanistan, and now Iraq.[16] The globalization of al-Qaida and the drastic rise of radicalism after September 11, 2001 inspired the spread of proxy wars in the Horn of Africa with Somalia becoming the major breeding ground for extremists from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, US, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere.

As a result of acculturation, many Somali children born overseas have lost in touch with reality. Many of these kids have lost their parents’ cultural heritage and no wonder prison houses in Minneapolis, Ohio, California, Quebec, and Ontario hold sizable population of Somali convicts-mainly among the youth who could not find role models to emulate since majority of parents remain illiterate. Majority of offenders who are high school dropouts eventually resort to drug abuse and addiction, rape, murder, violence, and other horrendous criminal acts. The rate of unwanted pregnancies continues to skyrocket among girls; the numbers of dysfunctional homes raise alarming figures; the break-up of families and the percentile of ‘single mothers’ remains disturbing. Sizable figures of Somali Diaspora kids have become victims of stress, depression, panic, mental disorders, and anxiety.[17]
Somalis have settled in many parts of the world including Europe, North America, the Middle East, East Africa, South Africa, and North Africa. Approximately 2.5 million immigrants have secured resettlement in these regions.

Despite the hardships the dysfunctional country has been through for almost two decades, one thing is for certain: globalization is taking root at a greater pace almost everywher in in lawless Somalia. Since Somalis are naturally business-driven people, one would be out of touch to associate Somalia's economical boom with the monies generated from illegal pirating activities. Past economic strangulation, sweeping monopolization, and austerity measures imposed by the fallen regime had been the major causes of Somalia's underdevelopment witnessed from 1969 to 1991. The exit of the military regime ushered in the much-needed freedom from government involvement.


[1]Encyclopedia of the Nations:
[2]‘Toxic Waste’ Behind Somali Piracy by Najad Abdullahi, Aljazeera (October 11, 2008).
[3]Helen Kennedy, Piracy big boon to Somalia economy; hotels, restaurants sprout in port of Eyl in pirates' presence, nydailynews, (April 9, 2009).
[4]Natural Resources (Somalia), Natural Resources:
[5]Charles W. Kegley, Jr. and Shannon L. Blanton, World Politics: Trend and Transformation (12ed), Wadsworth, 20 Channel Center Street, Boston, MA 02210
[6]Office of the United States Trade Representative: Executive Office of the President: U.S-Somalia Trade Facts. (May 26, 2010):
[7]Shire Jama Ahmed:
[8]Rachel Swarns, “Africa’s Lost Tribe Discovers American Way,” New York Times (10 march, 2003).
[9]Sir Richard Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa, Tylston and Edwards, The Meccan Press, 3 Soho Square, London, WMDCCCXC1V.
[10]History of Indiana University’s Somali Collection:
[12]The Institute of Practical Research and Training: The Role of Somali language in Education by Mohamed H. Rabi.
[13]Benjamin Powell, Somalia: Failed State, Economic Success?, Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, (April 2009) • Volume: 59 • Issue: 3
[14]Somali mobile phone firms thrive despite chaos by Abdi Sheikh and Ibrahim Mohamed, Reuters (Nov 3, 2009)
[15]The Missing Million: The Role of the Diaspora in Somali Development, a report for the UNDP by Hassan Sheikh and Sally Healy, (March 2009).
[16]Laurent Cohen-Tanugi. The Shape of the World to Come: Charting the Geopolitics of a New Century. Trans. George Holoch, Columbia University Press (2008): pp.9
[17]The Inglorious Absentee Father in Contemporary Somali Politics by A. Duale Sii'arag. (Feb. 27, 2010).
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