On Our Ancestors Trail: Quotes on Somalis.By Cabdulqaadir Diiriye

The first Europeans who dared to venture into the unknown plains of the horn of Africa were baffled by what they saw – a nation unique in every respect. The observations made by these ‘explorers’ still haunt our political and social life. They studied our ancestors in their natural habitat, away from external contaminations. They saw the untamed Somali with his ingrained distinctiveness. Below are some quotes that give a snapshot of the live of the 19th century Somalis and that of their immediate neighbours.   I tried not to categorize these quotes so as to give the reader the freedom to label each quote under the most suitable context; political, social, economic or other. 

Please keep in mind that many of these quotes were written well before when the educated class of the westerners started to use politically-correct language in their academic and journalistic writings. I chose not to tamper with the originality of these quotes however subjective they may seem to some readers: 

“So their life is one long migration from place to place in search of grazing: no close tribal life has developed, each family being a unit to itself: their food has consisted mainly of camel’s milk, and food is often scanty when the rains fail. Such is the life which has produced the Somali of to-day, lean and wiry, independent, proud, intolerant of control.” (Kittermaster, 1928) 

“The true Somali is an extremely lazy person, for his dignity does not permit him to do manual work; he generally employs himself in watching his flocks, or he will lie for hours under a shady tree, his praying-mat and water-bottle beside him, while he drones, to a sort of chant, songs about his former fights and about the stock he has looted. The manual work, meanwhile, is left to the women and the dependants. The Somali is a Mussulman of the Shujai [Shafi'i] sect and is very religious in his own fashion. In appearance the Somali is an Arab, and sometimes a handsome Arab. Treat him with confidence and consideration, he is cheerful, intelligent, willing to learn, and true to his code of honesty. Treat him harshly or unjustly, he becomes sulky, obstinate, mutinous, and dangerous. He is an excellent scout, a wonderful marcher, and very proud if confidence is shown in him. It would be fatal to the peace of the country if the Somali should be treated with that contempt which is often shown to the black races by Europeans.” (Elliott, 1913) 

“The Somali are generally tall and well made, with a very dark smooth skin; their features express great intelligence and animation, and are of a Grecian type, with thin lips and aquiline noses; their hair is long, and very thick. They have none of the characteristic features of the Negro race, which they affect to despise.” (Rigby, 1867)

“They are quite content with their flocks and generally do not wish to undertake any manual labour. The men of certain tribes do emigrate, and are found in most parts of the world, but they all eventually find their way back to Somaliland and return to their karias [dwelling] and live the simple life again. Their main relaxation seems to be raiding the flocks of other tribes. The men all carry a spear or rifle, and in general look after the camels while the women look after the sheep and goats. Only the male camels are used for burden.” (Stafford and Collenette, 1931) 

“I t would appear more probable, from inquiries made from the Gala themselves, that their tribe came from the north of Italian Somaliland, whence they were driven by the more powerful Somali; and that they first took refuge in Jubaland and afterwards in Tanaland, where a large settlement of them still exists.” (Elliott, 1913) 

“WHY do the Somalis occupy to-day their present position in the scale of civilisation and development? This is a question which perhaps demands a passing thought. They are undoubtedly still primitive, having reached only a system of loose tribal organisation in which even the tribal elders and headmen exercise but small control. But these people are by no means unintelligent or decadent. It is probable that they must be regarded as among the most virile and intelligent of any African peoples.” (Kittermaster, 1928)

“Most of them have extremely white and well-set teeth. They very rarely seem to chew tobacco, nor do they, smoke much. Their eating capacity is very great. A common occurrence is to hear of camels being stolen, killed, and eaten on the spot by the thieves. Camel’s flesh is much loved by the Somali. When obtainable they prefer boiled to baked meat.” (Carleton, 1892)

 ”He is not afraid to go out into the world to look for work. Considerable settlements at Cardiff and Newcastle prove that Somalis are willing to reside for years overseas. 

Letters from British Consuls all over the world are constantly being received by the Administration asking if some destitute “man of colour” can be identified. They are found in the most surprising places and situations. Yet generally after half a lifetime of wandering they drift back to their own place with their savings, and having purchased camels therewith become indistinguishable from their brethren who have never left their villages.” (Kittermaster, 1928) 

“At present the community exactly represents the stage of development of the Patriarch Abraham and his friends, and photographs taken of the daily life of the Somalis would serve admirably for an illustrated edition of the Book of Genesis. Their genealogical trees, too, read exactly as does, for instance, that of Jacob and Esau. The parallel is very close. The Somali race is divided into two main branches, the Isaac and Darod, descended, as from Jacob and Esau, from two Arab ancestors, Sheikh Jaberti ibn Ismail and Sheikh Isaac ibn Ahmed (though legend does not give these two a common ancestor in Abraham). Even

Ishmael son of Hagar appears in certain semi-Somali tribes such as the Danakil, which the true aristocratic Somali will not recognize as kin. Both Isaac and Darod are divided and

subdivided like the dukes of the sons of Esau, and the 36th chapter of Genesis exactly represents the sort of account which a Somali elder of to-day would give of his descent.” (Kittermaster, 1928) 

“When the Somali and the Gala began fighting the Boni were neutral, but when the former proved victorious the Boni retired into the thorn bush, where for two years they lived on game. (The Boni are) Oppressed and persecuted by the young Somali, they have become extremely timid and shy of stranger. If a traveler approaches one of their villages, the whole population takes refuge in the thorn bush, where it is quite impossible to track them.” (Elliott, 1913) 

“The marriage customs of the Boni are very simple. When a young man wants a wife he goes hunting until he kills an elephant, of which the one tusk is for his Somali superior and the other he exchanges for cloth. The cloth is given to the girl’s father, and if it is sufficient in quantity she becomes his wife.” (Elliott, 1913) 

“The Gala are mostly Pagans, but lately a considerable number of them have become converts to Mohammedanism. Their marriage customs do not include the giving of a dowry, and their conjugal morality is very lax. In intelligence they compare unfavourably with the Somali; nevertheless they are a courageous and usually self-restraining race, yet subject to violent fits of excitement when sufficiently provoked. As traders and hunters they are more skilful than a Somali, but not equal to the Boni.” (Elliott, 1913)  

“The only permanent  water-supply is at the Somali settlement of Afmadu, where there are 114 wells, many of which are now disused. The wells are in the dry river- Led of the Lak Dera, but by whom they were constructed cannot be determined. Certainly they were not made by the Somali who now use them. The heavy rains flood the country during October and November, leaving numerous small swamps, and thus a greater part of the district, where it is not covered with bush, is able to support vast herds of cattle even during the two dry seasons. This tract of country is the headquarters of the powerful Ogaden Somali, many of whose chieftains are wealthy in cattle and camels. Ox-skins are the principal trade, and are sent to Kismayu for shipment.” (Elliott, 1913)

“Both sexes pay great attention to their teeth. The tooth-brush, consisting of a fibrous twig of a tree, is in constant use; and I have never seen any race of people possessing such white, regular, and perfect sets of teeth.” (Rigby, 1867)  

“Each tribe is quite independent, and is governed by its own sultan or girad, whose authority is little more than nominal. Feuds constantly occur between the various tribes; and, being a very warlike, independent race, bloody fights often occur.” (Rigby, 1867)  

“There were two fights among the Somali today. A very slight quarrel induces them to use their arms against each other and nearly the whole population assembles to witness the strife. Lives are often lost in these quarrels. Few of the natives go about without a huge knife, many with lances and bucklers, others with swords or clubs.”(Leigh, 1838) 

“About 1812 the Somali crossed the Juba, attacked  the Gala, and were defeated with great loss. These attacks were continued until ,1845, when the Somali offered peace on condition that they should be allowed to inhabit Jubaland side by side with the Gala. The Gala foolishly consented to this. In 1848 the Somali treacherously broke the agreement, and drove the Gala southward and westward. Many of them were starved into servitude under the Somali, and are now employed in considerable numbers as herdsmen in the Ogaden country.” (Elliott, 1913)  

Brenner, the Austrian Consul at Aden, who was in the suite of the unfortunate Baron Von der Decken, assured me that he had subsequently travelled alone and on foot for many weeks at a time amongst the Somalis, and believed them to be by no means inhospitable to travelers who took care not to excite their cupidity or affront their prejudices. They are an exceedingly hot-tempered, irascible race, who know no law but blood for blood, and are prompt to resent the slightest insult; but to strangers who do not offend them they are by no means inhospitable.” (Bartle and Frere, 1872)  

“At three camps I found only one zareeba inhabited. We asked for a drink of water passing it, and the reply was that there was not a drop among them, accompanied by the usual “willahi! billahi! tellahi:” which appeal to the Almighty, as a witness to the truth of their statements, is constantly in the mouth of a Somali.” (Carleton, 1892) 

“Their European like features, readily distinguished them from the Negroes around… My Parsee interpreter, Manockjee, regarded the Somali as ‘a better class of people than the common Arabs of the country; for, instead of stealing, they would work, and, if required, the whole night long;’ and from his having had much experience at Aden, having even suffered pecuniary loss through a Somali, I have thought his opinion entitled consideration” (Pickering and Hall, 1851)

“A Somali never speaks more than ten or a dozen consecutive words without one of his hearers breaking in with “waiyah ! ” or ” kuuh ! “=”yes.” For hours in the evenings I have listened to this “kuuh ” reply while somebody has been telling a yarn.” (Carleton, 1892)  

“Their intelligence and their keen ability as traders mark them out as capable of development, but there appears to be little hope of a radical change in them unless it is possible to destroy the camel complex.” (Kittermaster, 1928)  

“My men drank very little out hunting. They have great endurance in this matter of being able to withstand thirst. They are the most abstemious people imaginable, drinking only milk or water.” (Carleton, 1892)  

“The ration that has been established by custom for a Somali servant in the district is composed of 1lb. of rice, 4 lb. of dates, and 1oz. of “phi.” My men worked well on this, with only water to drink, and often not enough of that, as, at one place, we had to send 60 miles to procure it. I could not call the Somali a feeble race.” (Carleton, 1892)  

“I must mention the three Somali boys who were with us for the whole six months of our stay.  They were excellent in every way. very intelligent and very patient and keen sighted, they turned into most excellent collectors. On the whole they were very cheery people, with an extreme love of fighting, or at least talking about it.  I remember one of the boys saying one day that he wanted to save as much of his wages as possible – to go back to Somaliland and buy a good rifle with which to shoot his uncle.” (Britton et al, 1939)  

“There is no record of particular battles, but a full-scale invasion by the Somali caused the Oromo to flee to the south toward the Tana-Ozi and to the west as far as Borana country. An Oromo tribe which had lived northeast of the Ozi was almost exterminated; the northeastern boundary of the Oromo now became the river.” (Ylvisaker, 1978) 

“The Somalis are a nomad race. There are villages on the coast at the ports, but none up country except where the Administration has settled down, such as Sheikh, Burao, and Erigavo. The Somalis move with their camels, sheep, and goats to whatever spot will give the best grazing. Usually they live on camel milk, but when they can get it they eat rice, dates, and ghi.” (Stafford and Collenette, 1931)  

“The forest villages, like Witu, were built in thick bush impenetrable to attack by anything but cannon.49 Because Arab attacks on these remote villages were rare, it is apparent that their stalwart construction was intended to prevent Somali raids.” (Ylvisaker, 1978) 

“The Somali has no written language, and so his memory is good. He knows to the anna what pay is due to him. He likes to have his grumble, but given a fair hearing he will accept the verdict cheerfully. Throughout the time we were there we had no trouble with our natives. There was the occasional broken head, but nothing in the nature of a strike.” (Stafford and Collenette, 1931)  

“The Somali will not carry anything if he can help it, and is quite incapable of carrying anything at all heavy.” (Stafford and Collenette, 1931)  

“The Cooke, Troughton and Simms 5-inch Theodolite was a standard instrument except that it was packed in one box instead of two, which was a mistake for Somaliland. In West Africa it was a light load for one man and much easier to carry in one box. In Somaliland it would have been more useful in two boxes, as the Somalis could not carry it more than a short distance. It was therefore necessary to carry it on a camel in its tin-lined packing-case to the foot of a hill, and then unpack it and carry it by hand to the top. It was used for most of the astronomical work and also for trig. stations near the camp.” (Stafford and Collenette, 1931)  

“…since 1878, they [The Galla] have been almost entirely confined to the left bank of the Tana. The exception are Godana Jara’s people in the Sultanate of Witu, who seem to have recovered themselves, since the cessation of the Somali raids, and attained a fairly flourishing condition.” (Werner, 1914)  

“A European took a Somali with him to Ruwanda, and a proud Mtutsi [Tutsi] said to the later one day ‘Why, we are of the same race.’ Said the still prouder Somali ‘On the contrary, you are clearly a Galla dog.’” (Tellier et al, 1923)  

“A trader who once visited [a Somali town], informed that the natives, after working together during the day, would repair to the beach to fight; often until some of their number were badly wounded, or even left dead upon the ground.” (Pickering and Hall, 1851) 


·         Bartle , H.,  E. Frere, A Few Remarks on Zanzibar and the East Coast of Africa, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London, Vol. 17, No. 5. (1872 – 1873), pp. 343-354.

·         Britton , Everard; N. D. Riley; Hugh Scott, A Journey to the Yemen: Discussion, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 93, No. 2. (Feb., 1939), pp. 122-125.

·         Carleton, G. D., Notes on a Part of the Somali Country, The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 21. (1892), pp.


·         Elliott, F., Jubaland and Its Inhabitants, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 6. (Jun., 1913), pp. 554-561.

·         (James Kirkman,) John Studdy Leigh in Somalia (1838), The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3. (1975), pp. 441-456

·         Kittermaster , H. B., British Somaliland, Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 27, No. 108. (Jul., 1928), pp. 329-337.

·         Pickering Charles, John Charles Hall, 1851, The Races Of Man: And Their Geographical Distribution, London, H.G. Bohn.

·         Tellier, Pol Le; Colonel Jack; R. E. Critchley-Salmonson; Harry Johnston; H. H. Johnston, 1923, “Muf?mbiro”: The Birunga Volcanoes of Kigezi-Ruanda-Kivu: Discussion, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 61, No. 4. (Apr., 1923), pp. 253-258.

·         Rigby , C. P., On the Origin of the Somali Race, Which Inhabits the North-Eastern Portion of Africa, Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, Vol. 5. (1867), pp. 91-95.

·         Werner, A, The Galla of the East Africa Protectorate. Part I., Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 13, No. 50. (Jan., 1914), pp. 121-142.

·         Stafford, J; C. L. Collenette, The Anglo-Italian Somaliland Boundary, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 78, No. 2. (Aug., 1931), pp. 102-121.

·         Ylvisaker , Marguerite, The Origins and Development of the Witu Sultanate, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 11, No. 4. (1978), pp. 669-688.
Cabdulqaadir Diiriye

Email@ awjaamac2000@gmail.com

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