Government by Magic Spell is a fascinating short story written by Somali feminist writer Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi. This short story is not easy to find here in North America. If you have an edition of the Heinemann Book of Contemporary African Short Stories edited by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, published in 1992, then you might be in luck. This collection brings together 20 short stories written between 1980 to 1991. However, the story is well-known among Kenyan high school students as it is part of a compilation of short stories from North and East Africa which is mandatory reading for English Literature students. This complication also contains Herzi’s other well-known short story, Against the Pleasure Principle, which confronts the practice of female circumcision. I had hoped to find out more online about Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi, but unfortunately, like so many African authors of her generation, I cannot.
But, thanks to the BBC, more people outside of East Africa, will be familiar with this short story as it was chosen to be read as part of the BBC’s The Human Cradle Series, which featured readings of three contemporary short stories by writers from the Horn of Africa. The other short stories included Saba by Eritrean author Suleiman Addonia. According to the BBC site:
In Sulaiman Addonia’s new short story ‘Saba’, a former cinema employee decides to create a ‘cinema’ of his own inside a refugee camp. Read by Abukar Osman.
The first of three contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Sulaiman S.M.Y. Addonia was born in Eritrea to an Eritrean mother and an Ethiopian father. He spent his early life in a refugee camp in Sudan following the Om Hajar massacre in 1976, and in his early teens he lived and studied in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has lived in London since 1990. His first novel, The Consquences of Love (Vintage) was published in 2009.
The second story, The Invisible Map, by Ethiopian writer Maaza Megiste, is described on the site as follows:
In Maaza Mengiste’s new short story, ‘The Invisible Map’, a young Ethiopian woman, hoping for a better life in Europe, finds herself trapped in a Libyan prison. Read by Adjoa Andoh.
The second in our series of contemporary stories from the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Produced by Emma Harding
About the author: Maaza Mengiste was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed ‘Beneath the Lion’s Gaze’, has been translated into several languages and was a finalist for a Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. She teaches at NYU and currently lives in New York City.
It is important to keep in mind that the story was written some time between 1980 to 1991. Described as a “satirical parable of power and corruption”, the story exposes the machinations of Somali clan politics but also holds lessons for anyone concerned about justice and democracy.
The story begins with Halima at the age of 10, who we learn, has been possessed by a jinn, better known to Westerners as Genies. Halima had been ill for several months, but the local religious healer, or Waadad, soon discovers that the origins of her illness are supernatural. An infant jinn which she had accidentally stepped on one night in front of the bathroom has possessed her. Luckily for Halima, and soon her village, the jinn is benevolent and helpful. The people of the village soon believe that Halima’s jinn can give her the power to foretell the future and heal the sick. Halima is able to acquire a great deal of power and autonomy for a woman because of her family and clan being in awe of her jinn. Halima is able to refuse all the men who proposed marriage to her, including the Waadad. Halima’s jinn is perceived to be the reason for her clan’s worldly success and she is seen as a blessing to her family. For that reason, she is summoned from her village to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, where many of her fellow clan members have gained the most powerful positions in government. As Herzi describes:
It had all started with one of their men who had become very powerful in the government. He had called his relatives and found big government jobs for them. They, in turn, had called relatives of theirs until the government virtually had been taken over by Halima’s people. And that had meant quick riches for everyone concerned. Nor had they been very scrupulous about getting what they wanted. Anything that stood in their way had to be pushed aside or eliminated.
Halima’s fellow clan members want to use her powers in order to consolidate their political power, which they have established over a short 10 years, despite many of them being illiterate, although still taking up government positions. The capital’s water system is consolidated so that Halima can placate the jinn but also cast a spell which cures all of the capital’s residents of their curiosity, so they will no longer ask questions about the current state of their government and the actions of Halima’s clan.
We learn from the story about the belief in the power of jinn within traditional Somali Culture. The story discusses ritual sacrifices made in honour of the jinn, in order to keep them placated and for the entire clan to benefit from the jinn’s benevolence. Based on my own experience, I can vouch that belief in jinn and their ability to possess people is quite commonplace among contemporary Muslims, and still strong amongst members of the Somali diaspora. But it is interesting to conjecture how the role of jinns in traditional Muslim African cultures could be seen as a throwback to earlier pre-Islamic beliefs in ancestor spirits. In the story, we learn that the parents of Halima’s jinn even come to visit her in order to advise her on the proper care of their child. What I find truly compelling about the story is how Halima manipulates people’s fear of her jinn in order to gain power, both over her own life, which as a woman would have ordinarily been quite limited, and then political power within her clan.
Government by Magic Spell by Saida Hagi-Dirie Herzi available online
Last Friday, I had the opportunity to meet Amanda Lindhout, a young Canadian former free-lance journalist from Alberta who survived 15 months in captivity in Somalia until a ransom was paid for her release. Unfortunately, I missed most of her presentation as I had to worked but I’m glad that I came, even for the short part of the question and answer period that I was able to attend. Amanda was invited by Metropolis in association with Citizenship and Immigration Canada. I was initially reluctant to attend the session when I read the following description of it:
There are few people who can claim to personally understand what drives the growing threat of terrorism in our world. Amanda Lindhout’s extraordinary experience being held hostage for 460 days by teenage militants in Somalia has given her an inside look at how international terrorist groups are recruiting and radicalizing young men in Africa. Lindhout’s chilling discoveries about the structure and motivations of these groups, including the incredible power of the internet to disseminate terrorist propaganda, are a timely resource for anyone seeking to understand the complicated world we live in. She shares her belief that poverty and oppression are contributing factors in the phenomenon of child soldiers and presents a powerful message about the important role that education plays in countering youth recruitment.
I was invited by a friend to hear Amanda speak. After reading the description of the presentation above I really didn’t want to attend this event. I don’t like to participate in events that seem to be feeding into the paranoia of the Post 9/11 world without providing any context and/or confusing the issues. Child soldiers are a phenomenon across Africa and the groups that recruit and train them are often more driven by greed than any ideology or religion.
Luckily, Amanda herself has a better grasp on the complexities of youth radicalization in the context of failed states than the organizers of this event seemed to. One of the most interesting statements she made during the question and answer period was in response to whether or not she wanted to see her captors punished. Amanda expressed a great deal of compassion for the young men who were involved in her abduction, even those who inflicted violence upon her, because she realized that violence and chaos was all they ever knew growing up in an area of Somalia that is virtually lawless. As she said in a 2010 interview with The Toronto Star:
When you see a 14-year-old boy who has never known what peace looks like for a day in his life, there’s part of you as a human being that feels some degree, you can say, compassion for the fact that these boys have known war, famine, violence and death from the day they were born.
But she had no sympathy for the men who were the leaders of these young men as these leaders had often lived outside of war-torn Somalia and received foreign education. They knew what a world without war looked like but instead of returning to their homeland to bring peace, prosperity, and stability, they were fostering chaos to make a profit and using religion to justify it.
I was disturbed to hear about how Amanda’s captors used the Koran to justify their brutal treatment of her, which included sexual abuse. As a Muslim, although there are parts of our religious text, much like the Old Testament, that would definitely be seen to violate human rights law and were revealed during a time when the ransoming of war captives and slavery was considered acceptable, her captors treatment of her couldn’t even be justified by the most fundamentalist reading of the Koran. In the end, this was about money and the exploitation of women and it sickens me that men would try to justify this using religion.
I had a chance to speak with Amanda afterwards and she expressed that she really prefers to speak about the positive work her foundation, The Global Enrichment Foundation, is doing for Somali women in Somalia and Kenya, and the strength of Somali women, than about radicalization. I was really inspired by how Amanda had turned an experience that could have made her hateful of Somalis and Muslims in general, into a passion and committment to empowering the Somali people in concrete ways. The fact that she is investing herself in this effort while also picking up the pieces of her life, recovering psychologically from torture, studying at the graduate level, and dealing with the financial repercussions of her family having to pay her ransom is amazing. Her strength and compassion is an example to us all. She and her family are in my prayers.
The mandate of The Global Enrichment Foundation is as follows:
Our work begins with women in Somalia, but the effects reach entire communities, inspiring others to become change agents for the greater good of Somalia- and the world.
When women are educated and empowered they are in a better position to become active citizens creating social and economic change, as well as advocates for their own rights.
The Global Enrichment Foundation focuses on harnessing the power of women by providing opportunities for women to reclaim their lives from the devastating effects of war. The goal of total gender equality is the foundation of all our work.
Initiatives of The Global Enrichment Foundation include the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program, a scholarship program which includes a living allowance for Somali women to enable them to attend university in Somalia (Yes, there actually are still some functioning universities in Somalia) and SHE WILL, a microfinance program for Somali women refugees living in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.
There will be a fundraiser this week for the Somali Women’s Scholarship Program in Ottawa on Thursday, March 10th from 9:00am to 4:00pm at the Atrium at Carleton’s University Centre. You can visit the Facebook Page for this event for details.
The following are excerpts from interviews with Amanda Lindhout about her experience in captivity and her work with the Somali community:
In an interview with Mel James from the organization Safe World for Women, Amanda had this to say about her experience:
About the strength of Somali women:
Before I even set foot in Somalia, I admired the women of the country. I am an avid watcher of the news and it was so apparent to me that the women of the country needed education and reform.The women of the country were already beginning to demand to be heard. There’s no normal government in Somalia so the education system is already expensive and many schools just do not accept female students. The women of Somalia were already asking for change and I felt these women were so brave. I was only actually in the country for 3 days before I was kidnapped, but on the second day I visited a world food program. The women there had been waiting for hours in the heat with war around them and yet still they had such grace. They were offering to share their food with me! I was so impressed by these women. When they kidnapped me and Nigel Brennan (the male journalist whom I traveled with), there was a moment, a day, where we actually escaped. We ran to a nearby mosque and, of course, they came to recapture us. The local people tried to protect us and there was one woman that risked her own life to help me! She was so brave, and that woman had a profound effect on me. The last time I saw her she was surrounded by guns. That was the last image I had of her and I don’t know what happened to that woman after that. That stayed with me. I really wanted to honor that woman and I began thinking what would I do to make Somalia a better place. Even when I looked at my captors I saw they were teenagers who were a product of their environment. I thought: I am going to do something to make this a better place for these women and I had 15 months of being held captive to focus my energy on this.
On financing Somali women’s education:
There’s so much corruption in Somalia and there’s actually no formal banking system in the country. But it does have a money transfer system and that is how people get money in and out of Somalia. It’s actually the way that my ransom was paid and the way that ransoms are paid for other situations. Like when boats are taken through piracy. So we actually use this system and we pay the fees to the university, which are around $600 a year, but we pay the living costs to the young women directly. This is because there is so much corruption. If we send the money for living allowances to them, we can be sure that it’s going directly to the women. This is an amount of $32 a month, and while that doesn’t sounds like a lot. It’s actually a large amount in Somalia. This money ensures they aren’t hungry, can buy educational supplies and even allows them to help support their family which is so important.
In an interview in 2010 for The Toronto Star, Amanda reflects on her time in captivity:
When your reality is that you’re being abused in a multitude of ways and being starved and literally in chains in the dark, there are days that are quite hopeless and in order to survive you have to find ways to let go of the anger and bitterness that have completely taken you over. Because if you just sit with those emotions for too long, I don’t know if a person can survive that intact.
I have a great deal of sympathy and empathy for what (people in Somalia) are going through, the women in particular. So it’s not as difficult as people might think to make a bridge between myself and the people of Somalia, in particular the women… I understand their suffering in a way that most other people can’t.
Amanda Lindhout’s statement upon her release available online
Canadian Somalia hostage freed when taxi lights flicked (2009 article available online)
Nightmares haunt former hostage Amanda Lindhout (2010 article available online)
The Global Enrichment Foundation Website
I haven’t kept up with reviewing my fellow Black Bloggers, which I had hoped to do at least once a week. I hereby make a resolution to do so from now on. It’s only fitting that I should start with the blog of someone I actually know.
Author: Sarah Musa
Constant State of Reflection is the blog of Somali Canadian Ottawa Spoken Word Artist, Carleton University Human Rights Program Student, and my neighbour.
I had watched Sarah growing up in my ‘hood for years. But I only got to know her when she began attending the Speaking for Ourselves Project for high school students from immigrant and visible minority communities who were aspiring poets. I created the Project based on the work of projects like Youth Speaks. Sarah was already active in her high school and writing poetry but I think the project helped her take herself seriously as a poet and helped her develop closer connections with key local poets like Hodan Ibrahim. Sarah has gone on to become a leader of the Spoken Word Scene locally, in particular by helping to sustain the Urban Legends Series at Carleton University.
Sarah describes herself as an old soul in a young body.
Sarah Musa shares much of her poetry on her blog. Her poems vary from the personal to those focused on social justice in relation to local and global struggles. Her poem Sand Dunes and Land Mines is a reflection on the deterioration of a childhood friendship whereas Vital Signs is a narrative highlighting issues of poverty in Ottawa.
Sarah likes to share quotations by poets and philosophers that have inspired her to reflect. In the post Importance of Truth, she shares quotes from such diverse thinkers as Kahlil Gibran, Oscar Wilde, and Ghandi.
The blog also includes brief reflections by Sarah on lectures or events she’s attended or books she has read, such as her reflection on a presentation by Romeo Dallaire about the difference between tolerance and mutual respect.
Sarah also posts videos and pics that she feels will inspire others to reflection.
Sarah, who is Muslim, often opens her posts with bismillah, this is the shortened version of a phrase meaning “In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious” used by many Muslims before they begin a speech or piece of writing, in the hope that nothing they say will be offensive to God but will instead be spiritually uplifting for the listeners or readers. Bismillah‘s most famous use in Western Popular Culture is in the song Bohemian Rhapsody by Zanzibari-born British Indian Parsi Rock Star Freddie Mercury (born Farrukh Bulsara).
If you feeling apathetic and need a dose of youthful idealism, check out Constant State of Reflection.
To learn more about Ottawa’s Spoken Word Scene visit the site raiseit.ca
Hamdi Mohamed is currently the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). She is also a historian, feminist, mother, and “institution” here in the City of Ottawa.
But Hamdi, like so many of her generation, was raised to be a leader within the elite of her homeland of Somalia. At 24, Hamdi had graduated from the Somali National University with an Honours Degree in Education. However, as a refugee in Ottawa, Canada Hamdi had to struggle not only with the trauma of a civil war that tore apart so many extended Somali families as well as the country, she also had to take on rebuilding a sense of community and belonging within the Somali Diaspora in the West. While studying for her Masters Degree in International Diplomacy at the University of Ottawa, Hamdi, along with a group of other hardworking and talented women and men, began the difficult task of helping their fellow Somalis resettle in Canada while contending with a country that had never seen such large numbers of African refugees, particularly Muslim refugees, and a city that was, at the time, not very multicultural.
Hamdi was up for the task. She worked with several local community health centres and organizations and was involved in founding the now defunct Somali Centre for Youth, Women and Development. At the height of this centre’s achievements, Hamdi became a key spokesperson for the Somali community in Ottawa. While Program Manager at the Somali Centre, Hamdi spoke out against the Federal Government’s proposal to stop recognizing the Somali passport as legal identification. In a 1999 Ottawa Citizen interview, Hamdi stated: “From the community perspective, this is a very racist piece of legislation and we think it’s the way of curbing Somalis from coming into the country.”
When Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky, writer and director of the film Family Motel, decided that she wanted to look at the issue of homelessness among Ottawa’s Somali community, she went to Hamdi. According to Klowdawsky:
Hamdi Mohamed was our first contact in the community. She’s a brilliant woman and her contribution has been vital. Hamdi posed a number of key questions. Who owns this story? she wanted to know. And I really appreciated that discussion. It helped to focus the story. She also insisted that our protagonist not be presented as victim, that she be a resilient and resourceful character.
I learned that you are never a victim unless you accept victimization. You always have the power to choose the path for your life. While I have experienced the legacies of colonialism and have been victimized by sexism, racism etc throughout my life, I never thought of myself as a victim.
Hamdi went on to complete her Ph.D in History at the University of Ottawa and lectured on human rights issues at the School of Social Work and the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at Carleton University for five years. She served as the Executive Director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre where she gave priority to developping the organization’s cultural competency.
In 2000, Hamdi became the proud mother of a son, Adam. In a 2009 interview with the Ottawa Citizen, Hamdi admitted that although feeling that life was good at the time, she became overwhelmed with saddness a few days after her son’s birth. She said:
I suddenly became consciously aware of the fact that I couldn’t show my son where I had lived, the trees I had climbed, the sand I had played in, the friends I had had. I wanted to share these things with my son and I couldn’t.
This is the plight of the exile who finds herself in a foreign land and who has no choice but to make a new home for her children. Hamdi is committed to making her new home a welcoming place for refugees and immigrants. She is now the Executive Director of the Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). In this capacity, she has focused on expanding Ottawa’s oldest newcomer serving agency’s mission. According to the Ottawa Citizen:
…since she took the job four years ago, Mohamed and her team have been crafting an expanded mission, one that reflects what they see every day: building a new life means more than finding a job and getting a roof over your head, it means feeling accepted in a new home while having the freedom to mourn the old.
Hamdi believes that immigrant issues should not be just a concern of the immigration sector but of the entire community. According to Hamdi:
…in Ottawa, the notion of being diverse is still new. We’re generally kind and generous people but when it comes to difference, we hesitate. But now, the numbers are pushing us to ask, ‘Who are we now?’
Profile of Hamdi Mohamed available online
Resistance strategies: Somali women’s struggles to reconstruct their lives in Canada by Hamdi Mohamed (essay available online)
“The Somali refugee women’s experience in Kenyan refugee camps and their plight in Canada.” by Hamdi Mohamed In Mending rips in the sky : options for Somali communities in the 21st centry, ed. by Hussein M. Adam and Richard Ford (1997)
Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization’s Website
Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl
Translated by B. W. Andrzejewski
Published by Zed Press, 1982
Ignorance is the Enemy of Love by Faarax M. J. Cawl is considered the first literary publication in the Somali language, which had no official orthography until 1972. The novel, whose Somali title is Aqoondarro waa u nacab jacayl, was published by the Somali Ministry of Culture and Higher Education in 1974. The translation into English is by Russian linguist B.W. Andrzejewski and was commissioned by UNESCO. Unfortunately, the English translation of the novel is currently out of print.
The author of the novel, Faarax Cawl, was born in Laskory in the Sanag Region of Somalia in 1937. In 1958, the British withdrew a scholarship awarded to him for study in the UK because he had taken part in a play, written by an Arab author, which they regarded as seditious. According to B. W. Andrzejewski’s introduction to the novel, Cawl joined the Somali Police Force in 1964 and in 1979 was seconded to the National Transport Agency ad became its General Manager. In 1978 he wrote a second novel entitled The Shackles of Colonialism. In 1991, he, along with several members of his family, were killed during the Somali Civil War.
The British would have found Ignorance is the Enemy of Love even more seditious as it follows the ill-fated love story of Calimaax, a dervish with the Muslim Brotherhood of Sayid Maxamed Cabdulle Xasan (1856-1921), often referred to by the British as the Mad Mullah, who fights against the British colonizers of Somalia. While traveling from Aden back to Somalia, Calimaax’s ship ends up sinking and he saves a young Somali girl named Cawrala, herself returning from Aden where she has been studying the Koran.
Cawrala falls in love with Calimaax although she has already been promised to a rich and elderly man by her father. The character of Cawrala is a classic example of the strength and spiritedness of Somali women. She is a poet who does not wait for signs of Calimaax’s affection but instead writes a poem to him herself declaring her love. Unfortunately, Calimaax can neither read nor write. Not knowing that Cawrala’s note is a love poem, he asks his brother-in-law to read it, thus insulting his wife’s relatives unintentionally. This incident inspires Calimaax to learn how to read and write. As he says:
It is now clear to me that not being able to read and write is a matter of great ignorance, in which stupidity and disgrace are combined. I’ve seen today that ignorance is like a moonless night, like the darkness which screens off from you the world and the light of day-there’s no doubt that whatever a man’s inborn abilities may be, whatever his manly qualities, if he is ignorant his true manhood is flawed and incomplete, as I witnessed in this incident today, when I brought trouble and disgrace on myself and made a fool of myself in front of my wife’s relatives (p. 35-36)
It is Calimaax’s ignorance of reading that is “the enemy of love” referred to in the title.
Cawrala’s poem causes Calimaax to fall in love with her but before he can return to her he is injured in battle and left for dead. Cawrala is forced to marry against her will and dies of grief. Calimaax sums up their tragic love story as follows:
You sent to me at Taleex a precious letter of love-you know this well-and there was nothing in its sweet art and wisdom nor in its mode of expression that could have been ignored or rejected. It created in me a love, ardour and affection that I had not felt for you before. But it was my ill fortune, Cawrala, that because of my ignorance I could not read your letter, and instead I handed it to my new neighbours, who did not want us two to come together. The discovery of my secret led to my being hurried away to a remote part of the eastern region, so that I would be kept far away from Xiis, where you lived. There in the east I played my part in a noteworthy way in the Dervish offensive against the British, but before I could reach the coast and seize some of their ships I was wounded and left for dead. For a long time I could not deliver myself from that empty, deserted place, where for sustenance I had only the berries and leaves which grow on the Cal mountains. I had beasts of prey for company-all of them-and one night the accursed leopard attacked me, tearing a wound in my flesh, when I already had a broken thigh and was holding on to life only by God’s mercy. Nevertheless, in spite of all I had to go through, God rescued me from all the troubles that had come upon me. What I am trying to tell you is that my delay in coming to you was caused by all this-that this is why I did not get to you in time before you were taken to the wedding against your will. O Cawrala, how bitter I feel, how deeply sorrowful I am, how stricken with impotent anger from which I get no respite, that you had to die because of your love for me! (p. 82)
This story is considered to be true and contains poems that Somali oral tradition considered to have been originally composed by Calimaax and Cawrala. Faarax Cawl’s weaving of Somali poetry into the novel form connects this modern, “Western” literary form with the deep-rooted oral traditions of the Somali people.
Faarax Cawl also uses this novel to promote the reformist aims of the Somali Government at the time, particularly in their promotion of literacy and women’s rights. Calimaax suffers great embarrassment because he can’t read and write despite his skill as a fighter. Cawrala is a gifted poet and free spirit whose love and life is ruined by the greed of her family who wish to marry her off for profit to a man who is believed to have beaten her sister, causing her death.
Excerpt from the novel:
About Richard Burton’s attempt to deceive the Somalis
Now among the passengers was a learned cleric, Sheikh Araye Ceelaabe, who was born in Seylac and still lived there; he had been on a short visit to Aden. He it was who had exposed the man who, some time between 1854 and 1860, had been sent by the British government on a reconnoitering mission to explore the Somali territories. This man’s true name was Richard Burton, but he told the Somali people that he was Sheikh Cabdalla, and disguised himself so that they would not know that he was a swindler whose intentions towards the Somali people and their land were robbery and oppression. This British infidel was in truth well acquainted with the Muslim faith and the Arabic language, and sometimes led the prayers in the mosques of the town of Seylac. It seems that most of the time he wore a long robe such as clerics wear, and he never moved very far from the places frequented by learned clerics and students, so that no one else could find him out or even notice him. But one day it happened that Sheikh Araye came upon this Briton when he had gone to relieve himself on open ground, and the Sheikh, hiding behind a tree, saw clearly that the man who was thought to be a sheikh had not been circumcised and that on his body there was the visible mark of being an infidel. Sheikh Araye proclaimed the news loudly and informed the whole town that the apparent sheikh who was staying among them was a hypocrite and then this disguised Briton was driven from Seylac. He went to Harar, whish is also in Somali territory and inhabited by Muslims but was eventually driven from there as well. (p. 15-16)
Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayid Mahammad ‘Abdille Hasan by Said Samatar (History)
Remembering B. W. Andrzejewski: Poland’s Somali Genius by Said Samatar (Article available online)
Culture-Bound Tropes in Somali Poetry by B. W. Andrzejewski (Academic essay available online)
Western mainstream medias’ perceptions of the Somali, as well as with many African communities, are often that they are mindless, crazy and violent, as seen in the film Black Hawk Down. The context for the violence is often ignored.
An important part of the story of the Somali pirates has only begun to be discussed recently outside of Somali circles. As shown in the short CBC documentary by Joe Schlessinger, the Somali pirates began as something of a makeshift coastguard after the collapse of the Somali government. Somali waters, rich in tuna and the source of the livelihood of many Somali, needed to be protected from illegal fisherman from various countries.
Another, and even more sinister encroachment on Somali territory came to light after the tsunami-the dumping of toxic waste in Somali waters. Canisters of toxic waste washed up on shore during the tsunami, and the people became aware that their waters were a dumping ground for toxic waste, including nuclear waste, from Western and Asian countries. So the Somali pirates, a coalition of Somali fisherman and Somali street militias, originated in the rather legitimate cause of defending Somali waters from illegal fishing and the illegal dumping of toxic waste.
But, as so often happens, a noble cause became corrupted by greed. And in a poor developing country with little political stability, there aren’t many options for young men to make a living. So capturing boats and holding their crews for ransom became a Somali boom industry.
President of the Canadian Somali Congress, Ahmed Hussen, points out that although the pirates are making an estimated $100,000,000 year, Somalia is losing over $300,000,000 a year from illegal fishing. And who can predict the long-term consequences of the dumping of toxic waste? Hussen suggests that the best way to deal with the problem of Somali pirates is to reenforce the local Somali authorities and give hope to the unemployed Somali youth and militiamen that there can be other ways to make a living than piracy.
For more information see:
Somali-Canadian hip hop artist and activist K’naan on Somali pirates:
K’naan music video called Somalia, about the Somali pirates
K’naan interview on the BBC
Why We Don’t Condemn Our Pirates by K’naan
Joe Schlessinger’s CBC documentary on Illegal fishing, dumping of toxic waste and piracy off the coast of Somalia ran on the National on Monday April 6, 2009
Farid Omar writes about how British lawyers, negotiators, and security teams are profiting off of Somali piracy in a blog post on February 19 2009 It includes an interesting story about how the Somali pirates unknowingly hijacked a Ukrainian ship loaded with military weapons they were planning to bring to South Sudan via Kenya.