Adventures in Somali anthropology - article ; n°1 ; vol.19, pg 307-321
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Adventures in Somali anthropology - article ; n°1 ; vol.19, pg 307-321


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16 Pages


Annales d'Ethiopie - Année 2003 - Volume 19 - Numéro 1 - Pages 307-321
15 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 2003
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Monsieur Ioan M. Lewis
Adventures in Somali anthropology
In: Annales d'Ethiopie. Volume 19, année 2003. pp. 307-321.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Lewis Ioan M. Adventures in Somali anthropology. In: Annales d'Ethiopie. Volume 19, année 2003. pp. 307-321.
doi : 10.3406/ethio.2003.1050'Ethiopie, 2003, vol. XIX '307-321. Annales
I. M. Lewis*
1. First Steps
I started fieldwork in Somalia/Somaliland in 1955 -almost fifty years ago-
having just published my first Somali book: Peoples of the Horn of Africa;
Somali, Afar and Saho (International African Institute, 1955). This was a library,
scissors-and-paste work, based on my Oxford B. Litt. thesis (1953) written as
part of my pre-fieldwork training in anthropology under the supervision of
Franz Steiner and Godfrey Lienhardt and strongly under the spell of the Oxford
Institute of Social Anthropology's director, E.E. Evans-Pritchard who super
vised my subsequent doctoral research. In the course of this work at Oxford, I
made my first real Somali contacts (including Abdi 'Telephone') and met B.W.
Andrzejewski and Muse Galal who was then his research assistant. After a long
quest for financial support (including trying unsuccessfully to enlist in the
Somaliland Scouts), I secured a grant from the British Colonial Social Science
Research Council to support my initial field research (1955-57). In accepting this
research scholarship, since no unattached foreign personnel were permitted to
work in British Somaliland, I was automatically affiliated to the Somaliland gov
ernment service (under the title 'the anthropologist'), and even found myself
appearing as the last and most junior entry on the official staff list.
Initially, I was very worried about this attachment, since I feared it would
curtail my freedom of action and impair my neutrality and independence.
However, fortunately for me, the truth proved to be very different, and without
compromise to my freedom of action, I was privileged to enjoy many benefits
from my relations with the dedicated and frequently unconventional expatriates
with whom I had dealings. The only occasion on which I actually received an
official instruction was during an extended field trip amongst the 'Ise which
included a visit to Djibouti. The Commissioner for Somali affairs sent me a
cable saying that I had left my wife (in Hargeisa) on her own for an unreason
ably long period, and should return as soon as possible. I was given to under
stand that on other occasions when some of the other senior officials thought
that I might be assigned a specific task, the Governor (Sir Theodore Pike), an
amiable Irishman who understood how anthropologists carried out their
research, protected my freedom of action -for which I was very grateful. I could
even send cables announcing my impending arrival and requesting rest-house
♦London School of Economics. 308
accommodation in District headquarters. As something of a novelty, I often
enjoyed generous hospitality from local officials and access to their knowledge
about Somali society.
I should explain that since I was studying the way of life of nomads, I had to
adopt an itinerant life-style myself. As a miniature one-person 'department' I
was equipped with a powerful Ford truck, with desert tyres, and my cara
vanserai consisted of a driver, four stalwart retired policemen (unarmed), a
cook, and myself. In addition to two tents and camping gear, we carried our own
fuel and water supplies, and sometimes we even had a few chickens to supply
fresh eggs. With this luxurious mobile anthropological workshop, I was able to
spend periods of up to four or five weeks at a time away from my home-base in
a house provided by the administration (where my wife lived when she was not
out on 'trek' with me). This enabled me to camp independently with the
nomads, both in their camel-camps and in temporary settlements in the pastures
where they roamed with sheep and goats. After over a year of concentrating on
the nomads mainly in the east of the Protectorate, I turned to study sedentary
and semi-nomadic farmers in the north-west where I established a base camp.
As it happened, I thus lived principally with a Darod clan (the Dulbahante)
nomads in the east, and with Isaaq cultivators near the Ethiopian border.
As can be imagined, roving as I did freely around Somaliland in and out of
grazing areas whose ownership was often disputed between clans, I owed my
relative personal security to the presence of the over-arching Protectorate
administration, light though its impact was. Nevertheless, on a number of occa
sions I experienced at first hand the powerful currents of chauvinist hostility
towards foreigners (especially non-Muslims) that is so firmly embedded in tra
ditional Somali culture. On occasions, in remote places, I was stoned and ver
bally abused by groups of children reacting to the unexpected presence of a 'for
eigner'. More frighteningly, while attending the pilgrimage of Sharif Yusuf al-
Qonain, a very excited ecstatic figure suddenly loomed up in front of me bran
dishing a huge sword. Luckily, this would be assailant was quickly restrained by
a more tolerant religious leader and local elder. I was still able to attend this ce
remony on three successive occasions, thus qualifying as the recipient of the
same quantity of religious blessing provided by a single visit to Mecca. Some
Somalis told me subsequently that the impressive size of my family could be
attributed to this source. On the other hand, on other occasions, I was received
with remarkable friendship at the weekly religious ceremonies which I regular
ly attended for some time at a local branch of the Qadiriya tariqa. Here I felt a
real wealth of what seemed to me sincere goodwill, and an atmosphere of peace
which contrasted quite starkly with the often combatant spirit evident in other
In fact, I visited every District in the Protectorate to try to establish how gen
eral my findings from these regions were in relation to economic occupation
and, of course, spent considerable time also in towns. Half way through my
research I also made an extended trip through the Ogaden to Somalia (then 309
under UN mandate) and travelled extensively in the south, again visiting most
Districts south of Mijerteynia (now Puntland). I was very lucky to meet with a
friendly reception from a number of impressive Italian officials and their new
Somali counterparts who were just assuming authority at this time of transfer of
internal administration (1956).
In British Somaliland, most officials were tolerant of what some found to be
my bizarre activities, although a few initially regarded my research as a self-
indulgent, exploitative exercise of little benefit to Somalis. The Protectorate
Administration was strongly committed to Somali interests, and often at vari
ance with the Foreign Office which saw relations with Ethiopia as of greater
importance than Somali concerns. The Protectorate administration, it must be
understood, was a proud, elitist organisation (comprising in 1955 less than 200
senior officials of whom 25 were locally recruited Somali officers). The latter
were the only Somalis admitted at this time to the exclusive local Hargeisa Club,
a circumstance that caused the then Commissioner for Somali Affairs (who was
a member of the British Communist Party) to refuse to join. Despite some li
ngering racist attitudes, particularly after the Second World War, when Somalis
and British soldiers had served in the same units, the Administration became
strongly committed to Somali interests. This pro-Somali policy in the
Protectorate was fostered by making the promotion of expatriates dependent
on developing good relations with Somalis, and on progress in learning the
extremely difficult Somali language (However, when I was in the Protectorate
at this time I found only a handful of expatriate officials who could speak Somali
fluently). I was myself provided initially with a Government Interpreter, a fine
old gentleman on the verge of retirement, who worked with me for three
months and tried to help me develop the rudiments of Somali I had been taught
in London by my friend and teacher B.W. Andrzejewski. The interpreter soon
concluded that I was very stupid since, as he complained, I kept asking people
the same questions (which was my deliberate anthropological attempt to check
the validity of descriptions and interpretations). Thus we soon parted company,
and I was left to do what I could on my own which was, of course, a great spur
to increasing fluency.
Somali policy in Somaliland was often at variance with that of the Foreign
Office. This division between the policies of these two British government
departments was particularly clearly seen in relation to the vexed question of
rival Somali and Ethiopian claims to the Haud grazing areas on the edge of the
Ogaden. When in November 1954 Britain finally implemented the terms of the
Anglo-Ethiopian treaty of 1897 (contracted in defiance of prior Anglo-Somali
agreements (see Lewis, 2002, pp. 40-62), Protectorate officials openly support
ed the Somalilanders and criticised the Foreign Office.
It is important to emphasize, that although a number of writers (e.g. Samatar,
1989; Kapteijns, 2001) have carelessly described Somaliland as a 'colonial state',
its Protectorate status excluded foreign settlers and, especially after Sayyid 310
Muhamad Abdille Hassan's jihad, Christian missionaries. The situation, thus,
was very different from that in Italian Somalia with its settlers and formal colo
nial structure. In the Protectorate, government rested extremely lightly on the
pastoralists and those who lived in towns (which were best seen, as I discovered,
as an extension of the pastoral Somali system).
When other more senior staff being on leave, the Administration itself was
often under the control of the 'acting Chief Secretary' (in my time frequently a
young administrative officer of my own age). Theoretically, the recognition of
clan and lineage elders as salaried local government officials constituted a form
of 'indirect rule'. But because of the profoundly uncentralised character and
fluctuating political identity of Somali clansmen, this bore no comparison to
Lugard's indirect rule in other parts of Africa where 'traditional chiefs' existed
and locally centralised authority was readily incorporated into the
Administrative political system.
As I was at pains to emphasize in the published accounts of my findings, this
did not mean that one could analyse the operation of Somali segmentary poli
tics without taking account of the presence of the over-arching British
Administration. Somalis were particularly adept at manipulating this system to
their own sectarian advantage. This feature of Somali political sophistication is
of course, contrary to the hackneyed and essentially ethnocentric Marxist view
that such activity was a monopoly of the expatriate administration. Actually
divide and rule was applied to the colonial authorities rather than vice versa! In
truly colonial Somalia, where there were more stable and slightly more cen
tralised Somali political units, with a stronger pattern of indirect rule, this
ancient administrative tactic was indeed applied from time to time at various
points in its history.
With this much lighter impact of foreign government in Somaliland, groups
were led by their elders and Somali juro-political relations regulated by the con
tractual treaties (xeer) binding kin-groups as, in effect, insurance policies in
terms of their joint responsibility for injury to person and property. This system
of compensation cover for murder (mag, in Somali, diya in Arabic) and lesser
torts lay at the heart of traditional Somali politics and was as crucial as the
underlying kinship ties (tot) which were thus articulated and defined by such
political contracts.
In my travels amongst the nomads, I collected from local elders a large num
ber of such contracts and examples of their implementation. In some cases I saw
people collecting compensation to pay out to claimants. My extensive record of
agreements from these oral sources was supplemented by consulting administ
rative records in District Offices, where they were generally stored. I found
some evidence suggesting that prior to the European presence, these treaties
were sometimes recorded in Arabic, or Somali written in Arabic, and lodged
with the custodians of a prominent saint who thus provided political neutrality. 311
law' was, of course, codified and incorIn other parts of Africa, 'customary
porated into colonial legal systems. However, I found no evidence of this in
Somaliland where there had been no systematic study of it and no attempt to
elevate xeer into a general scheme of 'customary law'. (If there had been such
administrative activity it would have greatly simplified my task.)1 By the British
administration these contractual treaties were correctly categorised as essential
'political' documents. ly
Working in this way, collecting material as widely as possible, my only formal
obligation to the Protectorate administration — a small return for all the benefits
I received — was to prepare a substantial report on my findings. Some months
after the birth of my first child in the Hargeisa general hospital, this was comp
leted, a month before I left Somaliland in 1957. Entitled rather cumbersomely,
'The Somali Lineage System and the Total Genealogy: a General Introduction to
basic principles of Somali Political Institutions (Lewis, 1957), it included a sub
stantial section on the development of Somali nationalism and my analysis
throughout emphasized process and political change and the interaction with
the administration. This argument was developed further in my book, A
Pastoral Democracy, first published in 1961 and recently reprinted (1998). My
earlier report was circulated to a number of senior officials, expatriate and
Somali, who very interestingly commented that they wished this text had been
available a decade earlier when its findings could have been applied in actual
administration. Here, I fear, my 'government anthropology' came too late to
serve 'colonial' interests!
Before going to Somaliland with my wife in 1955, I had already become
involved with nationalist Somalis campaigning for the restoration of the Haud
grazing area which had just been surrendered by the British to Ethiopia (see
Lewis, 2002, pp. 150-151). This gave me an entree with some of the nationalist
figures in Somaliland, but I still had to spend days explaining to antagonistic
nomads in the interior that I was not personally responsible for this betrayal of
Somali interests, and, indeed, shared their indignation! Not, that they necessari
ly believed me.
As mentioned, in the course of this first spell of fieldwork I spent a month,
in 1956 touring round Somalia, at the time of the transfer of power in internal
affairs from the Italian UN Trusteeship Administration to the first Somali gov
ernment under Abdillahi Ise. (Naively, I was so impressed with the pace of polit
ical developments there that, when I returned to the Protectorate, I took it upon
myself to urge the nationalists there to get a move on, even making this point in
1. Marxist folklorist L. Kapteijns, (2001) who has not conducted any systematic field study of xeer in
operation has recently asserted, without any evidence, that 'British administrators sifted, cleaned
up, codified, froze and thus fundamentally changed what had always been highly contextualised and
customised applications of Somali constitutional principles'. Such processes, assuociated with indi
rect rule, certainly took place in other British territories but not, as it happens, in Somaliland. 312
brief exhortations at political meetings.) I thus met a wide range of senior
Somali officials and politicians, spanning the spectrum of clans, who subse
quently became leading figures in one way or another and with most of whom
I've kept up over the years. My links with these figures were reinforced by my
frequent subsequent field trips and visits to Somalia and by my writing (and
later broadcasting) on Somali nationalism. Much later, I was thus flattered and
amused to learn from a friend then in the British embassy that a senior
Ethiopian official had referred to me as one of the founders of Somali national
ism. That was quite an exaggeration!
Of course my enduring relationships were not only with people who were, or
became leading political figures. One of my most fruitful encounters was with Aw
Jama Umar Ise, the celebrated oral historian of Sayyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan
and his poetry (Ise, 1974). When I first met him in Las Anod District in the 1950s,
Aw Jama seemed a typical Somali 'bush' wadad, an itinerant sheikh of a some
what fundamentalist disposition, who carefully covered his mouth while speaking
to an infidel like me. At any rate, he was extremely suspicious of me and my activ
ities, moving as I did among the Dulbahante nomads, seeking information about
their customs and institutions and writing down their genealogies. Like most un-
Westernised Somalis whom I met, his initial judgement was that I was evidently a
British spy, and I must admit that I found him somewhat menacing in the encount
ers we had. Some years later, I was astonished to meet Sheikh Jama in
Mogadishu and to discover that he had become a self-taught oral historian and
was busy collecting the poetry of Sayyid Mohamed Abdille Hassan — having
received encouragement and equipment (a tape-recorder) from the commander
of the Somali police force, General Mohamed Abshir (who was later imprisoned
by his old rival from British Military Administration days, General Siyad, and
eventually became one of the leaders of the North Eastern Regions SSDF). Aw
Jama explained to me that he had closely observed my ethnographic activities and
deciding that actually, I was harmless, he had concluded that what I was doing was
worthwhile, but could be done better by a native Somali speaker with his knowl
edge of the religious background2. 1 had inadvertently made a convert, and we
became friends. In this period of my association with the Dulbahante pastoralists,
partly through gifts and partly by purchase, I also acquired the nucleus of a small
herd of camels. (Although I have not seen them myself since the 1960s, I receive
reports on their well-being from time to time, most recently by cassette in 1995.)
2. The anthropologist as scribe
2- Aw Jama's masterly collection of the Sayyid's poems, fully annotated, appeared in Somali in 1974.
Although printed in Mogadishu by the government press, this book was highly controversial as it
contained full clan details of Aw Jama's sources and of textual references at a time when officially
clans did not exist. I received a copy, marked 'top secret', through the Somali embassy in London!
Aw Jama subsequently published a number of other scholarly works in Somali. These were remark
able publications by someone who never claimed to be a 'Somali intellectual'. 313
On one occasion in the 1960s when I was in Somalia carrying out a land
tenure study amongst the Digil Mirifleh for FAO (which enabled me to study
their specialised social organisation), I happened to meet in the street in
Mogadishu the then prime minister, Abdirazaq Haji Husseyn. He took me by
the hand in the democratic Somali way, and invited me to meet his cabinet. He
introduced me very cordially, as 'the fellow who writes about us. We don't
always like what he writes-but the important thing is that he writes about usV I
also remember about this time, after I had published a sympathetic account of
the Somali struggle to secure the independence and unification of the
Somalilands, I received a cable from the secretary to the Somali cabinet, con
gratulating me on my efforts -with the exhortation 'pray continue'. As the
cept of journalistic reporting became familiar to Somalis in this period, I often
found that once I had described my aims and activities, people identified me as
a 'journalist', a description with which I had no serious quarrel. Other more tra
ditional Somalis referred to me in Somali by the more attractive, generic title
On another occasion in the 1960s, I gave a public lecture at the University
Institute in Mogadishu with the rather dry title: 'The peopling of Somalia-the
history of tribal and clan migrations'. This was chaired by the then education
minister Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal (later, Prime Minister of Somalia and
finally President of the Somaliland Republic). To my naïve surprise (surely I
should have known better by then), as I proceeded to recount what I thought
could be gleaned from oral and written sources, of migration history, the packed
audience became more and more excited and restless. The atmosphere was
indeed very highly charged when I finished. Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal got
up, quickly assessed the situation and announced that 'As there are no further,
questions' (there had not been time for any!) he would close the meeting, and
he and I beat a hasty retreat, protected by his police escort from what looked
like becoming a riot.
This was then the time of the 'exes' when the English (or Italian) term 'ex-
clan'('ex' for short) had been introduced into Somali nationalist discourse to
reflect the new political realities, where, officially, divisive clans belonged to an
earlier, more primitive stage of society. Western-educated Somalis now referred
to people's ex-clans (rather than their clans) and the word 'ex' had been adopt
ed into Somali (cf. Lewis, 1979). Clanism, thus, attracted the same opprobrium
as tribalism in multi-ethnic states. (Interestingly, I cannot recall African nationa
lists elsewhere employing the expression 'ex-tribe' in such contexts.)
I do not know exactly when the term was invented, but in the 1980s I was told
that the Somali for anthropologist was, appropriately, toi yaqaan, literally, 'he
who knows clans (and clanship)'. Certainly, I was at risk from being seen as an
outsider, a member of the general category, ga'al, non-Muslim 'heathen', 'unbel
iever', as undifferentiated Europeans were disparagingly described. I was,
moreover, unhealthily interested in those internal divisions which Somalis 314
sought to overcome in the nationalist struggle for unity. My questions thus
sometimes elicited an angry response, particularly when people did not know or
recognise me.
More generally and fortunately for me, however, I was already quite well-
known in Somalia through broadcasts on the BBC World Service which were
sympathetic to the nationalist cause.
By that time, my original mentor in Somali, and close friend, the linguist,
B.W. Andrzejewski, and I cooperated closely and often visited Somalia togethe
r. We had become in Somali eyes something of an exotic double act and were
not infrequently mistaken for each other. Thus I would meet Somalis who would
greet me as 'Andrzejewski' and ask me to give their regards to Lewis, and
Andrzejewski had many similar experiences. When we were both in town at the
same time this caused confusion. Sometimes Andrzejewski was reproached for
not understanding the clan system properly, just as I was criticised for not speak
ing Somali as fluently as he did, or for having a much weaker knowledge of
Somali proverbs. But, where we were conflated into a single hybrid-Somali-
speaking foreign Somali specialist -I benefited enormously from the huge rep
utation which Andrzejewski enjoyed for his linguistic fluency and deep knowl
edge of Somali oral culture. With the addiction to radio which Somalis all share,
in the interior as much as in towns, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say
that by the 1980s, if not before, we had both become household names. Fame of
this kind is, perhaps, not often enjoyed by anthropologists or linguists and, while
satisfying to the ego, creates responsibilities which may not always be easy to
recognise or to discharge adequately.
3. Revolutionary Anthropology
When General Mohamed Siyad Barre came to power in 1969, as a political
anthropologist, my relations with the Somali government became more complex
(and more overtly political) than they had been previously. Although I still had
value as a sympathetic observer and publicist of Somali nationalist aims, my
accounts of internal politics were often irritating to say the least. Since clans had
been officially destroyed (and cremated in public rituals) so that there were no
longer even 'ex-clans' (or, as I tried to joke, 'exes'), someone who wrote about
the internal dynamics of Somali politics as I did was not very welcome in Siyad's
police state. I had, of course, to be especially careful lest my behaviour might
endanger my friends who sometimes risked imprisonment in associating with
Nevertheless, because of my role as a tame protagonist of Somali nationalist
aims, including the Ogaden war when I broadcast very frequently on the BBC,
I was reluctantly tolerated by the regime for a time -but only just!
After a two-month long visit to Somalia in 1974 when, as a British Academy 315
Visitor I was attached to the Somali Academy of Sciences and Culture (mode
lled loosely on its Soviet equivalent), and drawing also on information collect
ed in previous trips since the 1969 coup, I put together an analysis of General
Siyad's power structure which, slightly tongue-in-cheek, I called 'Kim il-Sung in
Somalia'. There were North Korean parallels, deliberate and unintended, but
the regime really depended primarily on an alliance of three related (Darod)
clans; Siyad's, his son-in-law's (who was then head of the National Security
Service), and his mother's, the strategically significant Ogaden. I showed a draft
of this piece to several Somali friends in London. I hoped to get some feed-back
and I certainly succeeded. The Somali ambassador whom I had known since his
student days in Oxford, came to see me precipitately, brandishing a telex from
President Siyad, who wanted to know if I intended publication. This seemed to
confirm my line of analysis and I confessed that I did intend to publish the arti
cle, but rather discreetly in a festschrift in honour of my immediate predecessor
at the London School of Economics (LSE), Isaac Schapira. I later learned from
a contact, who worked in Siyad's private office, that the President had personall
y annotated a copy of my paper, with encouraging remarks like: 'Who does this
shit think he is?'
There was a striking contrast, of course, between this view of the Somali
power structure and the official line of 'Scientific Socialism' (in Somali: hand
wadaag ilmi ku disan; literally wealth-sharing based on wisdom). The latter was
a locally adapted construct with an Islamic twist, developed by young leftist
Somali professionals and strongly oriented towards development. Marx and
Lenin were conjoined with Siyad to form an inspiring trinity in which the
supremacy of Siyad was strongly indicated. For this reason, I sometimes
referred to Somali scientific socialism as 'scientific Siyadism'. An encounter in
which I participated between the French Marxist social anthropologist Claude
Meillassoux and the Director of the Somali Institute of Public Administration,
illustrated this quite vividly. During an international conference we were having
an animated discussion about Somali politics in a tejj bet in Ethiopia in the com
pany of the Ethiopian anthropologist, Dr Fecadu Gadamu (who, much to his
surprise, later become Vice-President of Ethiopia). Meillassoux was strongly
critical of Somali socialism, asserting that Somalis did not understand what
Marxism was. My Somali friend, one of those apparatchiks involved in the elab
oration of this exotic Somali ideology, became infuriated with Meillassoux and,
eventually, silenced him with the pronouncement: 'Look Meillassoux: we don't
need Marx, Marx needs us!' The Somali defeat in the Ogaden war demonstrat
ed that this was, alas, a somewhat overconfident assessment.
After that traumatic experience and the flood of refugees which it brought in
its train, deserted by the Soviet Union (which had changed sides to support
Ethiopia), Siyad desperately sought support from the USA. Scientific socialism,
consequently, was soft-pedalled. This had an amusing impact on the publication
of a three volume study called Marxist Governments: a World Survey (ed. B.
Szajkowski, 1981) to which I contributed a chapter on Somalia which, in demo-