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Somali History

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Somali History

In the 7th century Arabs and Persians developed a series of trading posts along the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. In the 10th century the area was peopled by Somali nomads and pastoral GALLA from southwest Ethiopia. For the next 900 years Somalis spread throughout the Horn of Africa. Britain and Italy occupied different parts of the territory in the 1880s, and until World War II, Somalia remained under colonial control. In 1941, Britain occupied Italian Somaliland and in 1948 gave the OGADEN region to Ethiopia, although it was populated largely by Somalis. By 1950 the United Nations had voted to grant independence to Somalia, and in 1960 the two former colonies were united to form the Somali Republic.

Somalia was ruled by a civilian government until 1969, when President Siad Barre came to power in a military coup. His Somali Revolutionary Socialist party, created in 1976, formed the government. Areas inhabited primarily by Somalis, including Djibouti, the Ogaden, and northeast Kenya, had long been considered lost Somali territories. Somalia invaded the Ogaden in 1977, but Ethiopia regained control of the area, and Soviet forces were expelled from Somalia in 1977 for their support of Ethiopia. The country then received U.S. and other Western aid (mostly food for its refugee population). Sporadic conflict with Ethiopia continued until 1988. Armed domestic opposition to Siad Barre began in the north in 1988 with the Isaaq-based Somali National Movement (SNM) and was brutally suppressed. Other clan-backed groups, most notably the Hawiye United Somali Congress (USC) and the Ogadeni Somali Patriotic Movement (SPM), joined the antigovernment struggle, and Siad Barre fled on Jan. 27, 1991. In May the SNM declared northern Somalia the independent Republic of Somaliland, an act that was not recognized by any foreign nation. Northern Somalia has since governed itself independently, completing a planned two-year transition to multiparty democracy with the indirect election of a new president in May 1993.

Elsewhere in Somalia, fighting soon erupted between various rebel groups, most notably those of transitional president Ali Mahdi Mohammed and the Aidids -Father/Son- (both USC subclan warlords). Violence in Mogadishu continued after authority for the peacekeeping effort was transferred from U.S. to UN forces on May 1, 1993. After the death of 18 U.S. soldiers in a firefight with forces loyal to Aidid in October, the United States announced plans to leave Somalia. The last U.S. combat troops departed on Mar. 25, 1994, officially bringing the 15-month U.S. mission to a close. Later that year, as a result of renewed violence and a lack of progress in diplomatic efforts to create a new political structure for the country, the UN reduced the size of its peacekeeping force in Somalia.

Siad Barre died in exile in Lagos, Nigeria, on Jan. 2, 1995. The UN mandate, which had been scheduled to expire on Oct. 31, 1994, was briefly extended, but the last UN troops withdrew from Somalia on Mar. 3, 1995. In the absence of a strong central government, the civil war continued; renewed fighting also erupted in northern Somalia. Neither Aidid nor his rival claimants to the presidency were recognized by the UN or other international organizations, and Aidid was ousted as the chairman of his own faction in June 1995.




Somali Culture and Customs

Somali Dress


Men wear western pants or a flowing plaid ma'awis (kilt} western shirts, and shawls.

On their heads they may wrap a colorful turban or wear a koofiyad (embroidered cap).


Women usually wear one of the following dress:

  • Direh, a long, billowing dress worn over petticoats.

  • Coantino, a four-yard cloth tied over shoulder and draped around the waist.

  • Toob, commonly worn throughout Africa

  • Hijab, and head scarfs are very common

Customs and Courtesies


Somali warmly greet each other with handshakes, but shaking hands with the opposite sex is avoided.

Common verbal greetings include:

  • Assalam Alaikum (Peace be upon you)

  • Nabad miyaa (is their peace).

  • Subah wanaagsan (Good morning)

  • Galab wanaagsan (Good afternoon)

  • Habeeb wanaagsan (Good night)


Somali use sweeping hand and arm gestures to dramatize speech. Many ideas are expressed through specific hand gestures:

  • A swift twist of the open hand means "nothing" or "no".

  • Snapping fingers may mean "long ago" or and "so on"

  • A thumb under the chin indicates "fullness".

  • It is impolite to point the sole of one's foot or shoe at another person.

  • It is impolite to use the index finger to call somebody; that gesture is used for calling dogs.


Somalia is a long, narrow country that wraps around the Horn of Africa. It has the longest coast of any African nation, bordering on both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The inland areas are predominantly plateaus, with the exception of some rugged mountains in the far north. The northern region is more arid, whereas the southern portion of the country receives more rainfall. Many Somalis are nomadic or semi-nomadic herders, some are fishermen, and some farmers. Mogadishu is the capital and largest city.