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Somaliland Arts and Culture

Somaliland has long prided itself on its rich cultural and artistic tradition, but during the Barre period and the civil war, this heritage was crudely suppressed and subverted. In the near-decade that has past since the overthrow of the military regime, the arts and culture have been making a slow but steady comeback.
 
True to Richard Burton's characterization of Somalis as "a nation of poets"33 - an observation based upon his travels in modern-day Awdal and Saaxil regions - generations of Somalilanders have been raised on a bountiful diet of poetry and oratory. This accumulated wealth of songs, plays, poems, parables and folktales, is today the cornerstone of the modern Somali cultural heritage. Many of the most celebrated Somali cultural achievements are of Somaliland origin. Somali modern theatre and literature are divided into two schools: the northern, Hargeysa-based school which is predominantly of pastoral origin, and the Banaadiri school which originated in the southern coastal areas around Muqdisho and Marka.
 
The first Somali urban cultural movement, symbolizing the advent of Somali modern performance arts, songs and music began in mid 1930s in the British Somaliland Protectorate. Its earliest form, the Xer-Dhaanto provided an important bridge from pastoral rural dance and song to the embryonic urban cultural movements. The Xaaji Baal Baal Dance Troupe, which shuttled between Ceerigaabo and Jigjiga in early 1930 set the pace for cultural and artistic movements that followed.
 
The rustic tones of Xer-Dhaanto were quickly followed by the more flamboyant Balwo movement, pioneered by Cabdi Deeqsi "Sinimoo" and Qadiija Ciye Dharaar, better known as Qadiija "Balwo." The Balwo movement, a blend of new-style poetry and Arabian belly-dancing performed by women dancers, started in Boorame and spread like a shock wave to Hargeysa, Berbera, Burco and other main towns of the Protectorate. Musical instruments such as the daf and the darbuugad were introduced for the first time.
 
The early 1940s saw the dawn of the Qaraami movement (Qaraami, in Arabic, means love songs) in Hargeysa, Burco and Berbera. The godfather of the movement is widely acknowledged to be the late Cabdillahi Qarshe. From the Qaraami school evolved the classical Somali songs of today, which still command a broad following among all Somalis.
 
rehabilitation of essential services over the arts has necessarily taken priority
 
Somaliland's performing arts reached their zenith in the 1950s and '60s, in large part inspired by a group of educationalists, foremost among whom was Yuusuf Xaaji Aadan. The Hargeysa-based school of theatre was founded by Xuseen Aw Faarax, who authored the first two plays for the Hargeysa stage, Cantar iyo Cabla and Isa-seeg. The plays were produced by Cabdillahi Qarshe, who contributed his musical compositions, and who was also co-founder and chairman of the first modern Somali professional theatre group, the Walaalo Hargeysa Theatre Group. Later, under the leadership of Maxamed Ismaciil Baa-Sarce (Barkhad-Cas), the Walaalo group took a leadership role in the campaign for political independence and the unification of partitioned Somali territories. During the same period, the Hargeysa literary school immortalised the cultural nationalism of the Somali people, culminating in the nationalist icon, Maandeeq.34
Hargeysa was also the site of the first Somali radio station, named (appropriately) Radio Somali, which played an important role in the development and dissemination of Somali literary works. "Other radio stations in the region such as Radio Muqdisho, Radio Addis Ababa, and Radio Jabuuti replayed what was broadcast by Radio Somali in Hargeysa," recalls Cali Sugulle, a famous playwright and one of the main pillars of Walaalo Hargeysa.

Under the military regime cultural and artistic expression were persistently undermined. Despite official government promotion of the performing arts, the regime sought to instrumentalize artists for its own ends, soiling them with the essence of propaganda. Instead, some of the most successful songs and poems of the period were those that voiced opposition, capturing the mood of popular anger with the dictatorship and the civil war.

The euphoria of liberation and the reclamation of independence was not matched by a blossoming of artistic and cultural endeavour. Instead, a cultural vacuum emerged. Emigration of eminent artists, poets, playwrights and musicians as refugees drained the remaining talent pool of much of its vitality. The destruction of all urban-based cultural institutions such as theatres, museums, libraries, and the radio station also helped to stifle artistic expression, while a new brand of austere and puritanical religious groups began to agitate against cultural festivities, ceremonies and traditional dances. Into the widening artistic gap flooded western, commercial pop culture in the form of low quality video films, rock music, and satellite television. The mayor of Burco speaks for an older generation of Somalilanders when he says:

Nowadays teenagers imitate what they see in the videos. Whatever they see they practice right away. Some are acquiring habits that are a threat to our culture.

Today in Somaliland, artistic groups are spread thin, frustrated by the lack of support they receive from their communities and from the authorities. Some have participated actively in various peace processes across the country. Others have offered their services in support of campaigns by the government and international aid agencies to promote public awareness of issues like vaccination and cholera - uses of artistic talent that no doubt help to spread a message, but which might also be uncomfortably reminiscent of the military regime's use of propaganda.

Somaliland's artists remain optimistic and persistent, despite the hurdles. Together with their counterparts in the diaspora they have kept the cultural tradition alive, but are still far from the verge of a cultural revival.
 
International Actors
International aid organizations have been active in Somaliland since early 1991, and have added their efforts to those of the inhabitants in rebuilding the country. In the immediate aftermath of the government's collapse, the contributions of foreign donors through the United Nations and international NGOs - albeit at a very low level - initially helped to accelerate the restoration of essential services in some areas, to clear the mines from Hargeysa and its environs, and to care for those groups in the most precarious circumstances: war orphans, widows and the disabled. In those days, the need for immediate assistance outweighed long term considerations: 

The Administration usually accepted what little help it could get from these international partners without complaint, following the adage, "beggars can't be choosers." While the international assistance in these early days was much appreciated, and was in many cases important in helping the administration to establish viable structures of governance both within and outside the capital, there were several problems with it. Some of these problems have persisted into present day circumstances. (Gees and Hammond: 1998)
As relief needs receded and Somaliland shifted gears towards rehabilitation and development, relations with international organizations became more complex. The government's attempts to know more about what its international partners were doing, and to assert a degree of control were resisted by NGOs and UN agencies who sought to defend their functional autonomy and their institutional independence. Arguments over the question of political recognition aroused sentiments on all sides and sometimes overshadowed more tangible, common objectives. 

Over time, international co-operation has become less politicised, and current priorities include the harmonization of aid inputs with the government's priorities, and the co-ordination of activities within various sectors. Despite these improvements, a number of shortcomings remain. From the government's perspective, the externally-driven nature of aid programmes is galling. The government's Two Year Development Plan and Annex have been almost entirely ignored by aid agencies and donors, who prefer to design and plan their programmes unilaterally, or to negotiate bilaterally with different ministries, undermining the prospects for a common framework. 

To date, most international assistance has been ad hoc. Government priorities have not been set, and external actors have not always been successful in marrying projects with local realities or needs. Co-ordination, where it has existed, has been voluntary rather than obligatory. (Gees and Hammond: 1998)

The co-ordination of development programmes has also suffered from rivalry between major aid actors. Despite elaborate co-ordination structures based in Nairobi, co-operation between external actors is substandard, as agencies compete with one another for funding, credibility and the favour of government officials. 

Donor aid budgets oblige most agencies to plan in short, 6-month to 1-year cycles (sometimes less), preventing longer term, more sustainable projects. Some NGOs shift their area of focus (health, education, governance etc.) as a function of donor funding priorities, raising questions of competence. The preference of most international actors for dealing with NGOs has often relegated the government to the status of a reluctant observer, whose stake is only recognized when a problem arises that it is called upon to solve. 

Given the relatively minor impact of external assistance on Somaliland's long term recovery, aid agencies absorb an inordinate amount of energy. After receiving visiting missions, resolving problems, negotiating project documents and co-ordinating inputs, some government departments have little time left for policy formulation, human resources development or acquisition of first-hand information (i.e. assessment and evaluation of foreign aid programmes). Indeed, some government agencies are in danger of becoming little more than counterparts for aid agencies, rather than the reverse. 

Although Somalilanders are appreciative of the support and goodwill of their international partners, many are also sceptical of the relevance of foreign aid, whose noble intentions seem to manifest themselves as little more than a source of employment and self-enrichment. "The international NGOs are a discouraging factor in our process of rehabilitation and reconstruction," believes one Hargeysa intellectual. Other Somalilanders who would be less trenchant in their judgement are nevertheless relieved that foreign aid levels to Somaliland have remained low, fostering the spirit of self-reliance and initiative that has spurred recovery and development over the past decade. Foreign aid, they argue, is welcome if it nurtures that spirit, but not if it diminishes it or otherwise tarnishes Somaliland's dignity. 

31 However, a smaller exodus took place almost simultaneously from parts of Awdal and Woqooyi Galbeed regions.

32 For a more detailed description of mother and child health issues and needs, see Edna Aden Ismail, The Health of Somali Women and that of their Children (submission to "Rebuilding from the Rubble: A Self-Portrait of Somaliland"). Hargeysa: Unpublished Mimeo, 1999. The mimeo may be obtained from the Somaliland Centre for Peace and Development.

33 Burton's precise words were "poets, poetasters, poetitos, poetaccios." 

34 The she-camel, Maandeeq, symbolized Somali nationalist aspirations and the anticipated dividends of independence and statehood. The promise of the nationalist slogan Aan maalno hasheenna Maandeeq ("Let us milk our beloved milch-camel Maandeeq") quickly turned sour as enthusiasm for the union waned.


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