2/2015
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Somali studies in identity

Revisiting Somali identities

The 12th Somali Studies International Association Congress titled “Revisiting Somali Identitites – Addressing Gender, Generation and Belonging (SSIA) congress titled “Revisiting Somali identities- addressing Gender, Generation and belonging” was organised in Helsinki last August. During the congress various aspects of Somali identity and its presence both in Somalia and in the diaspora were discussed.

As a member of the diaspora community, and someone who works with Somali youth various discussions were very enlightening, and taught me aspects of Somali history, language, culture, geography and ethnicity that I previously wasn’t familiar with.

 

Professor Lee Cassanelli

The Congress also featured a presentation by two young Somali researchers who discussed the core of Somali research, and power structures in the Somali studies. Their presentation was titled “Cadaan studies”, and gained considerable attention among the general public.

Multilingual Somalia

The congress had both keynote speeches and workshops. The keynote speeches were given by eminent scholars, and some topics were particularly eye opening. The one that stood out the most, and brought out an aspect of Somali history that I hadn’t previously reflected very deeply on was: Prof. Mohamed Haji Mukhtar’s lecture titled: “Multilingual Somalia: Ploy or Pragmatics”.

 Professor Mohamed Haji Mukhtar

The lecture addressed the multilingual nature of Somalia and how certain language minorities were discriminated against. Prof. Mukhtar pointed out some historical government policies that caused great confusion among the youth in these language minorities, and how it affected their studies and caused disfranchisement among them.

Dr. Afyare Elmi in his keynote speech discussed building a constructive citizenship in Somalia that includes language and other minorities. His presentation was titled: “Constructing Inclusive Citizenship in Somalia: Challenges and Opportunities”.

Global problems

Dr. Yusuf Sheikh Omar, with whom I had the great pleasure of discussing his findings, presented a keynote lecture titled: “Addressing Somali Youth identity and Sense of Belonging in Western Context”. Lecture brought up important points concerning youth identity, and how the youth view themselves.

 

Dr. Yusuf Sheikh Omar (center)

It was interesting to note that the youth in Australia suffer from the same sort of identity crises, and a lack of belonging, as the youth in Finland. This demonstrates clearly that these are matters that the Somali diaspora community are dealing with globally, and we need to address the causing factors.

Dr. Mulki Al-Sharmani

The changes in identity were also brought up by Dr. Mulki Al-Sharmani, and Dr. Marja Tiilikainen, who in their keynotes discussed “Marriage and Family Life among Somali-Finnish Women and Men”, and “Experiences of Two Generations in Canadian- Somali and Finnish-Somali Families”. Both lectures brought up points of importance, particularly integration into the societies the Somalis live in and how this is visible in all aspects of life such as marriage norms. Generational differences were also discussed, and the Somali parents' lack of understanding of the transformation they see in their children. This change is currently viewed through the lens of fear rather than opportunity. This is something that has to change, as the youth are deeply a part of the society they live in, and as such are bound to differ from the old “Somalian” norms.

Somali - an underutilized language

The workshops were wholly stimulating as they gave the attendants a possibility to discuss research findings in smaller groups. As with the keynotes the topics varied greatly from rebuilding Somalia to gender and leadership in Somalia.

One of the workshops I attended and benefitted from was: “The Role of Language in the Rebuilding Process of Somalia”. I attended this workshop inspired by Prof. Mukhtar’s keynote. The discussion was lively, and brought up the current difficulties facing Somali language. Conclusions were that Somali language is diverse but greatly underutilized, and under researched.

Another topic that interested me was identity and belonging and, therefore, I attended a workshop titled “What is Somalinimo”. Marnie Shaffer and Zaheera Jinnah interestingly brought up belonging and meaning for Somalis in Johannesburg.

 Marko Kananen who researched youth in Minnesota, also presented his findings that the Somali youth do identify themselves as Somali, but they also have a deep rooted identification with the U.S. and Minnesota, and want to reach “The Somali-American Dream” that is not that different from the American Dream.

The colonial power structures still remaining

The Cadaan studies  was the last presentation of the congress and greatly anticipated. Two young Somali academics Safia Aidid and Ahmed Ibrahim aired some of their perceived grievances within the Somali studies field.

They argued that in the recent decades there are more and more Somali social scientists, but the power in the knowledge production about Somalis remains largely in the hands of European and American academics. 

Ahmed Ibrahim and Safia Aidid 

They brought up various points that reminded me of Edward Said and his classical work Orientalism. Most notably; how the Somalis are marginalized and absent from the discussions, and how the colonial power structures are working and effecting us till this day.

Ahmed also questioned the value of research that comes out of a couple of months spent in Somalia. “Is this really enough to make one an expert in Somali lives, language, identity and culture?” 

He also stated that sometimes the researcher’s informants are too experienced and well equipped: They know what the researcher is looking for, which is then fed back to the researcher, resulting in outcomes mirroring the researcher’s bias.

The presentation resulted in an energetic discussion; but all and all, it was an inspirational moment for the youths attending, and offered a good insight into power politics in Academia.

Even with all the academic discussions the event managed to offer us a great possiblity to meet and network. It was a great inspiration to find young Somali researchers from Canada to Germany who share an understanding of the issues facing the Somali diaspora, and how the youth fit in to the bigger picture of our community.

The volunteers were a priceless resource for the SSIA congress. The writer is second from left.

Countless hours of discussions about the role of the youth, women, and improving Somali lives in Somalia and around the globe, helped me to realize the interdependence of the global Somali community. It also highlighted the importance of research, and acting on these findings to not just rebuild Somalia, but to improve the lives of the future generations in wherever the Somalis happen to live.

Liban Ismail

The author is a project employee at Finnish Somalia Network. He was one of the volunteer congress assistants.

liban.ismail(at)somaliaverkosto.fi

Photos: Maippi Tapanainen


Facts

The 12th Somali Studies International Association Congress was organized in 19-23 August 2015 in Helsinki. The organizers of the congress were University of Helsinki, University of Jyväskylä, University of Eastern Finland, Finnish Youth Research Society and Finnish Somalia Network, in collaboration with Somali Studies International Association. A collection of congress presentations is published in this issue of Afrikan Sarvi.