Drought in Somali Folklore
'From where rain was expected mist has come', said one of the Somali ancestors, first looking at the pale sky and then at the herd of camels which he had just brought from the half empty Well of the Last Hope. 'A she-camel which has not drunk water for thirty days will endure three days more', answered his brother, trying to soothe him. 'But what shall I do with them', asked he, pointing at his sheep and goats which were hiding themselves under the tree from the hot rays of the Sun at its zenith. 'A drought is coming', uttered the first one.
This natural disaster is well described in Somali narrative folklore which accumulated ‘the wisdom of many’. The best description of the suffering which accompanies it can be found in the masterpiece ‘A Soothsayer Tested’. This tale first appeared in the collection of Somali folktales entitled ‘Xikmad Soomaali’ (‘Somali Wisdom’) published by Bohumil Andrzejewski and Muuse Xaaji Ismaaciil Galaal in 1956. ‘A Soothsayer Tested’ gave name to the biggest collection of Somali folktales in Somali and English, published by Georgi Kapchits in 2006. The plot of this tale is briefly as follows.
‘The sultan calls a famous soothsayer and orders him, on pain of death, to predict what will happen to his tribe in the coming year. The soothsayer tries fortune-telling by beads but his skill betrays him. He moves away from the people, continues his attempts but in vain. Suddenly a serpent speaks to him, they exchange an oath of friendship and the snake tells him (in verse) the desired prediction in exchange for his promise a share of the reward. The soothsayer goes to the sultan and passes on the prediction: a year of enmity is coming. The tribe gets ready for war in good time and comes out the victor. The sultan rewards the soothsayer with livestock, instead of giving the serpent his share he tries to kill him, but the serpent escapes.
The next year, the chief demands another prediction. The soothsayer appeals to the serpent, who forgives him and predicts a drought. The soothsayer goes to the sultan, the tribe gets ready for the drought in good time and manages to survive. The sultan rewards the soothsayer again but once again he avoids repaying the serpent. The sultan wants to know what will happen for the third time. The soothsayer goes to the serpent and returns with the prediction of rain.
The tribe has time to prepare the reservoirs for water and avails itself of the generosity of nature in full measure. Everybody is replete and happy.
This time the soothsayer drives all the livestock with which he was rewarded to the serpent, begs forgiveness for the past and, acknowledging the serpent’s higher wisdom, asks to be told about the structure of the world and the life in it. The serpent refuses the gift and the friendship of the soothsayer and says: ‘World there is, but life is not distinct from it. Your life, as you call it, goes as the world goes, for God made the world with many patterns and it is these that rule men’s lives. When war is the pattern of the times all men are at enmity with each other, and thus it was that during wartime you took your sword against me even after I had helped you, and said to yourself, ‘Cut off his head!’ And then again, at a time of drought no man is generous to his fellows, so you ran away with all your herds, giving me no share in the sultan’s reward. But when there is a pattern of prosperity… then you come to me, offering me all you have, not keeping even one animal for yourself. Each time it was the pattern, not yourself, that forced you to do whatever you did.’
Here is the predicted calamity: Several months later a drought started. It did not rain in autumn and it did not rain in spring. Clouds of dust were flying everywhere, the earth turned into a desolate wilderness, the trees dried up and there was no water anywhere. Only in the deepest underground wells a little water remained, but the shallow wells were dry. And then all the cattle and other domestic animals died, for they could not go without water for long, and only the sturdiest camels survived. All the other tribes which had not got ready for the drought perished, together with their livestock, and only the sultan and his tribe held out with what they had stored, and survived that difficult time.
Muuse Xaaji Ismaaciil Galaal has turned the serpent’s prediction into a verse:
Nevertheless – tell the sultan who sent you here
That a wasting drought will come.
Tell him the grass in the pastures will wither,
That trees will die, the ones that stand in groves
And the ones that grow alone and tall.
Tell him that water will no longer flow
In pool or shallow well, valley or running stream.
Tell him that those who are weak and poor
Will perish with their flocks
And only the black-headed sheep
And the sturdiest camels will live.
But tell him, too, that hard work and resourcefulness
Will help a man to survive till the rains return.
As mirrors in one of the tales of Wiil-Waal – the nickname of the Somali chief and poet Xirsi Garaad Faarax (1801-1864) – who was famous for his strength, bravery folly and wit cycle, simple people suffer from drought more than their leaders:
“A severe drought struck the lands of Wiil-Waal. Of the livestock only camels remained and the people were slaughtering them for meat. (Camels are the principal wealth of the Somali nomads and they are slaughtered only under extraordinary conditions.) The three best pieces – brisket, fillet and hump – they would take to the chief. But one day the people gathered together and said:
‘Wiil-Waal gets the best pieces. It’s not just and can’t go on any longer.’
But there was nobody who would dare go to the chief and tell him. Therefore three men were chosen. One was commissioned to say ‘Wiil-Waal!’, the second – ‘the three best pieces…’ and the third – ‘…you won’t get all at one time!’
The three men went to the chief and the first said:
The second man added:
‘The three best pieces…’
But the third man got scared and pronounced:
‘…aren’t enough for you, and you’ll be given one more!”
But drought hits not only nomads and their cattle, but also wild animals. And again, among the survivors – the strongest and the cleverest:
“Once upon a time a long drought affected the savanna and the beasts were in a bad way. One day even the lion himself did not appear out of his den.
‘We have to visit him,’ decided the beasts. ‘Let us go to the king in turn.’
Every day one of them went to the den of the lion and disappeared: the hungry lion ate him.
The last one who went to the king of the beasts was a jackal. He came up to the den and stopped at the entrance.
‘Come in!’ called the lion. ‘Don’t stay out there!’
‘No!’ answered the jackal. ‘There are many footprints which lead to your house, but not a single one leads out of it!”
Of all human qualities generosity is what the Somalis appreciate most of all, especially if it reveals itself in hardship:
Once a man gave a stranger hospitality for the night in his hut. Although it was a time of severe drought he fed his guest and gave him the best mat to sleep on, and in the morning he gave him food and water for his journey. ‘You are generous and hospitable,’ said the traveler, ‘and I want to reward you. But you must help me to decide between two gifts: shall I give you five things, or shall I speak about you in five places?’ ‘Speak about me in five places!’ was his host’s answer.
The Somalis are optimistic. If they had not believed in future they would not have been able to stand their drastic environment. No wonder that they say: ‘When you see that everything is getting dry wait for rain.’
Born 2.10.1939. In 1967 graduated from the Institute of Asian and African Studies of Moscow State University. Qualified as a linguist in the field of Amharic and Somali studies. From 1967 to 1994 worked as a broadcaster in the Somali Section of Radio Moscow’s World Service. Since 1994 has been working as a commentator at the Information Department of the State Radio Company ‘Voice of Russia’. Lectured on the Somali language at the Universities of Moscow and Berlin. In 2000 defended PhD thesis on the Somali syntax. Author of seven books on the Somali language and folklore.