Somali studies at a crossroads
Most of the founders of SSIA are ready to pass the torch to a new generation of scholars
The 12th congress of the Somali Studies International Association (SSIA) which was held in Helsinki, Finland, on August 19-23, 2015 with the theme “Revisiting Somali Identities–Addressing Gender, Generation and Belonging” was quite a success, elaborate and unique. It stood out, in so many ways, from previous congresses not only in the enhanced academic research presented, or the quality of the overall program, but by the sheer presence of greater number of new scholars developing interest in the field.
The University of Helsinki, as the host organization, in collaboration with the University of Jyväskylä, University of Eastern Finland, Finnish Youth Research Society and Finnish Somalia Network, deftly delivered a well-coordinated three day long program with a series of thematically selected topics of keynote presentations and carefully weaved through concurrent sessions organized in a manner that allowed flexibility for networking opportunities. Moreover, organizers carefully arranged special tours to important government offices and historical sites with displays of Finnish arts and crafts.
Abdinur Mohamed (on the right) speaking at the Helsinki University reception.
To many frequent attendees, this was among the best congresses of the SSIA, not only in the quality of knowledge production and information sharing but by the confluence of scholars, young and seasoned, from around the world. Among the notables attending this year and deserving special mention were professors Annarita Puglielli and Abdalla Omar Mansur, both of the Università Roma Tre of Italy, presenting on the role of language in the rebuilding process of Somalia.
The Somali Studies International Association (SSIA) was founded in 1978 by a group of scholars who realized the need for a new field of study within the larger African Studies programs focusing mainly on the Somali Republic and the Somali speaking peoples of the Horn of Africa. Their objective was to shed light on the cultures, governance practices, and history with the aim of promoting scholarly research, international cooperation, and exchange of ideas.
Suzanne Lilius and Lee Casanelli.
In addition, the SSIA also set out to publish proceedings of its triennial congresses held in different places around the globe, and other research materials on the history, culture and contemporary issues of Somalia in particular and the Horn of Africa in general. At its inception, the organization faced numerous challenges brought forth by the complex colonial and post-colonial history, politics and economic realities of the day, and continues to this day to search for ways to enhance knowledge production in a region engulfed with prolonged conflict, cyclical famine, and state failure.
As a non-governmental organization, the SSIA has a board consisting of active scholars in the field. The board collaborates with staff from a number of institutions and other like-minded organizations showing interest in hosting the congress. As one of the co-founders of the SSIA, Professor Lee Cassanelli explains:
“International interest in Somali Studies continued to grow as political turmoil engulfed the country. With the aid and support of foreign government ministries, universities, and professional groups in the host countries, the SSIA succeeded in organizing six additional international Congresses of Somali Studies at roughly three-year intervals: in Hamburg (1983), Rome (1986), Mogadishu (1989), Worcester and Boston (1993), Berlin (1996), and Toronto (1999). These international meetings were attended by anywhere from 250 to 400 Somali and non-Somali scholars, students, social workers, policymakers, NGO representatives, journalists, and the like, taking up issues ranging from Somali poetic scansion to range land conservation to warlord politics”.
In addition, the following congresses also preceded the Helsinki one: Hargeisa (2001), Aalborg, Denmark (2004); Columbus, Ohio, USA /Djibouti, Djibouti (2007), and Lillehammer, Norway (2012). Even though SSIA congresses are designed as a triennial gathering of scholars and students of Somali studies, it often fluctuates depending on the availability of host institutions to plan and deliver a high quality program adhering to the scheduled timetable for the triennial congress. Unfortunately, this was not always possible, as political and social events in Somalia continue to impact the desire of many institutions to undertake what could turn out to be a politically charged non-academic event.
Fortunately, the SSIA and its membership managed to live up to the scholarly ideals of the association and maintained its focus on the exchange of ideas and the cultivation of policy for the healthy development of the whole region. The SSIA leadership continues to ensure, despite sporadic tensions that stem from state failure, to keep the association neutral, academically grounded, and always in pursuit of knowledge production and information sharing for Somalia and the Somali speaking people of the Horn.
The Helsinki Congress
The Helsinki congress focused exclusively on the complex and multidimensional nature of Somali cultural identity and its different manifestations both in Somalia and the expanding Diaspora communities throughout the globe.
The Helsinki program challenged participants to explore the diverse and often intersecting aspects of Somali identity, including gender, generation, geography, culture, ethnicity and religion. Moreover, it sought to study and analyze the varying practices and processes through which host countries enable or inhibit the inclusion and membership of their new immigrants from Somalia.
The following keynote presentations set the tone for an engaging conversation and dialogue on the issues under consideration:
I Constructing inclusive citizenship in Somalia: challenges and opportunities;
II Multilingual Somalia: ploy or pragmatics;
III Marriage and family life among Somali-Finnish women and men: reflections on gender, law and ethics;
IV Somali youth identity and sense of belonging in Western context; and
V Insecurities, resources and transnational bonds: experiences of Canadian-Somali and Finnish-Somali families.
The Somali Studies International Association does not have an annual budget nor does it secure funds to run its day-to-day affairs and host its congresses. The SSIA board consisting of founding fathers such as Profs. Hussein H. Adam, and Lee Cassanelli, as well as Prof. Abdi M. Kusow, Suzanne Lilius, and the writer, among others, occasionally communicate and deliberate via telephone or online on numerous issues including the selection of a suitable site for the next triennial congress or a special congress if deemed necessary.
In fact, it is quite challenging for the SSIA to hold face to face meetings other than the one held in one of the evenings at the triennial congress, due to the dispersed nature of the members.
Deputy major Ritva Viljanen speaking at the Helsinki city's reception.
In addition, members from the most recent host institution generally assume the chairmanship of the SSIA for the following three years until the next congress. Moreover, the SSIA board periodically reviews and accepts proposals for hosting the triennial congress from potential institutions showing evidence and capacity for the following:
1. interest in hosting a triennial congress or a special congress;
2. collaboration and coordination with other educational, social, cultural and/or governmental institutions in the country and region;
3. budgetary support for the stated program and capacity;
4. program and planned activities;
5. staffing arrangements, etc.;
As of this writing the SSIA board is in the process of reviewing proposals for hosting the next triennial congress in 2018 from a number of institutions. An announcement on the winning proposal, the host institution and country will be made in the spring of 2016. The Board welcomes proposals for hosting special SSIA regional congresses at any time. Previously held special congresses include: London (1993), Paris (1995) and Turku, Finland (1998).
Somali Studies at a Crossroads
The founders of the Somali Studies fondly known as the “Guurti” or elders have impeccably done their best for the past fifty years in the promotion of academic research and knowledge production in Somali Studies. They were able to manage over twelve international congresses and three special meetings. Three of these congresses were held in the Horn of Africa, particularly, in Mogadishu, Hargeisa and Djibouti-- requiring added time, energy and effort to collaborate with institutions and governmental structures with their unique cultural and/or institutional barriers.
Focused audience at a workshop.
There are numerous academic research works produced since the establishment of the organization in its triennial and special proceedings. Most of these publications are available to students and researchers of Somali studies.
In the past two decades, it appears that general interest in Somali studies continues to grow as a direct consequence of the social and political instability in the Horn. Moreover, the number of academic institutions and think tanks that engage in Somali Studies research continues to increase as well. This is good news for the field of Somali Studies.
However, many of the founders of SSIA are retiring or near retirement after being in the field for over three or four decades. In fact, most are ready to welcome and pass the torch to a new generation of scholars who will engage in active field research and knowledge production, who will elevate the association to the next level. Ostensibly, what the next level of Somali Studies will look like will mostly depend on the conflict in the Horn of Africa and the creativity of new scholars to make the association and its work relevant and meaningful.
The author is a former chairman of the Somali Studies International Association and the conference chair of the 2007 congress held in Columbus, Ohio, USA. He currently works for the Ohio Department of Education.
Photos: Maippi Tapanainen
Cassanelli, Lee (2001). The Somali Studies International Association: A Brief History. Bildhaan. An International Journal of Somali Studies 1: 1−10.