How to Write About Somalia Blog

Always use the words ‘crisis,’ ‘instability,’ ‘conflict,’ ‘anarchy,’ or ‘terror’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘refugee,’ ‘militant,’ ‘warlord,’ ‘failure,’ ‘collapse,’ ‘clan,’ ‘radical,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘extremist,’ or ‘pirate.’ Also useful are words such as ’nomadic,’ ‘pastoral,’ and ‘tribal,’ as well as made-up verbs combined with these other words, like the ‘Somalization of the crisis.’

Use the image of an elder wearing a tall koofiyad cap, traditional macawis sarong, and holding a stick. Alternatively, you may use the image of an underweight young man holding an AK-47. He may be on a boat or in a vehicle, these details are not important. But make sure you describe how he has been chewing qaat and what effect the stimulant has on promoting irrational and violent behaviour. Describe their teeth in detail.

If you must use a woman, you have two options. Either a close up with enough space for a young child strapped to the woman to be visible in the frame, or a more distant shot that shows a faceless group of women as an undifferentiated mass of cloth. In your writing, describe their veils and traditional garb, referring to their bright colours and exclaiming your surprise that they are not dressed entirely in black. Remark on their faces and how, despite their intense blackness, appear quite delicate and un-African to your eye.

Emphasize that the clan is the key to understanding this relatively simple, unsophisticated people, and that everything – from civil war to music preference – can be explained through this. Include a proverb of uncertain origin to emphasize this point. Always be specific about the person’s clan, like “the Hawiye man,” as it is more relevant than any actual name. They are all named Abdi or Mohamed anyway. The only exception to this is in nicknames, which you must elaborate upon, as they offer much insight into their tribal character and violent tendencies. Note that there are no individuals in Somali society, only the collective. It is thus unimportant and indeed unproductive to seek out a wide range of opinions when writing. Abdi “AK” and Mohamed “Crusoe” think how they look: alike.

Though hopelessly primitive, express your admiration for the nomad. Describe how, despite the harsh landscape, the specter of tribal violence, and backward cultural tendencies, he is noble and resilient. The nomad is always male, and always proud. Quote Sir Richard Burton’s observation about Somalis as a “nation of bards,” and detail their rich tradition of poetry. Describe their camels, and let your reader know you have tried camel milk, and if you are particularly daring, camel meat. It is tough, if not slightly bitter, like the nomad. Sympathize with how his way of life, untouched for hundreds of years, is threatened by the outside world. There is no need to mention Somali women, urban or rural, unless you are discussing their veils or their mutilated genitals.

Thoughtfully meditate on the ruins of colonial architecture in cities like Mogadishu, destroyed by the Somali when left to their own devices. Avoid depicting the darker aspects of colonial rule, and instead focus on more pleasant and romantic dimensions, like its Art Deco style villas and gelato. Describe the cosmopolitan nature of the colonial period and early independence years, and how women once wore bikinis on Liido beach before they adopted their large cloth tents. Bemoan modernity. How could the Somalians reject their timeless, tribal ways and attempt a modern nation-state? Disregard context and wonder whether the Somali adventure in politics was always destined to end in statelessness with these tribal nomads at the helm.

Remind your reader that despite this, there are some things in Somalia that work, that there is a Somalia you never see. They have cellphones, after all.


Inspired by Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay “How to Write about Africa.”

Safia Aidid is a PhD Candidate in History at Harvard University, whose research focuses on Somali nationalism and its interaction with the Ethiopian state. You can find her on Twitter @SafiaA.


  1. Mohamoud Qaalib Says: July 1, 2015 at 1:44 pm

    That really sums up all that goes through my mind when reading anything about Somalia in main stream media. It’s like they are following a template and I became good at detecting it too look

    The one I hate the most is this one.
    “… Avoid depicting the darker aspects of colonial rule, and instead focus on more pleasant and romantic dimensions, like its Art Deco style villas and gelato. Describe the cosmopolitan nature of the colonial period and early independence years, and how women once wore bikinis on Liido beach …”

  2. Jawahir Says: July 1, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    Asalaamu Calaykum

    You have only with great accuracy described the old and well known narrative of mainstream media. Not only the media! But non-somali authors who are known for the books they author – likewise share that narrative.

    The way in which the writer has written it is not only articular but in the manner in which you chose to broadcast your message to have a desired outcome was fantastic.

    I have to say thought provoking piece!

    Would love to see similar pieces posted on MAANDEEQ in the future!

  3. How to write about AFRICA. Somalia and Africa are always misrepresented. This is great article. I love it.

  4. Simply brilliant. For me, the lazy depiction of Somalia is frustrating because I see myself in every Somali. And my people are not a tableau in a museum or an art gallery. They are breathing dignified people who stand tall despite the conspiracy of time and politics.

  5. thank you for a well-articulated piece. i think that your article pays homage to (and takes off from) that very popular piece, “How to write about Africa” by Binyavanga Wainaina, not so?

  6. Sofia you seem to have brain washed by media atitude and atracted to piece of negetive out of all the good and pleasent Somali culture.

    You also are also culturelly and identity confused.

    Your phd and knowledge is not morethan what we call “Aworka heryadiisa cunay”.

    • Kilas,

      You have clearly missed the entire point of this article. She is making fun of the way western media speaks about Somalia. I suggest that you try and understand the content before making rude comments.

    • some of you guys lost the plot of this article, Safia wasn’t trying to demean somalia. she’s reflecting the way western Media depicts somalia.

  7. Safiya,
    You are a Somali girl who must apologise to the entire Somali people wherever they are!If you are faithful there is allot of positive things you can write about your own people.Stop your negativity about your self and if your educational qualification is anything to go by you are not learned. Seek forgiveness and stop offending people whom you can not meet to sorry.

    • Safia Aidid Says: July 13, 2015 at 1:24 am

      You’ve misunderstood the article. It is satire that mocks the way people write about Somalia, which is the opposite of how I feel about Somalia and Somali people. Please read it more carefully.

  8. Abdul-Fatah Ali Says: July 12, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Nailed it.Nearlyy all the articles, books written by Western writers and columinsts had all these subtle anti-Somali rhetoric.

  9. Abdisabur Says: July 13, 2015 at 8:06 am

    Safia! Exotic one time! heart-breaking another! and exit strategy at last! Exotic for western people! heart-breaking for Somalia young graduates! and finally, exit strategy for Somalia intellectuals who really want to make Somalia different!

  10. The funny thing is all this people don’t get it at all. Just accusations

    This is remarkable article, it’s precisely how foreign people write about Somali people.
    Thanks safia you nailed.

  11. Abdulahi Ali Says: September 27, 2015 at 6:46 am

    Thanks Safia, for scratching my itch with this writing,
    I love it! It seems they Drink from the same saloon called No Effort.

  12. Abdi najiib Says: December 8, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    I have one question so please answer if you know.How to write essay of somalia

  13. Ahmed Ali Says: January 5, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Ayy lmao

  14. Muna Abdi Says: July 21, 2016 at 8:12 am

    Only just came across this piece… made me laugh, pause and reflect. Gosh we are written about in so many ways and yet rarely are those accounts true to who we are. Thanks for this.

  15. I just re-read this piece, and it is so, so, so wonderful! keep doing your thing, Safia.

    And to everyone involved in bringing Maandeeq to fruition, much thanks. The articles are insightful and thoughtful.

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