By now there should be no real surprise that I am fascinated by orality and its connection to Somali personhood. Taking back Somali narratives requires a careful deconstruction and reframing of the very stories we believe to be true especially those that have become part of the fabric of who we consider ourselves to be as Somalis.
So what are the stories we don’t examine but that the majority of us know?
I start first by clarifying that midgaan is a derogatory slur, used amongst both contemporary diasporic and continential Somalis as a way to denote inferiority. It is used in connection to a clan that can be found across the Somali territories, from Somaliland, across Somalia through to the Northern Frontier District. Midgaan is offensive because of its historical socio-political connection to the subjugation, genocide and clan-sanctioned violence against this group of people. They now refer to themselves as the “Madhibaan” as an alternative which is derived from the Somali phrase ‘qof ma dhib aan’ to mean those who don’t bother others. I use Midgaan only in the retelling of stories, otherwise I will refer to the Madhibaan by their chosen name.
A great number of stories are told about Madhibaan that range from: a discovery of them in the bush and how they were subsequently incorporated in varied tribes; their scattering as wanderers and thieves; a poor subservient group of shoemakers and ironworkers dependent on the good grace of upper caste and therefore more superior Somalis; and finally a people without a tie to lineage or land. By and large the story that remains the most central to most is the one of two brothers following a father’s instruction.
As with all Somali stories, the storyteller has license to modify so I share only the details that remain consistent across the storytelling.
In realizing a shortage of water a father beckons to his two sons . He asks them to go on a journey in search for water. Before they depart, the father tells them that if they run out of rations, food and water, they are permitted to eat the carcass of a dead animal. But as soon as they find proper food they must then immediately throw up whatever it was that they had eaten. After considerable time on their journey, the brothers run out of all of their rations. Shortly thereafter, they stumble upon a dead animal, and following their father’s advice they eat what they can and continue on. Not long after they reach a place where there is fresh food and water and immediately the younger brother throws up the spoiled dead meat he just recently ate. When the younger brother presses his elder about throwing up the meat he has eaten, he refuses to do so. From that day forward, the brothers were separated, the elder brother disowned by his family and his descendants were from that moment forth known as the Midgaan. The Midgaan can be found scattered across the territories, are often poor but are good workers.
Here is where the storyteller would note that they are descended from the younger brother, but would be clear to specify that this demonstrates that all Somalis originally come from the same family and share the same blood.
This story isn’t one told by the Madhibaan but rather by those who would claim themselves as the pure Somalis. It is as commonplace as it is similarly recited by elders and the young.
It is a story that helps us to understand how power becomes managed through Somali orality.
*stay tuned for part two