Who Came Before the Somali? Pt. II Blog

Earlier this month I put up a post that shares a story, I would argue, is central to how we understand Somali personhood. As we examine further the story of the two brothers, one who eats unclean meat we must go beyond the story’s meaning. It is critical to consider what the story does, the function it serves in its retelling.

Firstly, the eating of ritually impure meat is central to understanding this story because of the way it goes against the principles of Islam. The story is careful to stress that the Madhibaan in eating this meat have created the conditions for their ongoing subjugation. Secondly, the elder brother not only defied his God, but defied his father as well, a double assault on the patriarchal heads of family. The elder brother stepped outside the boundaries of respectability, and therefore the boundaries of Somalinimo. He is now in a position subservient to his father and younger brother, and one could go so far to argue, in servitude to. To be Somali is to be Muslim, which requires a particular kind of cleanliness therefore the Madhibaan having engaged in unclean behaviour and practices can not be considered Somali. This story secures an ongoing position of dominance for Somalis which is premised on the subjugation of the Madhibaan.

This is fundamentally a story about dispossession and social hierarchy. It is a story about power. Everytime the story is told it serves as a reminder of who the Madhibaan are, and by extension what it mean to be Somali. The very fabric of Somali personhood is dependent on Madhibaan subjugation, which tells us something not only of the function the story has but the role the Madhibaan themselves play in the configuring of a national identity.

This story is not merely a story, it exists within the consciousness of the contemporary Somali diaspora as well as continental Somalis as a way to manage who is allowed access to the differentials of power. Only one Madhibaan person has ever held a government post since independence. ‘Midgaan’ is frequently used as a insult by Somalis across the globe. Well before the civil war and colonial administrations Madhibaans were not allowed to attend school, participate in Somali politics, speak their language (wholly different from Somali) in public for fear of reprisals. The families of those who were killed were not allowed to demand blood money from those who had done the killings.

The Madhibaan are frequently positioned as a lower clan with no claim to Somalia, and yet are the only clan to figure prominently in a story that talks about the origin of Somalis themselves.

It becomes clear that the Madhibaan people have a claim to something that goes much deeper than Somali contested state borders. In fact, present day camel herders have only occupied the Somali territories since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. (Piga de Carolis 1980) The Madhibaan have been linked to the Bon, who are “connected to the pre-Negritic populations of hunter/gatherers who were the first inhabitants of the open terrain of North and East Africa.” (Gallo & Viviani, 1992) The story of the two brothers itself tells us of this link, making clear that the Madhibaan existed pre-Islam. The very fabric of Somali personhood is dependent on their subjugation, this clearly tells us something of their value.

What have we allowed to get submerged in our rhetoric of one language, one religion, one people even as we constantly contest nationalisms, borders and identity? What are the things that remain constant across the Somali territories? What helps us to establish what we understand to be Somalinimo? Somali personhood? What must we destabilize? These are the questions we should be asking in our attempts to understand Somali identity. Only by asking different questions can we be certain we don’t fall into the same colonial models we were quick to contest as part of #CadaanStudies. Only by asking different questions do we begin to create the conditions from which to imagine and create critical, relevant and expansive notions of personhood. And perhaps then we can retell our stories in a way to remember our history instead of running from it.

Hawa Y. Mire is a diasporic Somali storyteller, writer, and strategist who focuses on themes of Blackness and Indigeniety, (dis)connection and (un)belonging. Her writing is seated somewhere between oral tradition and the written word, celestial and myth, past and present, ancestry and spirit. An MES candidate in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, her research incorporates traditional Somali stories with discourses of constructed identity while pulling from archival histories of resistance and radical curatorial practises.


  1. Mohamed Says: July 10, 2015 at 9:28 pm

    Thank you Hawa,
    still we are struggling why? instead of how to eliminate bad practices and the fabricated oral discourse. We have to examine what went wrong with madhibaan themselves?

  2. No disrespect to the writer, but this piece has absolutely no direction. What are you trying to tell us? Is this an indication of what we can expect from Maandeeq in the future?

  3. This is an interesting piece Hawa. I have always understood the stories about marginalized clans as having roots in occupational discrimination, ie: stories of madhibaan being fierce hunters, yibir being blacksmiths vs the pastoralist “norm”. Of course we don’t know for certain but it definitely predates the introduction of Islam in Somalia. Love your questions at the end, we should reclaim our story that has long been diluted and remixed by our ancestors.


    • Thanks Idil! I’m curious about how occupations become tied to groups of people. Is it intentional? Or is it done to denote a particular kind of social hierarchy? Either way we must continue to contest the idea of all Somalis as pastoral. Appreciate your comments!

  4. You wrote, ‘Only one Madhibaan person has ever held a government post since independence.” I think that is not true. Prior to the Civil War, I knew many minority clans, including Madhiban who were my work collogues and employed by the government and held senior positions. Mr. Botan who was Madhiban became the minister of higher education, Dean of Lafole college and held a senior position at the Somali Socialist Revolutionary Party respectively. Mr. Mohamed Waji was one time the director General of Radio Mogadishu. Somali school superintendent, Mr. Ali Hayan who was also highly respected in education circles was Madhiban. There are many Somali clans who are not Madhiban, but never held government positions. How do you explain that?
    You wrote ,”Well before the civil war and colonial administrations Madhibaans were not allowed to attend school, participate in Somali politics, speak their language (wholly different from Somali) in public for fear of reprisals.” That is not true. No one was denied education in Somalia. I knew Madhiban students, headmasters and teachers. I never heard a midhiban persecution because they spoke their language. Where do get that information?
    You wrote “The families of those who were killed were not allowed to demand blood money from those who had done the killings.” As you may know every Madhiban family was linked up with a non-midhiban clan before the civil war, and the non-madhiban clan was responsible for their welfare. Midhiban people got their blood compensation through this clan and Muslim Sharia law in north and central Somalia. In the south the Madhiban ‘culture’ was not widely practiced and the relationships was not established by clan affinity. The farther we go from north to the south of the country, the culture of Madhiban decreases. It seemed the closer one gets to the Arab world the believe in ‘clean and unclean’ people increases. How do you explain that?
    The Tumal, Ibir,Yahar and some other minority clans may have been discriminated socially, but never have been discriminated by the consecutive Somali administrations. For instance, General Samater who is a Tumal is the only Somali general who received the highest Somali military rang, even higher than President Mohamed Siyad Bare. General Salhan was another Tumal and famous general. You can call General Samater’s daughter who is a minister in the current Somali Government and ask her about discrimination. I am sure she will laugh, because all Somali people feel the poison of clannism!

    • I’m curious about some of the names you presented as a few of them are in fact related to me.

      An easy way to refute much of what you present is the 4.5 rule written into the constitution of Somalia which gives voting power to 4 “majority” clans and .5 to remaining “minority clans” of which multiple groups are lumped together. Your facts are messy but I don’t have the inclination to engage in the messiness of them with you because I think you missed the point of this article.

      For future reference the Tumaal and the Madhibaan are not of the same clan.

  5. Abdisabur Says: July 19, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Do you mean all Somalis are Muslims when you are saying “To be Somali is to be Muslim”? if you mean so, i will never agree and i cannot take this as a strong justification of why Somalis discriminate Madhiban is because they did bad behavior that is against Muslim behavior!! if this is the case, this could have been true to many Somalis who apparently declared their Christianity and secularism. By the way, it is daily basis that Somalis insult Allah,his messenger and religion of Islam in almost every town in Somalia and i do not know why their clans are not discriminated!!!

    • I’m suggesting that Somali identity is often seen as closely linked to being Muslim which this story only serves to reinforce. I’m not looking for your agreement, merely suggesting another way of examining these stories we so often tell. To say the Madhibaan deserve their fate because they have engaged in “bad behaviour” is condemning an entire group of people to oppressive practices that put their lives at risk.

  6. Only ReerBaadiyo people believe these kinds of qabiil discrimination. Is based on aggressive ignorance. You represent the new generation that don’t believe in this and I can tell by your poetic eloquence.

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