115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Somalia, The Nation of Poets: Diasporic Culture in the Age of Online Communities

Iftin Abshir, University of Southern California

Throughout the large Somali diaspora, which began with the outbreak of civil war in the early 1990s and continues to today, poetry continues to be important especially among the younger generations as a way to connect to their heritage across nations.


In spite of having no formal written language until 1972, Somali culture has always been very literary with poets occupying an important and respected position in society. Because poetry is such an integral part in the everyday lives of Somalis, the art of poetry and those skilled enough to practice the art are venerated in Somali culture. As well as serving as a form of entertainment, poetry is also an important means of communication as well as the principle medium by which Somalis reflect on the events taking place at the time and attitude of the country. Because oral poetry is constantly being performed, it stays alive in the consciousness of the people. It is a fresh and ever-evolving art form, meaning that each new generation finds new uses for poetry in their lives.

Through an investigation of the historical role poetry has played in Somali culture I will extend my investigation to the present day to see the ways poetry has impacted the diasporic Somali culture which has grown tremendously since the collapse of the Mohamed Syad Barre government in the early 1990s. Now, with an entire generation of young Somalis born and raised all around the world and never having set foot in their homeland, the question becomes what is it that ties them all together and connects them to a sense of community? When the traditional performance-based channels of communication within the nation-state ceased to function, the transmission of poetry, through recordings, online, and in print, began to serve as a means for the dispersed Somali community to share common experiences and voice their frustrations with the violence which has devastated their homeland for so many years. Today young Somalis in Minneapolis, Toronto, London, and throughout the world come together to share their experiences as children of war and the struggles they face trying to make a home in a new country. These collective experiences bring together the young people of a shattered country and allow them to embrace their Somali roots. In this paper I explore the traditional and historic development of poetry as not just an art form or type of entertainment in Somalia, but as a representation of what it means to be Somali. I will look more closely at the meaning-making process for Somali poetry both past and present as well as the formation of modern, multinational fan-cultural communities. Poetry is an institution engrained in the very roots of the Somali society; and with the modern Somali poets, who still possess the poetry tongue, the traditions and culture of the past will continue to remain central to the Somalis for generations to come.