Photograph of Afgoye, Somalia from 2013 (source: Wiki Commons)

Mohamed A. Eno is professor and dean of African Studies at St. Clements University in Mogadishu, Somalia. His groundbreaking work uses literature, especially folk poetry, to challenge the myth of a homogenous Somalia and to expose the exclusion and discrimination faced by the Bantu Jareer people. To read more of his work, visit
Guest contributor: Professor Mohamed A. Eno

This article asks: what is missing from Somali Studies- including Somali literature- that Subaltern Studies can reveal? The idea of Subaltern Studies first gained academic attention in the early 1980s, based on work which named and observed elitist historiography from the gamut of national and neocolonial discourses in Indian history. Etymologically the term “subaltern” was used in the far past to denote any group under domination of another such as the underclass, peasants, or even low-ranking army men (Ludden 2002; Roy 2010). It was, however, Antonio Gramsci who featured subalternity in the critical theory of class, while the movement of Indian subalternists around the journal Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society dissected the caste crisis in India by problematizing the plight of the marginalized, especially the Dalit. Later, it became a subject that attracted considerable scholarly attention from multiple disciplines. According to Ludden (2002:1): “Subaltern Studies became a hot topic in academic circles on several continents; a weapon, magnet, target, lightning rod, hitching post, icon, gold mine, and fortress for scholars ranging across disciplines from history to political science, anthropology, sociology, literary criticism, and cultural studies.”

Under this critical scholarship, academics and other experts enriched knowledge with fresh discourses and extensive understandingsthat became phenomenal not just in India but in many other parts of the world. Voices emerged to challenge and overturn official texts and contradict existing state and scholarly biases against the subaltern version of the discourse. Grassroots knowledge based on the uncharted section of society acquired space in postcolonial studies as well as in critical academic circles. Through this dynamic scholarship, women and other voiceless groups were inspired to share their experiences and resist domination, to  occupy a noticeable space and raise their voices of concern (Spivak 1988; Guha & Spivak 1988).

On the Somali scene, it is noteworthy to reflect back to Ali Jimale Ahmed’s articles as early as the 1980s in Heegan Newspaper, the only English language weekly of the Somali Ministry of Informational and National Guidance. In those difficult days under the dictatorial regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, Ahmed produced two remarkable articles challenging the hypocrisy of the Somali society regarding segregation and domination of the subalterns. In one of the articles he discussed about the situation of the outcast groups known in Somalia as Gaboye, Beydari, Midgaan, Madhibaan, Muuse Dheryo and by other names. He condemned the Somali elite for denting national unity due to the system of marginalization against the so-called outsiders. In the other article, Ahmed stunned the readers by comparing the praiseworthy advocacy role of a white South African citizen, challenging his regime to end its Apartheid against the blacks, to the way Somalis were marginalizing the agrarian (Bantu Jareer) people, despite the latter’s magnificent role in production and national development.

Later, in the academic field, the pioneering work that raised a discussion on subalterns, though one could argue not to the detail of everyday sociology, appeared in 1994. It was also written by Ali J. Ahmed in his article “Daybreak Is Near: Won’t You Become Sour?” published in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, which reappeared later in his edited volume The Invention of Somalia (1995). This was the first major attempt that gave the world a new image of Somalia. Ahmed’s rebuke to the advocates of the state-sponsored official narrative and his support to the voiceless are explicitly marked in his critical assertion:

By conferring a mantle akin to what Levin calls ‘an institution of literature’ onto a form of poetry that is panegyric of the ‘dervishes,’ *western/colonial & Somali+ writers failed to anticipate the day when the unofficial narrative would be written in blood
-Ali J. Ahmed, 1994:14

A prolific poet, cultural sage, scholar, and seasoned literary critic, Ahmed’s defense of the unofficial literature and culture of the subaltern stands as no less important than concerns raised elsewhere by subalternist scholars. With that unusual but critical perspective in Somali Studies, he energized the Somali literary and socio-political discourse by contributing to the global momentum of subalternist scholarship. Needless to say, the vigor of Ahmed’s tenor is elucidated in his statement about the “narrative that would be written in blood.” That moment came when dissidence broke the banks of patience and the country literally fell apart in dread and disarray hard to recover from. Ahmed’s referents were non-beneficiaries of the official discourse including poets and literary artists in general (including the group discussed in this essay).

If I may elaborate, I refer to Ahmed’s work as a pioneering piece because his was the first voice to denounce marginalization of the cultures and ethnicities unmentioned by the state and society. It was also a study that analyzed Somali society through the multiple intersections of culture, literature, ethnicity and politics, among others. By accentuating the disparity between the groups and cultures and emphasizing the issue of those neglected by the state, Ahmed humbles Somali scholars and Somali Studies scholarship. By referring more specifically to the subaltern group concerned in this essay, Ahmed addresses a wound never tended to by a Somali scholar; actually a wound too intimidating to Somali scholars to mention. However, Ahmed demystifies the rot (to the dislike of many):

Of the dozen or so movements in Somalia today, only one—SAMO (Somali African Mukay Organization) seems to be ready to confront the issue of the Somali as an Arab with a tan. By including “African” in its name, the organization bares a hidden secret in Somali society. Supporters of the movement belong to that segment of Somali society who are often given the derogatory epithet of jareer (kinky hair). The organization’s name therefore is indicative of their subtle refutation of the Arabization of the Somali. In this sense, political considerations are not absent. SAMO supporters have attracted attention of the world as a group that has among others been victimized for its physical features.
– Ali J. Ahmed, 1995:142

By utilizing a literary approach, this study discusses subalternity in Somalia, presenting as a case study the Bantu Jareer agrarian poetry of the town of Afgoye, about 28 kilometers west of the capital Mogadishu. It takes as texts both poems in the original Jareer dialect of the Maxaa version of the Somali language, and their English translation, taking a qualitative approach of narrative and analysis. It invokes available literature from various disciplines as found pertinent to the theme under discussion. In the following sections I will first contextualize the nature of the Bantu Jareer poet. It will be followed by a section on the need for a new shift in Somali Studies including literary/cultural emancipation of the subaltern groups. Next to cultural emancipation will be a segment that argues the necessity to broaden Somali Studies to incorporate subaltern studies for the benefit of society. The final part will present the conclusion.

This is an excerpt from “Sowing Seeds of Subalternity in Somali Studies: A Literary Perspective of the Social, Political and Cultural Dimensions”, continue reading here.