RISE: Somali

The interaction of three forces has molded modern Somalia: the clan structure, Islam, and European colonialism.


The Clan Structures

Most ethnic Somali belong to one of six major clans, which are further divided into sub-clans and families. The clan is the basis of a person's identity; loyalty to one's clan is extremely important. When meeting someone for the first time, a Somali is more likely to ask "Whom are you from?" rather than "Where are you from?"


Islam arrived in Somalia from the Middle East in the 11th and 12th centuries. Unlike many African countries whose people have a mixture of religious beliefs and languages, most Somalis believe in Islam and speak the Somali language. The culture has a rich blend of Islam and older Somali spiritual traditions.


In 1884 the European nations divided Africa in "the European scramble." The British and Italians settled in what is currently Somalia. The colonial governments and schools increased the familiarity of the Somalis with western ideas and practices. In 1960, Somalia gained its independence. For nine years democracy flourished under a civilian government.


In 1969, however, clan animosities led to the assassination of the president. In the confusion of the next few days, Major General Mohammed Siyaad Barre took power. Although popular at first, he ruled with an increasingly autocratic and repressive hand. As his methods were questioned, he began to rely on and favor his own clan. Other clans formed opposition movements and in 1991 the government collapsed.


Civil War

Chaos erupted as each clan vied for power, strengthened by weapons supplied by the US and USSR during the cold war as they jockeyed for influence in Africa. Massive civilian disruption followed. By 1992, 45 percent of the population was displaced; by 1993 one half of all children under 5 had died from disease, starvation, and violence. A transitional government held a shaky grip on power from 2000 to 2012, while violence and unrest continued, and a permanent federal government was finally installed in 2012.


From 1990 to today, about 1 million Somalis have left their country as refugees, with about 3,500 finding their way to Rochester. Although these Somalis are united in language, religion, and culture, there are still differences between individuals. Some came for a nomadic background; some were farmers; some were urban dwellers who worked in business, government, or the trades. Some are world travelers; some have rarely left their homes before moving halfway around the world. All come to Rochester to find peace and to contribute their considerable talent -- economic and cultural -- to our city.


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