Somali Poetry: Resources for a SOW

This piece is also found here by Terra Glowach.


This year I want to develop a year 8 poetry SOW on Somali poetry. Why?

  1. Somalia is known as The Nation of Poets in Africa, and has a long tradition of oral poetry which is enjoyed and created by all. I want to challenge students who see poetry writing as an artistically elitist or narcissistic endeavour, from which the pragmatic shy away. So the Somali tradition is a gift.
  2. I have a large cohort of Somali students, and I want to recognise and share the cultural capital they offer.
  3. The bulk of racism I have witnessed here in Bristol has been aimed at Somalis – being both black and Muslim, they take the brunt of our media’s racism and Islamophobia. It’s my job as a white ally and a teacher to promote appreciation and respect over ignorance and hate.

The bulk of racism I have witnessed here in Bristol has been aimed at Somalis – being both black and Muslim, they take the brunt of our media’s racism and Islamophobia. It’s my job as a white ally and a teacher to promote appreciation… Click To Tweet


The context I would recommend for time-poor teachers is Al Jazeera World’s documentary on Somalia before the civil war, and since. The two-part documentary, Somalia: The Forgotten Story, can be watched online in classrooms. As English teachers, we must balance context with content, and so I would recommend the opening of the documentary which gives crucial cultural context, and only sections you deem appropriate and necessary on the war. I will focus on those which challenge dominant perceptions.

A fascinating account of early Somali-British relations is recounted first hand here in the diary of Somali seafarer Ibrahim Ismaa’il: from Cardiff to the Cotswolds.

Finally, an enlightening documentary on traditional and modern diaspora poetry is Somalia: Nation of Poets, which includes incendiary and beautiful poetry in Somali (subtitled) and English.


The Poetry Translation Centre is a trove of diaspora poetry written in the original language, with initial and final translations on offer so you can explore how meaning is distilled in the process, and also use the original in a class with Somali speakers to explore key terms via translanguaging. This could be a powerful way to introduce theme and context, as well as explore the use of sound, and how translators have worked to preserve sound features.

Some background on metre may be of use. Here’s an excerpt from Martin Orwin and Maxamed Cabdullaahi Riiraash’s ‘An Approach to Relationships between Somali Metre Types’, published in African Languages and Cultures, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1997), pp. 83-100

The study of Somali metrics was revolutionized in the mid-1970s with the publication, in the Somali national newspaper Xiddigta Oktoobar, October Star, of a number of seminal articles by the two Somali scholars and poets Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’ (referred to in this article as Gaarriye, except for bibliographical reference) and Cabdullaahi Diiriye Guuleed, who made the long-awaited breakthrough in Somali metrical studies, apparently independently. These two scholars noted that Somali poetry scanned by counting vowel units, or moras, which were arranged in specific patterns according to genre. In other words, they showed that Somali has a quantitative metrical system in which only the vowels count, and that the lines of different genres vary in the number and pattern of those moras. They also differed a little in their approaches to understanding the metre, but all subsequent work on Somali metrics…is founded on these original articles. Since the mid-1970s, further work on Somali metrics has been ongoing and now the patterns of individual metres are well understood, as are the rules by which various vowel sequences may count as long or short. The most recent studies on Somali metrics (Johnson 1996,Banti & Giannattasio 1996) have included work on the musical aspects of the performance of poetry, which has deepened our understanding of the link between the rhythmic aspects of performance and the realization of the abstract, metrical patterns in certain verse instances.

In short, it would be wise to examine stress, assonance and rhythm when looking at Somali poetry, as with any poetry which is meant to be encountered in voice rather than text. As students will be reading the poetry in English, I will only touch on the complexity of genres and moras to develop the sense of tradition.

Maxamed Ibraahin Warsame ‘Hadraawi’ is a good place to start, being regarded as ‘the greatest living Somali poet’. I would use ‘Settling the Somali Language‘ to establish the link between identity and language, and explore tensions around the dominance of English. Important ideas here linking to the documentary Somalia: Nation of Poets.

The work of Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac ‘Gaarriye’  is an excellent example of the power of poetry. Note this excerpt from a Guardian article:

The power of verse to cause social upheaval is not something we’re very familiar with in the UK, but in Somali culture it’s taken for granted. One poet starts a theme, others take it up, then a chain develops, drawing people into the arguments. “I wrote something against tribalism that became an attack on the president,” Gaarriye explains. “Within four months the chain was more than 70 poems long.” And that was when the secret police came to visit. Shortly afterwards he fled to Ethiopia and an exile that lasted until 1991.

His poem ‘Seer‘ explores the nature of poetry through repeated metaphors.

Asha Lul’s ‘Harmony‘, is a strong example of the speaker’s embodied knowledge of her land, and uses both imagery and sound symbolism to locate the reader in a vivid sensory experience of Somalia. I would abridge and use the first verse – it’s a long one.

On love and self-knowledge, many students will relate to ‘Taste‘, and both the sense imagery and topic will yield rich discussion.

Looking at poetry written in English by the diaspora, my first experience was Warsan Shire’s ‘Home‘. This video, with simple but emotive animation, featuring Shire’s breaking voice is likely to bring a class to tears. I totally lose it EVERY TIME. Warning: there are references to rape and use of the N-word, and I cut these bits when teaching the poem to years 7 and 8.

Finally, I will use a poem entitled ‘Sheffield Children’s Hospital’ from Warda Yassin‘s seering collection Tea with Cardamom. You can buy the collection at Waterstones or online. The poem itself is two seven-line stanzas about a boy pretending to be a man, who swears that “people only care when you are stabbed, in prison, or dead.” Like many of Yassin’s poems, this one forces you to imagine the details in order to put the story together, and uses some Somali words to hold hands with heritage as you traverse a terrifying new terrain.

Actual lessons and questions will be shared when I’ve learned more. At this point I need feedback and suggestions from those with a good knowledge of Somali poetry. At the moment I have six poems, but looking to expand with suggestions.

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