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The Somali untouchables

By Bashir Goth
April 24, 2007

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If you think that Dalits (untouchables) exist only in India think again. We have them in Somalia. But what makes the situation of ours even worse is that unlike India - where people belong to different races, languages and colours - Somalia is the most homogenous country in Africa with people belonging to a single race and sharing a
common language, a common religion and a common skin complexion.

To find a dehumanised group of people in a third world country may look normal, despite its gravity, but the real tragedy is when international human rights organisations ignore the plight of such people.

One such blunder that went unnoticed appeared in the March 2007 report of the Minority Rights Group International (MRG), which placed Somalia ahead of Iraq as the world’s most dangerous country for minority groups. For anyone familiar with Somalia, this assessment will conjure up images of clans who suffered for centuries from sub-
human treatment. We Somalis know them; UN organisations on the ground know them; and anyone with Internet access will have no difficulty finding them.

Amazingly, however, the MRG, which brags in its website of listening to minorities and indigenous peoples to avoid prescriptive and patronising approaches, and with some 130 partners in 60 countries, has not only failed to find them but has shockingly confiscated their claim of being in a minority and given it to their tormentors.

The MRG described the Somali clans of Darood, Hawiye and Issaq as minorities who were under threat. These three clans are the most numerous, most dominant and most powerful clans of the Somali race, but by an absurd twist of fate they have become the most threatened minorities on the books of the imminent MRG, thus negating the true minorities such as the Gabooye, Midgaan, the Bantus, the Xamar Cad and others.

Coming across this enormous gaffe, I found myself obliged to take the awesome responsibility of teaching this emminent organisation a lesson or two about the Dalits of the Somali race.

Ladies and gentlemen of the MRG, in Somalia we have a clan we do not allow to share the name “Somali” with us. We call them Sab and we call ourselves Somali; we call them Midgaan and we call ourselves Aji (blue blood). It is ironic that the word “Sab” has the same pronunciation as the English word “sub” which among other things means below; under; beneath, subordinate; inferior, less than completely or normal. And by a strange coincidence the Somali word “Sab” has the same meaning and even worse.

We also call them Midgaan, Gabooye, Tumaal among other names. It is these people that we Somalis do not like to mingle with, shake hands with, eat with, marry from or give our daughters to.

While the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, we Somalis still pride ourselves on denigrating people of our own race. I know a man who was unknowingly hosted by a Midgaan family. But once he learned about their identity after enjoying their hospitality for one week, he couldn’t stop vomiting for several days. This is not an isolated case but it is the norm and such reaction could be expected from anyone belonging to the so-called Aji clans.

The real tragedy, however, is that these people, the Sab or Midgaan, do not only look like us but are most of the time more handsome than the rest of us, while their struggle for survival over the centuries has made them more intelligent and more resilient.

They are our traditional hunters, doctors, blacksmiths, craftsmen, singers, tailors and fashion designers, barbers and hairstylists, hygiene attendants and butchers. We defend ourselves with the weapons they make, cultivate our farms with the ploughs they fashion, wear the clothes they tailor, eat with the pots and bowls they make, drink from
the earthen jars they mould, submit our heads to them to cut our hair, call them to circumcise our sons and daughters, trust them with our necks to cut our tonsils, enjoy their music but still we despise them.

They speak the same language we speak and pray towards Makkah five times a day like the rest of us. But if you dare tell any Somali to pray behind the most learned Imam of the Migdaan and he would rather go to hell. Without them we would be defenseless and would perish in the harsh environment of our land, but instead of glorifying them we look down on them.

They have no voice among us and no political representation. And if anyone of them dares to protest, we easily silence them by invoking the M-word. This makes every Somali around them flee and avoid them like a plague. Even in the national charter of the current Somali Transitional Federal Government they are nameless although they
have taken a little better status by being referred to as the "others" among small but respected Somali clans. This is the closest they have ever come to share a status albeit an insignificant one with other clans.

At one time when the previous military dictatorship banned the registration of tribal identities and people started referring to each other in coded language as ex-clans, the Midgaans were given the not-so flattering name of Somali Six. This was a reference to the five parts that the colonial powers have divided Somalia into and for which the five
cornered star in the middle of the blue Somali flag stands as a symbol. The name Somali Six, therefore, despite its negative connotation of discarding the Midgaans outside the Somali race, carries with it the inadvertent admission of considering them as Somali, albeit outcasts.

Having no identity, no geographical habitat and no land in their name, the Midgaans have suffered the most during the civil wars in the country. While other clans can lean on each other at times of crisis through blood lineages, the Midgaans are left to fend for themselves. No one cries for their dead, treats their wounded, feeds their hungry,
clothes their naked, shelters their homeless and no one demands justice for their victims.

It is, therefore, disdainful to see that none of the dominant clans, erroneously mentioned in the MRG report, have tried to rectify the situation by pointing to the organisation’s grave mistake. In any other situation members of these clans will not hesitate to flash their majority card but this time they seem to willing to accept the minority card as long as they are able to gain from it.

Why should they care if they deprive the Midgaans of their only remaining right of being a minority? After all they have no right to claim any right whatsoever.

And for the record, no Somali clan including my own, the Gadabursi, can claim to having a clear conscience on this. In fact the man I mentioned earlier who vomited after knowing that he shared food with Midgaan family was from my own clan.

Besides there is this famous judgment passed by an elder in my area on a homicide case in which a Tumaal (a Sab and a blacksmith) man was killed by a prominent member of the Isaaq clan.

The Isaaq elders were bewildered as to how to compensate the victim family. As Muslims, Somalis follow the Shariah law in settling murder cases, and Shariah demands a soul for a soul unless the family of the victim pardons the perpetrator and demands diya or blood money, which equals to 100 camels for a male. But in this case killing a
man from an aristocratic clan for a Tumaal was out of the question, while paying full blood money of 100 camels to a lesser Tumaal was considered an insult to the dignity of the aristocratic clan.

Therefore, they sought outside advice and from a man of the Gadabursi clan known for his wisdom and sound judgment. When he heard the case, the man of wisdom of my clan passed his judgment. "Give a blacksmith’s tool set as compensation to the victim’s family," he said. Both the Isaaq and Gadabursi elders admired his ingenuity.

The Tumaal family got a blacksmith’s tool set instead of 100 camels and no one ever sought their opinion of the judgment.

This reminds me of a Midgaan teacher I had in primary school who taught us patriotic songs and in retrospect I now wonder why he even bothered.

I am not sure whether issuing an apology will go far enough but I admit that I bear deep remorse for the action of my clansmen and for the injustice done to the Tumaal family. I also believe that all Somalis should atone for their dehumanising treatment of the Midgaans and recognise them as full citizens.

As for the MRG, I can only hope that they rectify their mistake and demand justice for this oppressed clan.

Bashir Goth
[email protected]

The article has originally appeared in: Khaleej Times

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