Ahmed Ismail Yusuf

What a pity that the pastoral interlocutors had apparently never heard of that British wizard of words, named Shakespeare! If they could override the barriers of space, language and culture, the English Bard would no doubt win many literary disciples among the Somalis.
                          - Said S. Samatar

It has been repeatedly noted that if Somalis own anything of value, worth sharing with the rest of humanity, it is poetry. However, as long as we are not capable of weighing our own eminent experts in this subject (the late Said Samatar, Ahmed Samatar, Ali Jimale Ahmed, come to mind), we are doomed to rehearse Richard Burton’s sleight of hand comment about “the country teem[ing] with ‘poets’…” . Nevertheless, there out of his mouth came the words that subsequently defined us best, where a few civilized westerners (M. Marino; John Johnson, I.M. Lewis, Margaret Laurence and B.W. Andrzejewski) who followed him yet shared none of his racial zeal, testified to the fact that we Somalis are endowed with the prowess to weave words of wisdom into poetic masterpieces.

Throughout their existence, Somalis have been known to capture their account of their affairs in waves of metrically measured words.  A masterfully aligned oratory weapon called Gabay (poetry) has been let loose to enumerate, announce and memorialize a time of plenty as well as a time of hardship. Mostly, we carve ours poetry/poetic language to grieve about a tumult of time’s uncertainties, particularly wars.  Thus, Mohammed Abdulla Hassan deployed poetry in his fight against the British. Poetry was also used to canvass support for the fledgling freedom movement in the 1940s. With the advent of a new genre called Hees, the dominance of the Gabay-genre began to wane. The Hees (song) came on the heels of the Heello and its putative ancestor the BalwoGabay gradually had begun to loosen its grip as the medium muscle of might to reach the masses as soon as the Heeso, a new version of itself, arrived at the scene. So it was the 1940s and 1950s that Gabay started to encounter steadily rising but fierce competition from the more popular genre Balwo  that morphed into Heello  and soon evolved into Hees  (song) or Heeso in plural in 1960s.

Heeso commenced to chip away the Gabay’s unfettered dominance by using music and melody to lure audiences (particularly on the patriotic domain), while still maintaining the same oratory skills that Gabay had enjoyed for centuries as well as its metric characteristics. Heeso first gained favorable notoriety on the patriotic subject matter in 1954, when Britain contemptuously transferred part of “British Somaliland,” the Reserve Area or Haud, to Ethiopian ownership. Here, the indomitable patriot and father of Somali music, the late Abdullahi Qarshe mourned the occasion with the now famed signature tune of Somali Language Service of the BBC: 

Dadkaa dhawaaqayaa
Dhulkooda doonaya
Haddii u dhiidhiyeen
Allahayoow u dhiib.

Waxaan la dhuubanee
Dhifkayga Dhaawacaan
Idiin dhammaynayaa
Dhega ma leedihiin.

Those hollering people
Are asking about their land 
As they strive for it
Oh God let them succeed.  

Why I am so frail
Looked so injuriously weak
To tell you about it all
Could I have your ears?

On that foundation, exactly twenty three years later, as the Ogaden war with Ethiopia exploded in 1977, Gabay completely ceded, though unwittingly, its patriotic territory to Heeso. Heeso delightfully took over the responsibility and with lightening thunder showed up for the occasion.       

Somali songs, unfortunately an art that has lately sustained a great deal of tenor fatigue in tangent with the disintegration of its own nation, had already proven to be a powerful tool to capture the mood and the pulses of the public by encoding episodic, emotional tales with music, giving the past as well as the current status of the nation a palpable presentation. Thus, in 1977 when Somalia plunged itself in a full scale war with Ethiopia over the Ogaden region, the most effective weapon used was the Somali Heeso, which psychologically were proven to be lethal. Close to a century the ethnic Somalis in Ethiopia have been claiming mistreatment at the hands of successive Ethiopian regimes, thus yearned to extricate themselves from the unsympathetic clutches and wanted to reunite with the rest of what was then called Somali Democratic Republic .

Evidently, if the Armed Forces were in charge of live ammunition to confront the Ethiopian army, Somali poets were in charge of massaging the nation’s emotional ego, and the burdensome responsibility of justifying why Somalia should go to war with their much venerable (with rest of the African content and the world), older, sister nation, Ethiopia, vicariously fell on them as well.   Suddenly, poets in the mainland of Somalia discharged the least expensive yet the most effective weapon in possession of Heeso, on the air through radio Hargiesa and Mogadishu: least expensive because Somalis did not have to beg and plead with foreigners but owned the capacity to produce them with an unparallel dexterity.    

Weaving in music and melody in one, the power of words in Heeso soared high as to serenade the public and the Armed Forces alike when sung by the best vocalists, chorused by the best choirs of Waaberi, Halgan, Heegan, Iftiin and cheered by the whole nation. Together, Somalis best (the best Somalis poets, best chorus, the best bands, and best singers) converged on a common goal: freeing the Somali region of Ogaden.  

To aim at their objective goal, Somali poets with their Heeso, ingeniously infused the supposedly two Somalis: Somalis in mainland of Somalia and the Somalis in Ethiopia, the Ogaden region as an indistinguishable and inseparable unit.  The appropriately composed for the occasion Heeso, meshed musical melody with emotions and molded it with historical esthetic doses, thus unleashed sentimental narratives that wept about human rights violation and environmental degradations. In doing so, Heeso left no doubt that each Somali, regardless of residence, was at war with Ethiopia, and therefore presented clear and convincing argument that there was not a degree of separation between the mistreated Somalis of the Ogaden region and the privileged Somalis with all amenities freedom affords.   

One of those Heeso that was aired on both  Radio Hargeisa and Mogadishu with lashes of emotionally laden words and the suited musical tones in 1977 was the song, “Man/he Who Murdered My Brother.” It ostensibly fired off a serious but imagined warning to the Organization of African Unity (the African Union now), that Somalia was in no way transgressing Ethiopian sovereignty, but rather, was after a part of its motherland that had been torn away:

Ninkii diley wallaalkeen
Anana waa noo danleeyahay
Dakhar baa gaadhidoone, 
Hoy Afrikay daya.

Dalkayaga ninkii doonayeyoow
Inuu duudsiyaa raggoow 
Anagu diidnaye ogoow! 

Man/he who murdered our brethren 
Has similar designs towards/on us 
But, O Africa, be a witness 
For he’ll incur/sustain a scar. 

Man/he who is encroaching upon my land
To deny me of its ownership
Note so that we refuse.

Sounding this alarm was not simply a composer-poet just frothing from the mouth with an empty rhetoric. But Somalia was then one of the mightiest military powers in the sub-Saharan region with a young, readily trained and dangerously armed force. Thus, the verbal warning shots were well warranted.     

Conceivably, the erudite, incomparable late Mohamoud Tukale Osman, who himself—a Somali in every sense of the word—but was originally from the Ogaden region, composed the Hees  “God is Great” (Allaa Weyn). Displaying his talent with words, Mohamoud Tukale made it clear that there was no room for doubting that sacrificing yourself for your country was the most noble, patriotic cause. Thus, a Somali dying for the Ogaden region was no different than a Somali dying for Somalia:

Allaa weyn  
Ninkii aaminaa awood leh,

Ummad waliba aayaheeda 
Inay garato iyadaa leh,

Inaan la shahiido adoonsiga
Qoommiyadayda adkeeyo

Xornimada ilays u ahaado,
Igu waajib weeye oo anaa leh, anaa leh.

Inaan naftayda u hibeeyo
Noloshayda geeri ku iibsho
Oo aan dartii iilka ugu hoydo,

Arligayga iyo ciidaa xaq iigu leh.

Ajal madhatay lama ooli karo
Waan ognahay.

Kul hadduu is yidhi u dhimo
Dhul ninkiisii baa iska leh

God is great
He who has faith in him is triumphant,

Each nation 
Designs its own destiny, 

To fight against colonialism
To affirm my patriotism, 

A light for freedom
Is a necessary duty

That I would give my life
That I would sacrifice myself
That I should be buried,

I owe it all to my nation and its earth,

A date of death can not be deterred
We are all aware.

Whereas a man decides to die
It's for the sake of his own birth nation. 

Additionally, “Isn’t the Soil Mine?”  (Dhulka Saw Anigu Ma Lehi) of Mohamoud Abdullahi Essa (Sungab), masterfully addressed what and how much of the Ogaden region was lost to cultural eradication and environmental degradation, of which was carried out by the occupying entity, he led us note:

Miyey dhimashadu  iqoontaayeey?
Miyaan dhiig baxay ka diidaayeey?
Shahiidku miyuu dhib diidaa?

Baddayda  miyaa la dhurayaa?
Cirkayga miyaa la dhoofshaa?
Dhirtayda miyaa la jarayaa?
Dadkayga miyaa la dhalan rogi?
Ciidaydu miyey dhamaataa?

Dhulka saw anigu ma lehi?
Dalka (dadka?) saw aniga ma lehi?

Gumaystaha dhacaayaa 
Geeridu dhibaysaa
Waqtigii dhammaayoo
Wuu dhaqaaqi doona
Ninkii dhoof ku yimi baa
Geeridu dhimmaysaa
Waqtigii dhammaayoo
Wuu dhaqaaqi doonaa

Am I fearful because of death?
Am I nauseated by spilled-blood?
Should a martyr avoid an adversity?

Hasn’t my ocean been looted?
Hasn’t my air been exported?
Hasn’t my forest been gutted?
Haven’t my people been disinherited?
Has my mother-soil been sapped off?

The land (Ogaden region) is mine
The people are my people,

You, the retreating colonial regime
Whose death has been in vain
Whose time has run out
Who should be fleeing now
Who has been implanted there
Who death will be debased
Whose time has run out
Who should be fleeing now.

On the other hand, if there was even the faintest doubt that Ethiopia was the aggressor in the war, the always imaginatively articulate, Mohamed Diriye wanted to put that to rest:

Gobonimodoonka Soomaaliyeed ee Galbeed
Gobonimodoonka Soomaalyeed ee Galbeed,

Gafka uma dul qaataan
Gardarada ma yeelaan
Geerida ma diidaan,

Haddaad garasho leedahay 
Gumaysiga gabooboow,

Wax dhan baad garaacdoo
Guudka aad ka rarratoo
Xoolo raacsanaysee,

Garaad laawihiiyoow
Ka guntade xumaantii
Geyigooda oo dhacan
Gama’ yeeli mayaan.

Gumuc olol ah
La guclaynayaan
Godin af leh
Kula goobayaan
Geedkaad gashoba
Waa goynayaan

Goobtii kastay
Kaa gacan sarayn
Godkaad qodatay
Bay kugu gubahayaan
Guusha iyagaa leh

Guusha guusha
Guusha guusha

Guusha iyagaa leh.  

The Western Somali Liberation Front
The Western Somali Liberation Front,

Will not condone your injurious assault
Will not yield to transgression
And will never avoid dying,

If you own an iota of wisdom
You, the ancient, oppressive regime,

Abuse them at length
Laden them with brutalities
Enslave them for your own leisure,

You, the Ill-informed regime 
 Note they would no longer endure your maltreatment
Their motherland has been robbed
They will no longer rest ,
They are charging
With a blazing fire
A sharpened axe
To inflict pain
To flush you out of each hideout tree
Obliterating you out of life,

In each place and base
They will over power you
Set your holes
And hideouts ablaze
Victorious, they will be,

Victorious, they will be
Victorious, they will be,

Victorious, they will be.

As though enough emotion were not already distilled, the sagacious Said Salah Ahmed guided the subject matter through Somalis psychological bond with their camels by diving back into the past. Said Salah unearthed the infamous days of 1897 when Italy—worse than Britain which when it had chopped part of Somali for Ethiopia, at least granted grazing rights to the nomads—arbitrarily dropped in an invisible line on the Somalia side, called east of it Somalia and west of it Ethiopia and as well banned cross-grazing. As a result, in Said Salah’s brilliant piece, an imaginary herd of camels grazing about in the area at that moment of judgment, was separated, half left in Somalia, the other half in Ethiopia. Appropriately, Said Salah called the herd Haleelo, meaning the most propitious of she-camels.  In 1977, the descendants of the owners of that particularly divided-herd-of-camels simply saw the opportunity to reunite descendants of the same herd of camels that had been apart ever since, or so it seemed.  Unfortunately, this Hees  is a prime example of what Margaret Laurence called incomprehensible to “… an English reader” with an English translation.   The English translation would neither deliver the due just description of how deep the psychological bond between Somalis and their camels is, nor would it be able to convey the richness of a Somali poet telling it. In this Hees, Said would bring the exact imagery but a reunited-herd at the well for a much awaited water-feed, which in itself is the ultimate success for a camel-herder: just gathering the whole group of camels in one place at the end.  Thus, in due deference, no English translation is attempted:        

Haybta geela haleelada ugub
Horweyn iyo rummag,

Hasha madida ah hayin awriyo
hoobala Helleey
Hoobala helleey,

Qaalinta hebla ah hadday rimmaydiyo
Aaranku hogtaan waa u naf hurijirey,

Hoobey hoobeyoow haa
Haa, hoobyeeyow haa,

Hoobey haday taalliyo
Haday taalliyo, 

Hoobey haday duban tahay
Haday tuban tahay, 

Hoobay looma kala hadhan
Looma kala hadho.


Throughout this period, it is not surprising that Somalis with their legendary, oratory skills would unleash a torrent of verbal artillery in Heeso for the war of 1977 or Gabayo. What is surprising however, is how the poets masterfully were able to weave the story of Somalis of the Ogaden region into that of the mainland Somalis, binding the unbreakable genealogical linkage tighter and in the process artfully also defining what Somaliness (Soomaalino) is. Here, the virtuous and peerless Abdiqadir Hersi (Yam-yam), God also blessed his soul, bared it for all to feel and taste what Somali or Somaliness is. Yam-yam conclusively dictated that all the traits in one Somali are shared amongst the rest. For that, a Somali in the Ogaden region is as much Somali as the one in the mainland Somalia and vise versa:

Waqtiyada socdaalka ah
Ayaamaha silsidda ah
Xilliyada bal suuree
Soojire haddaad tahay
Sadarrada dib ugu noqo
Soomaali waa kuma?
Soomaali waa tuma?

Sinnaantaan la magac ahay
Sanku-neefle ma oggoli
Inuu iga sarrayn karo,

Anna garasho sogordahan
Sooryo ruux ugama dhigo,

Ninna madax-salaax iyo
Kama yeelo seetada,

Sasabada ma qaayibo
Sirta waxaan idhaahdaa

Saab aan biyaha celin
Saab aan biyaha celin

Soomaali baan Ahay.

Time on its perpetual motion
Days on their sequential, serial chain
An inquiry about the past
If you are a virtuoso 
Look back at the pages 
Who is Somali?
Who is Somali?

I am synonymous with parity
I let no one   
Be belittle me,

Cheat not a soul
Deceive no one

Let no man to pat my head 
To tether me,

No man outsmart me 
Word I would say about cabal: 

“Sieve through (me) water-like" 
“Sieve through (me) water-like,” 

I am a Somali

Never before had any a Somali painted such a distinctive depiction of what it means to be a Somali whether he/she is in Ethiopia, Kenya or in the mainland in what used be Somalia. Thus, Somali poets skillfully made a persuasive argument for the reunification with their brethren in the Ogaden region. They listed a legion of losses that had been inflicted on them.  

The depth of those songs, or should I say poetry that had been composed for that occasion, would even today deeply penetrate a Somali’s psyche, awakening whatever dormant patriotism residue left in him/her, and leaving an indelible sorrow and pain of how much Soomaalino  (Somaliness)—let alone the war of 1977 itself— has been lost. Yet, it is not all that gloomy when one hears those songs, for we would not only be able to recall and rejoice in the memory of what once was a vibrant Somalia that existed not only for the Somalis in the republic but Somalis in general, a Somalia that was once revered and respected, even envied by its peers. Those songs would still lacerate you with a lasting pain, luring you to recollect the laudable days, as well as leading one who was not there to lament with inquisitive inquiries.

On the other hand, those songs would hold a reflective mirror before whoever is inclined to hear them with nostalgic notions, asking him/her to take an inventory of yesteryears, urging to account for the past. For that reason, Somali songs endear themselves to the keen ears and the kindred hearts that host them in their memory. With them, they carry historical anecdotes and evoke emotional senses, racing back in time.


Raised in a nomadic upbringing, Ahmed Ismail Yusuf’s short stories appeared in Bildhaan: an International Journal of Somali studies, Mizna: an Arab-American Literary Magazine and his academic papers in the Journal of Muslim Mental Health; Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology; International Society for Traumatic-stress Studies, and Psychiatry Times;  scripts for plays on Somalis television and articles and reviews have been published on several Somali web-sites. Ahmed published "Gorgorkii Yimi” a collection of short stories in Somali, and “Somalis in Minnesota” with the Minnesota Historical Society.  He has a B.S. in creative writing and psychology from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut; and an MPA (Master of Public Affairs) from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Minnesota.  Ahmed lives in Minneapolis, MN with his son and wife.