By Mukhtar Hassan Maidhane
“Cilmiga hallaguu dhigee,
Caqliga kaasho baa la yidhi,”
“Let yourself be taught knowledge,
But buttress it with commonsense.”
Somali song vocalized by Khadra Dahir Egeh
The launch of Somaliland Journal for African Studies triggered a passionate response, captured in the hashtag #CadaanStudies, from Safia Aidid, a Phd student of history at Harvard University, and others in social media and beyond. The absence of Somalis in the editorial, international reporting and advisory board of the journal, Aidid claimed, “signified the non-Somali dominance in the field of Somali Studies.” Non-Somali here means only one group: cadaanka, the white.
Dr. Markus Virgil Hoehne’s, who is an advisory board member, participation only added fuel to the fire. The barrage of condemnations that followed to his ill-advised comments about the absence of young Somali scholars in the field whetted the vigor with which the subjects of epistemology, ethnography and historiography in “postcolonial, postmodern” mindset are pursued. Different scholars and others grappled with the history of Somali Studies – as well as of other ethnicities, nations or even a continent – and questioned what should be known, and thusly be called knowledge, by who about whom and for what end.
A question that may be less taxing is: can a journal have “Somaliland” – or any other political or social group – in its name without any member of the group? In other words, are names of ethnicities and nations, like the trademarks of companies or products, properties exclusive to the said group? If so, how does that apply to the Somali Canadians, for example? Does their Somali identity exclude them from the participation in conception, expression and representation of Canadian self? Can a Somali scholar back in East Africa produce an academic journal with a name, if available, like, “German Journal for European Studies?” It would not make any sense, yes. However, is there any moral or legal breach one is committing? In all fairness, one cannot demand inclusivity of other’s identity while keeping one’s exclusively.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Aidid is not Juliet, neither is Dr. Hoehne Romeo. Juliet’s recognition that the essence or substance of the individual, or scholar, is more important than the name is lacking from the proponents of #CadaanStudies. The group attacks the combination of whiteness and involvement in Somali Studies. Rarely did the group present any tangible intellectual blunders of the cadaan scholars with the exception of Richard Burton’s arrogance of calling a “superstition” of the Somalis that mosquitoes cause malaria. They would have served better intellectually had they focused more on the substance of scholarship production than the scholars’ skin color.
The current zeal invested in racial and/or ethnic categorization of scholarship is not only counterproductive, but a recipe for intellectual suicide. Power and oppression seem to weave the myriad of issues raised against Eurocentric worldview. Fortunately or otherwise, such issues are not committed only by a particular racial, ethnic, religious or social group. They know no boundaries – social, geographic, or temporal.
However, different groups may be affected differently, hence requiring different treatments. But cordoning off such an issue to or from a particular group, would not only make difficult to strengthen the front against imperialism and oppression, but also superimpose one form onto another. There is nothing holy about Somali imperialism. It serves neither the Somali nor the cadaan. While non-Somali scholars could relate to the relevance of challenging Eurocentric view that others everyone else, they would decry equally, if not more, to participate in constructing Somali-centric view.
Thus, ostracizing, name-calling, and demonizing scholars who could have made meaningful contributions is ludicrous. Starting with Dr. Hoehne, he is the only one from the said journal to get engaged from the outset. When his comments were laid bare of their undertones – after all, he is not Romeo – he has been blocked from the discussion. His sagacity and audacity to take his words back did not earn him, unfortunately, anything to re-engage. He did what every human being could recognize – under the heat, he slipped, and fell like all of us fallible do. Somali wisdom tells a story of a man to whom was told that his son lost a legal proceeding. He asked the messenger, “Did he accept the ruling?” Upon confirmation, he replied, “Then, he did not lose.” Such a wisdom recognizes that beyond a scoreboard, both parties to an argument are in pursuit of truth, whose fragments can be found in both hands and many times beyond. One is better served recognizing the fragments that are not immediately at his/her disposal.
The real loser of this exclusion is the discussion and its beneficiaries. In the pursuit of the fragments of truth, engaging Dr. Hoehne, as an intellectual “devil’s advocate”, should have been viewed as a blessing as he not only brings along a different perspective but also the testament of the vibrancy of the discourse. An evidence of absence of both is the unfortunate climate around which the discussion rumbled down. It obliges any non-Somali, who would agree in any matter with Dr. Hoehne, to distance oneself should one earn any grain of credibility. The whole exercise, thus, seems nothing more than an intellectual tyranny, something the Somalis are very familiar – the notorious tyrannical “shimbirayahaw heesa, hees wanaagsan heesa, halkan soo fadhiistan.” (O Birds! Sing, Sing a good song, Come and sit here).
Perspectives and Knowledge Production
The crux of the discussion is whether the knowledge about an ethnic group (e.g. Somali, English, Pakistani, etc.) can best be produced by scholars born or foreign to the said ethnic group. On a higher plateau, the argument rages on whether the notion of being “born to” a group equates, in all possible senses, the notion of being “too imbibed to” the values, norms and customs of the said ethnic group to render any objective study. At the pinnacle of such argument lies the notion of whether absolute objectivity is attainable.
In this line of enquiry, one can argue understandably how difficult, if not impossible, it is to divorce the objectivity of ethnography to the subjective ambitions and fears of a colonial mindset that breathed life to it. Intellectual hegemony, like the more visible aspects of economic and militaristic hegemony, has always been part and parcel of imperialism since the dawn of civilizations. One would find no reason for cadaan to be any different than any other before them.
However, that does not mean scholarship is incarcerated in a temporal cell. The forces that occasioned it in the first place do not necessarily sustain its relevance today, though some traces may linger on. Neither is a scholarship divorced from the intricate economic systems of its age and place of production, nor is it immune to the social values around it. Had the patrons of those who wrote about Somalis first, like Richard Burton and I. M. Lewis, were the colonial offices of nations furthering its imperial ambitions, now the patrons are universities, foundations, and even offices of foreign affairs who seek and consolidate their respective country’s intellectual hegemony, or at least keep it at parity with others.
What Aidid and Dr. Hoehne both have in common is that they are both part of the same system. Individually, they claim that they can express the Somali self unencumbered by the whims of their patrons. But one would not need to look far. The fact that ALL their scholarships are produced, stored and discussed in a foreign land to Somalis is an affront declaration of where their allegiance lie – i.e. with the power. Their scholarships are inaccessible to the majority of Somalis not only because it is tucked under a shelf in a distant land, a fact technology has mitigated nowadays, but also because it is obscured in a foreign language. The more pressing need, as I see, is for the English-speaking Somali scholars, like Aidid, to invest their time and energy in producing scholarship in Somali or in translating and critiquing, again in Somali, of what already exists.
The difference of the two scholars lies in their emphasis: Aidid stresses Somali identity as a prerequisite whereas Dr. Hoehne stresses the merit of scholarship. It is easier to defend Dr. Hoehne’s argument than Aidid’s so long there’s a consensus of what constitutes “merit of a scholarship” and who has the authority to judge it. Because of these two qualifying points, Aidid’s argument gets stronger for it is difficult to guarantee a mortal judge without subjectivity; and that is where perspective gets important.
A decade and so ago in a leadership class at Amoud University, our lecturer, white, brainstormed with us the qualities of an effective leader. Unanimously, we prioritized “honesty” and “loyalty” among other things. Our lecturer challenged us. One should not assume ill of her: she was one of the best, both as a person and as a lecturer, I came to know. We could not deliver airtight reasoning, and do so in English. As a result, our argument was tossed out.
Since, I have been perplexed how we all came to the same conclusion without discussion. On reflection, I could only relate it to our societal conception of a leader: leadership was never thought as a short-term exercise. This long-term view necessitates ethics not only as a moral imperative but also as a business expediency. The currency here is credibility, or “weji” in Somali. One can live in Somali lands without anything, except weji.
Such were the concepts we grew up with. They kept us grounded. We were also imbibed with the importance of valuing perspectives different from ours. Somali adage goes “Qofku maaha siduu isku haystee, waa sida loo haysto,” which roughly means “One is not how one perceives oneself to be, but how one is perceived by others.” The two, pulling one in opposite directions of Newtonian equal forces, keeps one in moderation.
Of Soomaali And Samaale
The origin of the name “Soomaali” is disputed. One theory holds there existed a father named Samaale (meaning Good). Another holds that, named after their generosity to travelers, the words are from the expression “soo maal” which means the imperative “milk (for us).” It is a taboo to turn down a guest in need of hospitality. As the saying goes, “Nin soori kaa qaaday waa nin seefi kaa qaaday,” which roughly is, “He who chose food over you, is like one who is killed by a sword.” In other words, if one is not sharing, one is not alive.
Thus, generosity is woven into the fabric of Somali society, captured vividly by the saying, “Wax wax ku siiya ma weydide, wax wax kuu sheegaad weydaa,” which means “you will always find somebody that gives you something, but you may not find somebody who would tell you something (wisdom).” I suspect that the reason wisdom or knowledge is not shared is because of its scarcity. However, once it is available, it is shared in anonymity like the sayings in this piece.
I can’t imagine a Somali nomad grudging over a foreigner fattening a foreign bank account as a result of knowledge he shared with. Somalis say, “Ninka reerkiisa kaa bariya nin dheh, ninka reer kale kaa bariyana nin labaad dheh,” which roughly translates to “Chivalrous is he who affords you hospitality at his home but he who affords you hospitality at another’s home is twice as chivalrous.” Needless to say, this is more unsettling, morally, to the recipient than to the host.
What a Somali nomad would really care very much about is, thanks to Gerald Hanley who reported from an old Somali man in his book Warriors: Life and death among Somalis, “To be well-governed [by his government], but to be left alone [by everyone including his government] .” (p.75) [brackets are mine]. A Somali nomad would care tremendously to continue to receive from his family members abroad the support they extend through the Hawala system. Among other things.
Aidid’s battlecry in challenging Eurocentric narrative touches another very thorny subject: the decolonization of Somali Studies after the independence of Somalia. She views these studies as, to use her words, “trapped within a colonial imaginary.” So what? Unfortunately, nothing of consequential substance comes up to answer this.
It neither increases our knowledge of the subject nor challenges existing theories. So, whose mind is in want of decolonizing anyways?
Unless #CadaanStudies can falsify the theories and assertions of the cadaan academicians or bring forth new ones that express Somali self better than their cadaan counterparts, they have nothing to contribute other than to arouse our sentimentality. In the meantime, we have to remain grateful to Aidid and her entourage for saying the unsaid and for garnering that much attention and interest in the subject. At least, they smelled the smoke. Somebody has to find the fire, if any, and deal with it.
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