Forget war and hunger: A few things you didn't know about Somalia

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 14 Jul 2011 13:34 GMT
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LONDON (AlertNet) – Insurgency, anarchy, drought, pirates, hunger… Such woes are the mainstays of most reports about Somalia. But here are some things you might not know about the East African country.

Old-style justice

It is often said that Somalia is a lawless country but in fact, most Somalis abide by an ancient system of justice, known as xeer (pronounced heer). Centuries-old, xeer has survived dictatorship, warlordism and a rise in Islamic militancy.

Grievances are brought to respected clan elders, who often gather under a tree to resolve the dispute and decide, if necessary, on compensation for victims and their families. For example, if a man kills another man, his clan must pay 100 camels in blood money (diya) and 50 if the victim is a woman.

Xeer works on the understanding that the whole diya-paying group is collectively responsible for a crime committed by one or more of its members.

"It's one of the things that keeps Somalia together," former Reuters journalist Sahal Abdulle says. However, in areas controlled by al Qaeda-allied Al Shabaab, an extreme form of sharia law applies.  

Trust funds

Somalia’s super-fast, super-reliable money transfer system (hawala) is based entirely on trust. All it takes is a handshake and about 24 hours for someone in Kismayo to pick up money that was sent to him by, say, his brother in London.

It works like this: The brother in Britain gives the hawala agent in London the sum in cash and commission for the transaction. The agent transfers the cash to the company bank account and then faxes or emails a clearinghouse in Somalia (or Dubai most likely) with details of the amount, the sender, the recipient and instructions as to where to deliver the money in Kismayo.

The clearinghouse then instructs the agent closest to where the recipient lives in Kismayo to transfer the money. When the recipient comes to collect the cash, besides giving his name and some form of identification to the cashier, he is quizzed about the sender’s telephone number and a reference number on the receipt for the money sent.

If he has no ID and no guarantor, he will have to answer questions about his clan lineage links from the information provided by his brother in Britain to guard against fraud. Provided he gives the right information he takes the cash.  

Ancient art


Credit: Wikipedia/Abdullah Geelah


Somalia is home to some of the earliest known rock art in the Horn of Africa. The rare visitors to Laas Ga'al, a complex of caves and rock shelters in the northern breakaway enclave of Somaliland, are privy to ancient rock paintings that are thought to be at least 5,000 years old.

The images mainly depict cows with big udders to symbolise fertility. In other paintings, cows are shown being worshipped by humans. And more was discovered just last year when a team led by British archaeologist Sada Mire uncovered Dhamblin, a rock site in the desert decorated with images of sheep, antelope and ibex.

"These are among the best prehistoric paintings in the world," Somali-born Mire told the Guardian newspaper. "Yet Somaliland is a country whose history is totally hidden. With wars, droughts and piracy in Somalia, hardly anyone has researched the archaeology until now. But it's absolutely full of extraordinarily well-preserved rock art."

Watch Running for their lives


Somalia’s athletes risk their lives to train in the battled-scarred capital Mogadishu. Every day Olympic hopeful and 5,000-metre runner Abdinasir Ibrahim weaves past Islamist gunmen, African peacekeepers and local security forces, dodging bullets and navigating roadblocks along the "road of death".

The dangers he and others face are captured in this remarkable clip shown on Britain's Channel 4. Incidentally, Britain's European 5,000 and 10,000 metres champion, Mo Farah, is also Somali-born. However, he left Mogadishu for London at the age of eight.

Fragrant riches

It's a land of frankincense and myrrh.

Intrepid entrepreneurs

Somalia’s lack of central government has produced a thriving, innovative private sector. Competition flourishes in markets where transactions are simple, such as retail and construction, a 2004 World Bank report said.

In more complex sectors such as telecoms and power supply, private solutions are “flawed but impressive”, it goes on, with coverage expanding since the 1980s and cheaper rates than in other African countries.

Only when it comes to big projects such as road-building, education and a cross-border financial system does the state seem to be sorely missed, economists said, but even here businessmen have been creative in making up for effective government. 

Sons and daughters

Iman poses on the red carpet during arrivals for the BET Honors in Washington January 15, 2011. REUTERS/Molly Riley


Other than athlete Mo Farah, Somalia's famous sons and daughters include: Iman, a former model-turned-businesswoman, who is married to British rockstar David Bowie; rapper, singer and songwriter K'naan; award-winning former BBC and now Al Jazeera journalist Rageh Omaar, whose brother is Somalia's foreign minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Omaar. 

Sparkling shores

Boats are parked on the Indian Ocean beach in Haradheere, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Somalia's capital Mogadishu, Nov 18, 2009. REUTERS/Mohamed Ahmed


Its stunning coastline is the longest in Africa.

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