The Ogaden region of Ethiopia: the source of Somali oral literature

The Ogaden region of Ethiopia: the source of Somali oral literature

By Ali Sheikh

In Somalia, for centuries, poets and thinkers were regarded as the “significant-ones”.

The perception of oral literature in Somali society stands in two considerable viewpoints. First, it is a centerpiece archive where past histories of both successes and failures are kept. Memories such as clan victories and defeats are recorded in the traditional oral literature. Secondly, it was the only means where information was communicated and decrees were made. It was mainly done in the form of poems, proverbs, songs, lyrics and prose. The clan that produces the best poets, dancers and singers were regarded as the “elites” and earn high esteem from the other Somali clans. The oral traditional literatures could appear either in prose or doggerel. The prose is often legendary or historical and can include tales of the swindler, the hero, the coward or the fool. The famous poets and storytellers of the Somali society do use “call-and-respond” techniques to tell their messages and stories.

However, the Ogaden Region (read Somali Regional State now) since time immemorial led the creative theater of Somalis of the Horn of Africa. The forefathers of the Ogaden region engaged and spent their times and energy in creative engagements that have left an astounding record in both theold days and in contemporary Somali literature. The Ogaden region, apart from Islamic faith practices that were in every nook and cranny, played a significant role in modeling culture and behavioral practices at times where there was no formal schooling and public education. Major forms of oral literature such as poems, songs, storytelling, proverbial myth, fable, fairytale, historical fiction and folklore were all part of the culture. All of these forms have contributed to the informal education of the Somali society for years and have served as the only media to pass messages and alerts across society.

The Ogaden literature piracy

After the independence of Somalia in 1960, formal education started to emerge. Syllabuses were developed and natural sciences were basically adopted from western syllabuses and translated to Somali language; however, the major bottleneck was encountered in the field of social sciences, particularly in literature. The then Somalia republic leaders were caught pants down; they brought together elders with diverse clannish (ancestral) backgrounds and allowed them to come up with all the traditional oral literatures best practiced in their respective localities. The leaders – led by the only democratically elected president, the late Honorable Ahmed A’ade, – and the rest of the then ruling clique assessed the elders’ feedback. To their surprise, they felt that none of the collected oral literatures fitted the criteria to be documented as a Somali national literature icon. In that, not an iota of the pieces gathered had a national entity and pan-Somali nationalistic nostalgia illusion. Thus, they had to abandon it since they deemed that it is unrelated or irrelevant and inconsiderate in terms of its equanimity. The Somalia leaders were left with no option other than pirating the Ogaden region of Ethiopia’s artistic oral literature. It became the worst piracy of literature in the history of the Horn of Africa and was committed by Somalia. The pirated oral literature include; the famous poemssuch as that of victorious but lament-full poems of Rage Ugas and the historic scenario of how he regained his wife from Garad Farah Wilwaal – Rage Ugas himself was from Nogob zone of Somali Regional State. Rage Ugas was remembered in Somali oral literature for his invention of the introductory poetic lyrics that added flavor to poem until this very day. The other great nationalist poet was Seyyid Mohamed Abdulla Hassan and the founding father of the Dervish forces. Seyyid Mohamed Abdulla Hassan was from the Korahey zone of Somali Region in Ethiopia, he is remembered among other things for his artistic talent of introducing new words to the Somali language such as “Jaale.” Thirdly, among the great poetry giants whose intellectual property was stolen was the likes of the contemporary 21st century led-poet the late Abdullah MalimDhodaan from Doolo Zone (Danot) the inventor of the famous “Jacbuur” mix-poem as a type of poem with its own different styles, tonic and lyric nature mostly recited in serenity fashion. All these individuals have significantly contributed to Somali literatures (poem) and language, which has become a basic foundation for the existing poetic literature. True to form, all of them hail from the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia, but the Somali Republic (Mogadishu government) never acknowledged their place of origin, and where they belonged, that is, the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia.

Proverbial myth piracy

All Somali fables, proverbial myths told as informal education, used in schools as well as evening traditional bonfire and historic-fiction telling circles, are all those events that took place in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. The mostly quoted characters include the wise elder from theAfder zone of Somali Regional State “CigaalShiidaad.”Cigaal left astounding records in the proverbial myth of Somalis. His historical fable episodes ranging from the act of preponderance cowardice to heroic imaginary pretence have become events of reference up to today. Yet the Somali republic has never acknowledged him as a fable hero from the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia. Caraweelo is the legendary queen that hails from the Agwa tribe in northern Ethiopia. Caraweelo, who destroyed the Axum churches in 680 A.D, was a castrator ruler who extended her influence to the Somali Regional state. She empowered women and gathered a lot of wealth. Her tales dominate the Somalis sayings, examples and proverbs. Caraweelo formally known as “Gudit” is a semi-legendary, non-Christian, Beta Israel from Ethiopia. Most of her deeds in Somali society are recorded in the oral traditional. Information about Gudit in Ethiopian Somali context is contradictory and incomplete. Somalis believed that in order to maintain her influence she castrated all men, except the famous wise elder popularly known as “Oday-biikh” who escaped captivity by playing sick. He later posed tough challenges by advising the captive castrated men to disobey her orders. Oday-Biikh hailed from Godey of the Shebelle zone. Caraweelo’s accounts of her brutal transgressions and crimes are still related among Somalis and parts of northern Ethiopia. Caraweelo and Oday-Biikh dominate the Somali tales when it comes to women tricks. It is widely believed that Caraweelo sacked and burned DebreDamo, which at the time was a treasury and detention center for male captives. Again, Caraweelo was an Ethiopian queen and a ruler for over 40 years whose influence extended to the Ogaden region. The Somali government refers to her as a historical legend recorded in their literature syllabus, while still not acknowledging her as an Ethiopian whose violent events took place in theOgaden region.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the pirated intellectual property. Astonishingly, the Somalia government has been shoplifting the famous poems and other fables from the Ogaden region of Ethiopia. It is always acceptable to use the literature of other nations, nevertheless, it must be acknowledged at all times.

Source: The Reporter.
The writer can be reached at

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