Wednesday, November 28, 2018


The terrors of apartheid. Nelson Mandela. Exotic animals on the veldt. Diamond mining and the De Beers company (don't get me started on them). Zulu warriors. South Africa may bring other things to mind, and there certainly are many things it’s known for. Many years ago, I read James Michener’s The Covenant, about the history of South Africa. Even though his books are a mix of fact in the midst of a fictional story, it really touched on a lot of history that I wasn’t fully aware of.

Obviously, the name South Africa is indicative of its location as the southernmost country on the African continent. However, there are a lot of people who call it by its nickname Mzansi, which comes from the Xhosa word meaning “south.”

It’s not hard to find South Africa. Find Africa, and look at the bottom. It’s surrounded by Namibia to the northwest, Botswana to the north, and Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland to the northeast. The country of Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa. It has a coastline along the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Because the country is so far south, its climate is actually more temperate. It also has a wide variety of landscapes, which also affects its climate, ranging from deserts to mountainous to a type of open grasslands plain called the veldt (sometimes spelled veld, and also the title of a short story by Ray Bradbury). 

Evidence suggests that people have lived in the southern parts of Africa for nearly three million years, with modern humans living there for nearly 170,000 years. The earliest peoples include many different Bantu-speaking groups, mainly the Xhosa, Khoisan, and Zulu people. The Portuguese were the Europeans to land in this area of southern Africa during the late 1400s. The British and the Dutch were the next ones to show up during 1600s. The Dutch established a trading post for the Dutch East India Company during the mid-1600s around where the city of Cape Town would be. They brought along many of the people they formerly employed from southeast Asia and eastern Africa (known as the vrijburgers, but they also brought along slaves too), where they eventually came to be known as a new mixed race group called Cape Coloureds. The Dutch and vrijburgers who left the city to become farmers were known as Boers and clashed with the Xhosa tribes. These clashes were known as the Xhosa Wars. The British arrived and took control of Cape Town at the beginning of the 1800s, and the British began moving in droves starting in the 1820s. By the latter part of the 1800s, gold and diamonds were discovered hiding beneath the surface, and the British immediately pounced on the idea that they should control it. A couple wars broke out back-to-back over this and other issues: the first being between the British and the Zulus (the Zulus lost their independence as a result), followed by the British and the Boers (the Boers won the first one, and the British barely won the second one). (I don’t think the British realized no one really liked them being there all that much). Talk began during the beginning of the 20th century of granting independence to this area. However, land ownership was severely limited for black Africans living here, with 93% of the land owned by those of European heritage. South Africa was finally granted independence in 1931, and a couple national parties were formed. After WWII, the National Party started pushing racial segregation policies and thus apartheid was introduced and implemented. It became a republic in 1961 and withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations. Many nations around the world began to pressure South Africa about its racist policies and boycott the government. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison for sedition and sabotage; he became the first black president of the country four years later. Even though South Africa has seen many changes for the better after the end of apartheid, they have also dealt with issues such as HIV/AIDS epidemics, housing and jobs shortages, immigration problems, and more recently, a water shortage.

South Africa is one of those few countries that has more than one capital city. In fact, it has three. Pretoria, located generally in the northeast corner of the country, is where the executive branch is run from. Blomfontein, in the center of the country, is where the judicial branch is. And the legislative branch is housed in coastal Cape Town. The largest city, however, is the city of Johannesburg, a suburb of Pretoria (or would it be the other way around?).

South Africa has the second largest economy in Africa, after Nigeria. Even at that, they still suffer from unemployment/underemployment, poverty, and income inequality. And for the most part, pay rates for black and coloured South Africans stayed stagnant even after apartheid ended. There really isn’t that much arable land for agriculture, so they depend on manufacturing/industry and international trade. Tourism and science/tech-based industries also remain high as economic drivers.

Because of South Africa’s ties with the Dutch and the British, Christianity is the largest religious following. And most people follow a number of Protestant denominations, although there is a smaller Catholic following, too. Surprisingly, there are quite a few people who don’t identify with any religion. Since there are quite a few people of Asian descent living in South Africa, there are also a number of Muslims and Hindus and other religions, including indigenous belief systems.

While it doesn’t have the most official languages, South Africa has declared 11 languages to hold an official status. English serves as a lingua franca in many areas and is the language of the government, education, commerce, and media. Its official languages are Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans (related to Dutch), English, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Southern Sotho, Tsonga, Swazi, Venda, and Southern Ndebele. Some of the tribal languages of the indigenous people are in danger of dying out. A number of European languages and Indian languages are also spoken in South Africa.

South Africa is a country of great things. First of all, they have an 850km (528mi) long wine route. They were also the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage. And if you’re into cycling, they hold the world’s longest bike race. Oh, and if you’re a fan of shiny things, the 3106-carat Cullinan Diamond was found in 1905 (it was later broken up into over 100 different stones, part of which went into the British crown jewels). I could go on about other ways South Africa stands out in the world. All I know is that I’m really looking forward to my meal from this country.

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, November 11, 2018


We made it through another election. There were some disappointments, but there were some surprises. Quite a few women, people of color, and LGBTQ candidates won their office – not to mention that Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American to win a Congressional seat.

This will make a good breakfast tomorrow.
It seem fitting that it fell in line with cooking food from Somalia today. The first thing I made was Malawah, or a Somali crepes. In a bowl, I mixed all the ingredients together: 2 c flour, 2 ½ c milk, 2 eggs, 1 Tbsp sugar, ½ tsp cardamom, ½ tsp ginger, and a pinch of salt. Once everything was mixed together, I heated up my skillet and poured a little oil in it to heat. I ladled some batter onto the skillet and swirled the skillet to spread out the batter to thin it out. I apparently didn’t mix things well enough because my batter was still a little lumpy. Once it started to brown on one side, I flipped it to brown the other side. When they were all done, I served this with butter and honey on top. I thought these were fantastic. I was initially a little worried about the cardamom/ginger flavor being too much, but it was just right and blended well with the honey.

I was a little leery about crab and tomato together, but it was actually pretty good.
The main dish today is Somalian Crabmeat Stew. I started this with sautéing some diced onions, curry powder (I just used some leftover xawaash spice mix that I had prepared for the nafaqo below), ginger, salt, and crushed red pepper, letting this simmer for a few minutes before pouring in about 20 oz of diced tomatoes (I used the kind that had green chilies in it). Once that had cooked down for about 10 minutes, I added in my chunked crabmeat and let it cook down for another 10 minutes. I served this over rice. Even though I cut my spices down, it was still a little spicy because of the crushed red pepper. I thought it was excellent.

I love Scotch eggs, and this vegetarian version was fire!
To go with this, I made Nafaqo, a Somali vegetarian version of Scottish eggs. The first thing I did was peel some potatoes and boil them, mashing them slightly when they were cool. Then I added a little xawaash spice mix (a Somali blend of cumin, coriander, sage, black pepper, fenugreek, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, coves, nutmeg, cinnamon), black pepper, turmeric powder, and flour. I mixed everything together again so that it was well combined. In the meantime, I hardboiled 5 eggs and peeled them when they were cool. To put this together, I put a little flour in one hand, spread out some of the potato mix, placed a cooled and peeled egg on top and wrapped the potato around the egg. Then I rolled it in a little flour before frying it in vegetable oil until it turned golden brown. After they drained and cooled on paper towels, they were ready to eat. I really liked these, but my daughter had a differing opinion. I would definitely make these again.

Overall, this was amazing!
I thought this was a good meal. But my son would hardly touch it, and my daughter only ate half. I guess I’ll have some leftovers for tomorrow. For a country that has been in the news for a myriad of negative things, it’s good to read positive things from Somalia and Somalis around the world. True, there’s a lot of instability still, but as Fred Rogers said, “Always look for the helpers.”

 Up next: South Africa

Saturday, November 10, 2018


In most Western music traditions, they use a heptatonic scale. In other words, a seven-note scale. However, much of Somalian music is based on the five-note scale called the pentatonic scale (imagine just playing the black keys on a piano). I typically think of the pentatonic scale as sounding "Asian" since a few music traditions in Asia utilize it. However, there are many other musical traditions around the world that are based on the pentatonic scale as well. It shares many commonalities with the music of nearly areas like Ethiopia and Sudan and even the Arabian Peninsula.

Somali music also utilizes many similar instruments as well. First of all, they use quite a variety of percussion instruments from different kinds of drums (like mokhoddon, massondhe, jabbu, and yoome) as well as different clappers made from metal (shagal) or wood (shanbaal), rattles (shunuuf) and xylophones (tenegyo). There are stringed instruments like lyres (shareero), lutes (kinaandha, oud), a one-stringed violin (seese), and a thumb piano (similar to an mbira maybe?) called a madhuube. Also heard in Somali music are a variety of wind instruments such as double clarinets (sumaari), flutes (malkad, siinbaar), horns (gees-goodir), and trumpets (fuugwo).

There are many different kinds of traditional dances in Somalia, and many of them vary based on region. A good portion of these dances have a basis in mimicking everyday life for them, but there are also dances that encompass folklore and historic tales. One of the most widely known dances is the Dhaanto dance. This dance mimics the movements of the camel, but is also steeped in Islamic poetry. Originally, it was specifically a dance from the Darod tribe of the Ogaden clan; however, it was revived during the early part of the 20th century as a way to rally the soldiers. Other dances found in areas of Somalia include the Wilwile (a warrior dance of the Issa people), the Jaandheer (from the Isaac tribe of Somaliland and eastern Ethiopia), the Saylaci dance (a Suufi-inspired dance of the Samaroon/Gidabursi clan), and the Niiko dance (from the Hawiye people).

The origins of what we call popular music began to form during the 1930s, and within the next decade, lyrics based on the qaraami style of poetry popularized by Elmi Boodhari became the thing. In fact, it's still popular today. (Some things are timeless, right? I still listen to American music of the 1930s and 1940s.) Today many musicians and bands have mixed traditional styles with the modern styles of rock, pop, jazz, and even other world styles like reggae and bossa nova.

Aar Maanta
I found several artists on Spotify that I sampled. The first was Aar Maanta. I liked what I heard from him. It was kind of chill, with a reggae feel at times and uses strings and horns in much of his music. I’m not even sure what I’d call it, but I just know that I like it.

Yasminah was an R&B musician I listened to who’s actually a Somali-American. She kind of reminds me of Kenza Farah, except her songs are all in English (at least the ones I heard). I liked the few songs I listened to.

And then I listened to Dur-Dur Band. Very much of an older style that reminds me of an African blues style and funk at times. The instruments I noticed is their use prominent use of the bass guitar and the organ in the background. They even have a song called “Dab” which I showed my almost-10-year-old son who dabs All. The. Time.


I finally listened to K’naan, a Somali-Canadian rapper. I loved it! I have heard of him but maybe only to the extent of seeing his name. He definitely uses a lot of African styles and themes mixed into his music. Many of his songs seem to use rock and funk and other styles as the basis underneath it all – kind of like what Bliss N Eso does.

Maryam Mursal
Another musician whose music seems to integrate some funk and folk rock influences here and there is Maryam Mursal. The vocal styles are still definitely steeped in African and Arabian techniques, but it’s interesting to listen to the merge of several cultures.
Waayaha Cusub
Finally, I listened to Waayaha Cusub. This group mixes Middle Eastern styles with some hip-hop. They do a good job at blending the rhythms of the vocal lines with the instrumental melodic lines. In listening to their music, they span from sounding like club mixes to more chill adult contemporary.

Up next: the food

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


The Somali people have been creating art since they arrived in the area. Evidence of rock art has been found in many areas, especially in the northern parts of Somalia. They were probably some of the few parents who encouraged drawing on the walls. Some of the best examples we have in not only Somalia, but in Africa on a whole is found at Laas Geel. These pre-historic drawing depict dog-like animals, giraffes, and cows (that were in ceremonial robes – must be very special cows!) alongside humans.

As Islam became more widespread, artistic subject matter changed with it. In Islam, it is strictly advised not to create art that depicts people or animals. I've never understood this, but I read that it may be tied to the creation of a human being, even if it's just a drawing. (But then, how do they explain actual birth?) The reasoning is lost on me, but it is what it is. So, many artists adapted and created their art in different ways. Islamic art tends to be more geometric and often in the form of tessellations.
One of the ways they did that was through metalwork. Gold and other metals have been used in jewelry making, which was also seen as a show of wealth and status. Intricately designed knives and daggers are also common among men. And at one time, Somalia was a leader in the textile industry. Mogadishu in particular was a central hub for textiles for nearly 700 years up through the late 19th century.

If you are a carver in Somalia, you are quite respected as an artist, even today. Wealthy families used to employ carvers who specialized in exotic woods and stones like marble to create elaborate homes worthy of being a museum. However, artisanal woodcarving is also a key occupation among nomadic tribes. A good carver created everyday objects like combs, spoons, and other utensils to more complicated structures like an aqal (a portable nomadic home). Today, they use modern equipment to help make the process go a little faster. (Ain't nobody got time to do that by hand.)

The ancient Somalis also built pyramids for burials in the same style as the Egyptians. Their homes were also built in the Egyptian style by building courtyards and stone walls around them. As Islam began to spread, its influences on architecture also took hold by its use of arches and geometric designs.
Somali-American painter Abdulasis "Aziz" Osman
And while painting and other art forms, like fashion design or photography, may not necessarily be pushed as an art form Somalia (depending on how conservative your area or family is, of course), Somalis living in diaspora around the world have embraced it as a way to express themselves, their culture, and dealing with events that led up to their leaving. Art students in the US (especially Minnesota), Canada, and many areas of Europe depict scenes of Somali life and history not only as a way of teaching others about Somali, but also as a way of teaching Somali children born here of their own history.

Tabayin al-Haqa'iq li Sharh Kanz al-Daqa'iq
Early Somalis not only fell in love with poetry but excelled at it to the level of them being regionally known for their poetry. Somalia is known for many of its examples of Islamic literature that began to flourish around the 14th century. Two works that are highly celebrated in the Islamic world is the Tabayin al-Haqa'iq li Sharh Kanz al-Daqa'iq, written by Uthman bin Ali Zayla'i during the 14th century and Muja'mut al-Mubaraka by Shaykh Abdullah al-Qalanqooli in 1918.

Muhammad Abdullah Hassan
However, not all poetry is strictly religious in nature. There are other poets who write about history, epic battles, love, and other themes. A couple of poets to know would be Muhammad Abdullah Hassan (known for his poem "Gaala Leged" ["Defeat of the Infidels"]) and Elmi Boodhari (known for his poem "Qaraami" ["Passion"]).

Somali literature wasn't just relegated to poetry. They did branch out. Different kinds of folktales were told to children growing up. These stories were passed down from generation to generation. Some stories were more like fables, designed to teach kids lessons about how to behave, through both negative and positive reinforcement. Some of the more common folktales include "A Lion's Tale" (two Somali immigrant children struggle to adapt to their new life), "Dhegdheer the Cannibal Woman" (told to children to convince them the importance of discipline), "Caraweelo" (used to teach young girls the "dangers" of being overly feminist), and "Coldiid the Wise Warrior" (a warrior who avoids all violence).

Today, there are many Somali writers, publishing works from Islamic/religious works to poetry to more secular novels. From the time the Somali language also adopted using a modified Latin script during the 1970s, many more Somali authors began being published on the international scene. One of the most well-known Somali authors is the award-winning Nuruddin Farah. He's known for his books From a Crooked Rib, Links, and Maps. Another novelist of note is Farah Mohamed Jama Awl, known for his novel Ignorance is the Enemy of Love. Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame "Hadrawi" is a poet often considered Somalia's answer to Shakespeare. Another award-winning Somali poet and novelist who lives in Italy (and is published in Italian) is Cristina Ali Farah. (Farah must be a common name in Somalia or something.)

Up next: music and dance