POPULATION: More than 7 million

LANGUAGE: Maxaad tiri; Arabic

RELIGION: Islam (Sunni)


In the late nineteenth century, the northern half of Somalia became a British protectorate. The southern half of Somalia was an Italian colony until 1960. In that year, it was united with the northern half to become an independent republic. Since the early 1990s, Somalia has suffered from a civil war between rival clans.

Unlike most African nations, Somalia has only one ethnic group, divided into various clans. However, the Somalis are all united by a common language and a reliance on raising animals. They also have a shared Islamic heritage. In addition, they believe they are descended from a common ancestor. Somali-speakers living in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti, as well as Somalia, are all considered to be part of one Somali nation.


Somalia is located on what is commonly called the Horn of Africa. Two long, sandy plains dominate the coastal areas along the Indian Ocean to the east. The interior includes a series of moderate mountain ranges in the north, and a large rugged plateau in the south. The total area of the country is about 250,000 square miles (647,500 square kilometers).


The language spoken by the vast majority of the Somali people is referred to as Maxaad tiri . However, various dialects are spoken by different clans. Maxaad tiri and Arabic are the official languages of Somalia. Many older people in the south also speak Italian. Government officials in the cities often speak English.


Ceremonial feasts among the Somali people always include the telling of heroic tales of ancestors. Much Somali folklore revolves around ancestors on the father's side of the family. They are regarded as "family heroes."


The official state religion of Somalia is Islam. Almost 100 percent of the Somali population is Sunni Muslim (branch of Islam). The Somali follow the practices associated with Islam. They pray five times a day and do not eat pork products or drink alcohol. Men may have up to four wives at one time. However, Somalis are not as traditionally religious as Muslims in many other cultures. For example, women do not practice purdah, or seclusion. They do not wear veils or cover their entire bodies when outside the home.

Somalis incorporate a belief in a spirit world into their religious system. These spirits, or jinns, can be either good or evil. They are believed to cause illness, loss of property, marital problems, infertility, and even death. There are specialists who "fight" jinns through special ceremonies resembling exorcisms.


Ramadan is a month-long fast during which Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. Ramadan ends with the feast of Eid al-Adha . Believers are expected, at least once in their lives, to make a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca during the month of Ramadan. Muhammad's birthday, Mowluud, is celebrated with feasting.


Life events among the Somali are celebrated by feasting. Birth is always an important event. Sheep or goats are killed to celebrate the birth of either a boy or girl. Death is also marked by feasting. The status of the deceased dictates the type and number of animals killed (a goat for a young child, one or more camels for the death of an old, wealthy male).

Marriage is viewed as a bond between two families, rather than between two individuals. It is marked by a series of exchanges and ceremonies. A bride price (meher) of camels, cattle, sheep, or goats is given to the family of the bride. The bride's family supplies items for everyday life: the aqal (a portable house), a bed, cooking utensils, mats, ropes, and skins.


There is a strong tradition of hospitality that obligates individuals to welcome close kin-folk, clan members, and even strangers with tea and food. The most common greetings are Maalin wanaagsan (Good day) and Nabad myah? (How are you?). For men, these greetings are followed by an extended shaking of hands. Women greet each other less formally.

There is nothing resembling dating in the rural areas of Somalia. Even in urban areas, the contact between unmarried men and women is limited. Unmarried men in their twenties will flirt with women by dancing together as a group.


The vast majority (90 percent) of the Somali people live in small villages scattered throughout the rural areas of the country. Few of them have electricity, clean running water, paved roads, or public services. There are two types of rural housing: mundals and aqals . Mundals are permanent structures made of a mud and dung mixture. It is spread over a wooden frame and then topped with a thatched roof. These houses are occupied by a husband and wife, with their children. An aqal is a mobile house made of wooden sticks and hides. It can be transported on the back of a camel. Every married woman owns an aqal. She is responsible for setting up and dismantling it as nomadic camps are moved.

The standard of living in urban areas has declined since the civil war of the early 1990s. Before the war, the residents of the capital city of Mogadishu, Hargeysa, and other cities had access to electricity, running water, and paved roads. Most urban dwellers lived in single-family houses.


Family structure is based on descent through the father's lineage (patrilineal descent). Men belong to their father's clans, and inheritance (wahaad) passes from father to son. As Muslims, men are allowed as many as four wives at one time. Divorce is easy and common. Thus, some men may have had ten or more wives in the course of a lifetime. After marriage, women live in the village or camp of their husband.


Somalis dress for comfort in the hot, dry climate. Men have traditionally worn a long piece of lightweight cloth (mawhees) as a wraparound skirt. A lightweight shirt is usually worn, as well. Women traditionally wear a dress that covers their entire body from shoulders to ankles. They generally wear a shawl for covering their heads when in the presence of nonfamily males.

Young girls usually wear a simple dress made of a lightweight fabric. Young boys wear shorts and, most recently, imported T-shirts with logos of American and European sports teams.

12 • FOOD

Meat is the most valued food among the Somalis. Camel meat is the most popular. Cattle, goats, sheep, and chickens are also killed and eaten. Grains and vegetables are the everyday staple, with sorghum the most common grain. Maize (corn) and rice are available in urban areas. All grains are cooked as a porridge and traditionally eaten from a common bowl.

Food delicacies include camel's hump, sheep's tail, goat's liver, and camel's milk.


The civil war of the 1990s virtually destroyed the educational system. Almost all government-run schools closed. Koran schools (where teaching is based on the Muslim holy scriptures, the Koran) provide the only schooling available for the majority of children. These schools are usually attended only by boys and traditionally emphasize memorization of the Koran. However, many are now providing a broader education.


At feasts, men tell heroic tales about their ancestors, and recite passages from the Koran. They also recall past events that affected themselves and their animals. Dancing, accompanied by singing, is usually only performed by unmarried males in their twenties. These dances are intended mostly to attract a mate. In the course of the dance, the men prove their bravery by slashing their arms and legs with large knives.


Raising animals (animal husbandry) is the most common activity in Somalia. Somalis do this to feed themselves, and earning just enough money from their animals to get by. The main animals kept are camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. Agriculture is practiced between the country's two major rivers. Sorghum, maize (corn), and other crops are raised.

Somalis practice a clear division of labor based on gender. Men and boys tend to the animals. Women and girls prepare meals and undertake other domestic tasks. In areas where crops can be grown, women and children are largely responsible for tending, weeding, and harvesting them.


Soccer is the most popular and widely played sport in Somalia. However, it is played primarily in the cities and larger towns.

In rural areas, children take on responsibilities at an early age. Boys, especially, have little time for organized sport.


Most entertainment among rural Somalis occurs in ceremonies associated with major life transitions. It includes storytelling and recounting the exploits of one's kinfolk and ancestors.

Television is nonexistent in Somalia, although before the civil war the government did provide a radio service. Many urban and rural Somalis listen regularly to BBC radio broadcasts. Before the civil war of the 1990s, movie theaters also operated in all major cities and towns, before the outbreak of widespread fighting


The Somali produce fine wooden utensils, leather goods, woven mats and ropes, knife blades, and arrow points. Much of the craft work is done by ordinary villagers for their own use.


The complete breakdown of the government since the early 1990s has brought public services to a halt. Civil warfare began in late 1991 and lasted for over two years. Agriculture and livestock-raising were disrupted. Approximately 400,000 people died of starvation. Another 50,000 people died in the fighting. As of the late 1990s, United Nations' efforts to reestablish a stable central government had failed.


Burton, Richard F. First Footsteps in East Africa. London, England: Routledge & K. Paul, 1966.

Cassanelli, L. V. The Shaping of Somali Society. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.

Hassig, Susan M. Somalia, Cultures of the World. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1997.

Jardine, D. The Mad Mullah of Somaliland. West-port, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1969 (orig. 1924).

Loughran, Katheryne S. et al., eds. Somalia in Word and Image. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Somalia, A Country Study, 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, 1993.


ArabNet. [Online] Available , 1998.

World Travel Guide, Somalia. [Online] Available , 1998.

User Contributions:

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Aug 9, 2007 @ 8:08 am
hi iam looking for the camel bones would u please help me with the resources wating for ur relply
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Nov 13, 2007 @ 1:01 am
hi i m somalian boy live in egypt in collage of cariro agriculture
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Apr 24, 2010 @ 10:10 am
hi, im cammie and i think that this website is really cool. It gives all kinds of great information on anything and everything! i was doing this big project on Somalia and this helped a lot!!! Thank you for the great information! Keep up the good information finding! -Cammie
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Nov 1, 2010 @ 1:13 pm
i have a very important question. Do the Somali people have ceremony's for the dead?
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Jan 16, 2011 @ 2:14 pm
this site is awesome. I have a really big social studies project that i had to do and this site helped alot.
Veronica Muriel Bunch
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Dec 3, 2011 @ 5:05 am
I have been doing a lot of research on the people of Somali who are located in the Horn of Africa. Everyone else says the language the people spoke is the same name as the people. I am going to use your quote in my graduate missions paper on "Unreached People Group" and I have chosen the Somali people. I am hoping your information is accurate. Thank you.
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May 10, 2012 @ 12:12 pm
Hi everyone! i am conducting research on the family structure of the Somali family; I am looking for more detailed and updated resources, may be you can help me; i am also in particular looking for child-adult family ties. it would be great if you can help me! many thanks!
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Nov 25, 2012 @ 9:21 pm
EXTREMELY helpful website. Clear and concise--thanks!
mohamed ali
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Dec 25, 2012 @ 7:07 am
i am somali , i agree this is so good information about my culture
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Jan 1, 2013 @ 2:02 am
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Mar 17, 2015 @ 1:13 pm
hi am Somali I proud to become a Somali I agree this is good information about my culture
Somali hero
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Jul 24, 2015 @ 9:21 pm
I am very proud to hear all this important fact about my beloved country. I was planing to do the same thing and collect all Somali history that was lost a long time ago. The Somali people are suffering lack of government and history. It is a shame that we don,t have someone who can record our past and present history.
Mike Cheney
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Feb 11, 2016 @ 12:12 pm
I live in Minnesota and recently had the chance to see the Somali Museum of Minnesota, located in the city of Minneapolis. It was a wonderful experience, and a great opportunity to learn a lot about Somali culture. I was also able to participate in a Somali weaving class just down the street at the library. If you get the chance to be here, be sure to check them out!

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