Somalia and Somali Culture

Notes for those unfamiliar with Somalia and Somali Culture.


This page has been put together to help those unfamiliar with Somalia and Somali Culture to understand the context of the information and advice given on this website:

Somalia the Country

Somalia is a country of some 10 million people located in the north east corner of Africa. It has a land area of 638,000 km2 (246,000 miles2), and a long coastline on the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. Its immediate neighbours are Kenya to the south, Ethiopia to the west and Djibouti to the northwest. Prior to independence as the Somali Republic in 1960, the north of the country was administered as the Colony of British Somaliland, and the south of the country as the Colony of Italian Somaliland.

Much of the interior of the country is semi-arid pasture land which has supported a nomadic lifestyle for many hundreds of years. There are just two perennial rivers in the country, both of which rise in the Ethiopian Highlands and flow south and east into Somalia. The larger of these is the Juba which supports significant areas of irrigated agriculture as it flows to reach the sea some 20km north of the Southern Port City of Kismayo. The Shebelli (Leopard) River flows further to the north, getting within 40 km of the coast at Mogadishu before turning south at the town of Afgoi and flowing parallel to the coast for another 250km before being lost to an area of swamps.

For more details see the following link to Wikipedia:


Somalis the People

 The inhabitants of the country of Somalia are 85% ethnic Somalis with the remainder being Arabs (mainly in the Coastal Cities), Bantus (mainly in the south) and other smaller minorities. A common factor is the Somali language and the Muslim Religion which are spoken and followed by almost the entire population.

Within the ethnic Somali Community families trace their ancestry through the male line, and it is not uncommon to be able to name your ancestors going back 10 generations or more. Go back far enough and you reach the sub-clan name, then the clan name, and finally the tribe. Membership of a particular clan and tribe is the source of great pride for many Somalis, although it has also been the source of much antagonism based on historic feuds some of which persist to the present day.

As Muslims some Somalis practice polygamy, with men being permitted up to four wives, although this practice is less common amongst the younger generations and those living outside of their home country.



There are numerous references to Somali Culture. Some of the more interesting links are given below:



Recent History

Since 1991 the country has had no effective central government and has endured years of civil war which has destroyed much of the former infrastructure and industry. As of mid-2015 large areas of southern and central Somalia are outside the control of any recognised authority. The capital Mogadishu is under the control of an Interim Somali Government supported by African Union Peacekeepers. In the north of Somalia the self governing regions of Somaliland and Puntland have managed to achieve and maintain a degree of stability.

Since the early 1990s a large number of Somalis have left the country as refugees. Many of these are living in UNHCR run refugee camps in Northern Kenya, or in neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Yemen. Large numbers have also travelled further afield and have been granted asylum in western countries including the USA, Australia, the UK, Germany, Sweden, Holland, and Norway.


Somali Names

Most Somalis have a single given name. Their second name is their Father’s given name, and their third name is their Grandfather’s given name.

When adapting to western naming systems, most Somalis will put forward their given name as “first name” and their Grandfather’s name as “surname”. They will give their Father’s name as a “middle name”.

Women do not change their name on marriage; traditionally they do not adopt their husband’s “surname”. The children of the marriage have their own given name, followed by their Fathers name and Grandfather’s name.


Birthdays and Documentation

 Although cities such as Mogadishu and Hargeisa are large urban conurbations with (at least during the good times) functioning civil authorities, the majority of Somalis live in rural areas, with many of them living nomadic lifestyles, moving with their herds of cattle, goats and camels across the large areas of semi-arid land which make up much of Somalia.

This means that many Somalis have been born without their births being officially registered and without any documentation such as a birth certificate being issued. In addition the western tradition of celebrating birthdays, other than the birth itself, is not something that Somalis are familiar with. It is therefore not uncommon for Somalis, particularly those from the nomadic areas, and those from older generations, to genuinely not know the date of their birth, or indeed how old they are. It is not something that was important to their traditional way of life.

When Somalis settle in western countries, this lack of documentation or knowledge related to date of birth can often result in problems. Western welfare agencies find it hard to believe that someone does not know how old they are, and may assume that not having a birth certificate can easily be rectified by contacting the local authority in the country of birth – in fact “real” birth certificates or records often do not exist.



 The geographical location of Somalia close to the equator means that there is very little difference in the length of the day through the year, sun rises around 06:00 (6am) and sets around 18:00 (6pm) everyday.

In Southern Somalia this has given rise to an alternative method of reporting the time based on 06:00 as the start of the morning – thus 08:00 is reported as ‘2 o’clock in the morning’, 12:00 (midday) is ‘6 o’clock in the day’, and 18:00 is ‘12 o’clock in the evening’. The day then starts again, with midnight (24:00 or 0:00) being reported as ‘6 o’clock at night’.

This alternative system of reporting the time can cause some confusion to those unaware of it.


Useful Links – Further Reading

 The above notes give only a very brief outline of some of the aspects of Somalia, its people and their culture. There are a number of useful references giving much more information. These include:

We welcome your comments on the above – please let us have any additional information that you consider we should include.

Let us know if you think we have got things wrong, or if there are other areas that you would like us to provide information on.

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