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Occupational groups in Somalia

  • The occupational minorities in Somalia, consisting of Gaboye, Tumal and Yibir, include weavers, potters, smiths, hunters, tanners, and others, with each group having its own name: for example, Tumal derive their name from the Somali word tum, meaning ‘to beat’ or ‘to hammer’.

    Gaboye have traditionally worked for dominant clans in occupations such as barbers or leather workers, with both Gaboye women performing infibulations and circumcision. Gaboye are divided into sub-clans such as Muse Dheriyo and Madhiban, among others. Tumal were blacksmiths and carpenters, while Yibrow were known to be tanners and traditional doctors. Though it is likely they were based in Somalia before the arrival of pastoralist nomads, Yibrow were subsequently conquered and to this day hold a low status in relation to the main Somali population. Despite this, they are believed by many to have special powers and are sometimes asked to bless the birth of a newborn baby. Many women in this community worked on reproductive health as traditional birth attendants and also as FGC (female genital cutting) practitioners.

    Although all are Somali in origin, the occupational groups have come to represent distinct communities due to their functional differentiation. More recently, however, these occupational groups have begun experiencing competition from majority clans, which, due to the economic downturn that has persisted since the start of the civil war, have taken up similar trades.


  • As far back at the early 1900s, the occupational minorities were considered as outcasts by other clans, resulting in their segregation, even though their language, physical appearance and customs were largely the same. This stigmatization is also partly rooted in a groundless myth that associates these groups with the consumption of unclean food.

    Following the rise of Hawiye clan leader Mohamed Farah Aideed in 1991, his militia launched brutal assaults on Gaboyes, whom Aideed accused of loyalty to ousted dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, with widespread rapes, killings and displacement. As they are outside the clan systems of arbitration, those who suffered had no opportunity of gaining compensation for their loss.


  • Higher caste Somalis are forbidden to intermarry with Gaboye outcaste clans, upon penalty of becoming outcastes themselves. Indeed Somalis from the major clans routinely refuse to eat with Gaboye people. Without control of land, Gaboyes have faced economic marginalization. Without armed militias, they have been particularly vulnerable to attack by the militias of the larger clans, and Gaboye women face disproportionately greater danger of rape. Inequalities and discrimination are also still apparent: for example, one Somali organization has estimated that only between 30 and 40 Gaboye – out of as many as 10,000 in Hargeisa – are studying or have studied at university.

    The few educated members of occupational groups work in any chosen field, but most find work in manual and service jobs, such as market-selling and trading, butcheries, domestic work, cooking and selling tea. However, they have lost their monopoly over their traditional tasks (where these still exist), and have often failed to find replacement employment. With the disappearance of their traditional lifestyles, and as a result of conflict, many have moved to urban settlements or IDP camps or fled to refugee camps in neighbouring countries. On the positive side, several well-known musicians and entertainers hail from the Midgan occupational group, and enjoy respect and success among majority communities.

Updated March 2018

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