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Magical Moments: Claire Thomas reporting from Somalia

31 March 2023

By Claire Thomas, Co-Executive Director at Minority Rights Group International

I had the privilege of visiting Somalia last week, for our programme to improve polio vaccination coverage through minority inclusion. I met with many people committed to reducing and eliminating discrimination against minority communities there. I have worked with activists in the country since 2012, but I had never visited. You can do a lot remotely, but you can’t feel the electricity in a room when training participants are told that they can do their work in breakout groups in any language they choose.

They chose to work in Kizigua, one of at least ten (and probably many more) distinct languages spoken in Somalia. They chose to present back to the room in Kizigua with a volunteer translating into Mahitiri, the main Somali dialect or language spoken. No one in the room had experienced this before, not the presenter who would normally have been required to present in Mahatiri, not the Somali majority clan member and subject expert in the room. Until he encountered MRG a few months ago, he still believed all Somalis spoke the same language.

The belief that Somalia was an ethnically, culturally and linguistically uniform nation was propagated by previous regimes seeking to present the state as homogenous and downplay the existence of minorities. It remains widely held, within and outside the country. Yet, Somalia is diverse. Though decades of insecurity have meant that population statistics are unreliable and woefully un-disaggregated, ethnic, religious, linguistic and caste or descent-based minority communities, as well as indigenous peoples, constitute perhaps a third of Somalia’s population.

The Kizigua speakers have kindly agreed to allow us to allow you to hear their presentation here. In listening to this you are joining a very select group of people who have heard Kizigua spoken in a professional context, though this audio recording can’t ever convey the magical electricity in the room, the sense of daring, of doing something radical but so long-awaited, the sense of ‘at last!’.

My second magical moment was during a coffee break at a conference dedicated to the eradication of polio in Somalia. We were talking about how to reach the ‘stubborn’ 5 per cent of households who don’t receive vaccinations in the camps for displaced households around Somalia’s capital Mogadishu. Security is not an issue here, and it doesn’t even seem that the families refuse vaccinations per se. The impact of being from a minority community on vaccination uptake is not properly understood, but we do know that minority inclusion is a significant issue in humanitarian interventions in Somalia.

‘Have you ever considered language as a barrier?’ I ask an international polio expert. He looks at me blankly and says:

‘What language? All Somalis speak Somali, surely!’

‘I am afraid not’, I reply.

I go on to explain indigenous hunter-gatherers’ languages, the languages that grew up on the coast of Somalia which are somehow similar to Swahili, the languages of the Bantu communities (among them Kizigua) which were either indigenous or came with enslaved people traded and sold from as far away as Mozambique, even the quite mysterious languages spoken within caste groups in Somali society. A look of disbelief spreads across his face… but it is not that he doesn’t believe me. ‘How can I have worked in Somalia for 5 years and no one has told me that?!’ he asks me.

I shrug my shoulders: ‘it may not have been politically convenient’, I reply, trying and perhaps not succeeding, to be diplomatic. I could have said: ‘because these communities are hated and despised and no one thinks they count’, so at least I held back on that!

Later he comes up to me with another colleague. Clearly, he has been sharing what he learnt; the message is moving around the hall and among the participants. Somalia’s minority and indigenous communities suffer numerous forms of discrimination and exclusion. The contested status of their very existence is one factor in invisibility that presents a major barrier to equality. Yet my experiences last week showed me that this invisibility is not indelible.

Reaching people is never just a matter of service provision: languages matter, cultures matter, and trust matters. The first step is knowing and accepting that differences exist. There are many steps ahead until Somalia can fulfil the right to equal opportunity for all its citizens, but I can sleep at night knowing that we are at least going in the right direction.

Photo: Claire Thomas, MRG’s Co-Executive Director, on a trip to Somalia, March 2023. Credit: MRG.

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