‘A poem is a powerful tool’: Somali women raise their voices in the nation of poets

When Hawa Jama Abdi was eight years old, she got lost in a forest and found herself in the path of a hyena. In her place, many would have run, some would have frozen – but Jama Abdi, the blind daughter of Somali pastoralists, kept her cool, and composed her first poem. The verse ran:

Tot vandag toe, Jama Abdi does not know if the animal was deterred by the power of poetry, or perhaps a slightly less mystical force, but she emerged unscathed by the encounter. “After a while of walking with the hyena, I heard the voice of goats, far in the distance. I realised they were our goats, and I found my brother," sy sê. “When I realised that [I was safe] I fell on the ground.”

Eighteen years later, Jama Abdi has moved from the remote part of Somalia in which she grew up to Mogadishu, and has not had any more brushes with hyenas. But she is still writing poetry and is one of the judges in a new competition billed as the “Oscars” of Somali poetry.

The contest, which includes a category for woman poet of the year, is an attempt to showcase the vibrant tradition of Somali verse and find new voices to join venerated storytellers of previous generations. The winners will be announced at an award ceremony in Mogadishu on 21 November.

“The poem … can be used for many purposes,” says Jama Abdi. “If women use poems for awareness it can correct all the problems. So in my view, I think it’s worth investing in. I believe it’s one of the best things that can be done.”

Once called the “nation of poets”, Somalië has a rich oral storytelling history that stretches back centuries, which has often been inextricably linked with the politics of the day.

The country’s most famous living poet, Maxamed Ibraahim Warsame, known simply as Hadraawi, went to prison for five years in the 1970s after composing works critical of the then military government. In the 1980s, the late poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac, or “Gaarriye” fled the country after the then president Siad Barre threatened him – and anyone caught selling a particular poem of his on cassette tape – with death.

As Jawa Abdi says: “In Somalia, the poem is a powerful tool which you can use to defend yourself or use as a weapon for the enemy.”

Such are the political passions tied up in this that the UN Development Programme (UNDP), which is funding the poetry awards and the body behind them, die Home of Somali Poetry, has faced questions about its involvement.

But Jocelyn Mason, the UNDP Somalia resident representative, argues that art in general, rather than a divisive force, can be “a way of bringing people together”.

“The conflicts within Somalia are … caused by a range of different things. But the one thing Somalis all agree on is that poetry speaks to all of them, that Somali poetry is extremely profound and important,” he told the BBC.

Through its website, launched in August, the Home of Somali Poetry hopes to be able to offer an unprecedented archive, preserving the classics and showcasing new work from the next generation.

Another of the awards’ judges is Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, better known as Asha Lul, who left Somalia with her family at the start of the civil war in the early 90s and has since been living in the UK. Her collection The Sea-Migrations: Tahriib was critically acclaimed, and named poetry book of the year in 2017 by the Sunday Times.

Mohamud Yusuf is excited about the awards encouraging more female poets. “It’s good to show the talents of Somali women to their communities. Normally they don’t show them … but this project will help them to bring their talents out," sy sê.

One woman who is already using poetry to great effect in her community is the activist Sadia Hussein, who lives in a Somali-speaking community across the border in Kenya and uses no-holds-barred verses to campaign against female genital mutilation. One poem written in Somali reads:

Zahra Abdihagi, poet and executive director of Somali Storytellers, a community organisation, says at the moment younger poets often go unacknowledged. She hopes this project will bring more diversity, in terms of age and gender.

“Whenever I hear the old voices, it’s always men; I don’t see women represented in [Somali] history or poetry," sy sê. “I do believe there were female poets, but nobody ever really acknowledged them. So now I’m hoping that maybe, since we’re already making history, that women can also be part of that history as well.”

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