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The Somali untouchables

By Bashir Goth - posted Thursday, 3 May 2007

If you think that Dalits (untouchables) exist only in India think again. We have them in Somalia. But what makes the situation of ours even worse is that unlike India - where people belong to different races, languages and colours - Somalia is the most homogenous country in Africa with people belonging to a single race and sharing a common language, a common religion and a common skin complexion.

To find a dehumanised group of people in a third world country may look normal, despite its gravity, but the real tragedy is when international human rights organisations ignore the plight of such people.

One such blunder that went unnoticed appeared in the March 2007 report of the Minority Rights Group International (MRG), which placed Somalia ahead of Iraq as the world’s most dangerous country for minority groups. For anyone familiar with Somalia, this assessment will conjure up images of clans who suffered for centuries from sub-human treatment. We Somalis know them; UN organisations on the ground know them; and anyone with Internet access will have no difficulty finding them.


Amazingly, however, the MRG, which brags in its website of listening to minorities and indigenous peoples to avoid prescriptive and patronising approaches, and with some 130 partners in 60 countries, has not only failed to find them but has shockingly confiscated their claim of being in a minority and given it to their tormentors.

The MRG described the Somali clans of Darood, Hawiye and Issaq as minorities who were under threat. These three clans are the most numerous, most dominant and most powerful clans of the Somali race, but by an absurd twist of fate they have become the most threatened minorities on the books of the imminent MRG, thus negating the true minorities such as the Gabooye, Midgaan, the Bantus, the Xamar Cad and others.

Coming across this enormous gaffe, I found myself obliged to take the awesome responsibility of teaching this emminent organisation a lesson or two about the Dalits of the Somali race.

Ladies and gentlemen of the MRG, in Somalia we have a clan we do not allow to share the name “Somali” with us. We call them Sab and we call ourselves Somali; we call them Midgaan and we call ourselves Aji (blue blood). It is ironic that the word “Sab” has the same pronunciation as the English word “sub” which among other things means below; under; beneath, subordinate; inferior, less than completely or normal. And by a strange coincidence the Somali word “Sab” has the same meaning and even worse.

We also call them Midgaan, Gabooye, Tumaal among other names. It is these people that we Somalis do not like to mingle with, shake hands with, eat with, marry from or give our daughters to.

While the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, we Somalis still pride ourselves on denigrating people of our own race. I know a man who was unknowingly hosted by a Midgaan family. But once he learned about their identity after enjoying their hospitality for one week, he couldn’t stop vomiting for several days. This is not an isolated case but it is the norm and such reaction could be expected from anyone belonging to the so-called Aji clans.


The real tragedy, however, is that these people, the Sab or Midgaan, do not only look like us but are most of the time more handsome than the rest of us, while their struggle for survival over the centuries has made them more intelligent and more resilient.

They are our traditional hunters, doctors, blacksmiths, craftsmen, singers, tailors and fashion designers, barbers and hairstylists, hygiene attendants and butchers. We defend ourselves with the weapons they make, cultivate our farms with the ploughs they fashion, wear the clothes they tailor, eat with the pots and bowls they make, drink from the earthen jars they mould, submit our heads to them to cut our hair, call them to circumcise our sons and daughters, trust them with our necks to cut our tonsils, enjoy their music but still we despise them.

They speak the same language we speak and pray towards Makkah five times a day like the rest of us. But if you dare tell any Somali to pray behind the most learned Imam of the Migdaan and he would rather go to hell. Without them we would be defenseless and would perish in the harsh environment of our land, but instead of glorifying them we look down on them.

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First published in Khaleej Times Online on April 24, 2007.

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About the Author

Bashir Goth is a Somali poet, journalist, professional translator, freelance writer and the first Somali blogger. Bashir is the author of numerous cultural, religious and political articles and advocate of community-development projects, particularly in the fields of education and culture. He is also a social activist and staunch supporter of women’s rights. He is currently working as an editor in a reputable corporation in the UAE. You can find his blog here.

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