Those who are familiar with Professor I.M. Lewis – his ethnographic monographs, along with his many articles and books (particularly his book ‘A Pastoral Democracy’ (1961), a study of pastoralism and politics among the Northern Somali in the Horn of Africa) – testify to how full and rich his accounts of Somali histories, culture, politics, society, language and poets are. In ‘Milk and Peace, Drought and War’, the authors examine different events in the past to discern patterns that Lewis had presented to describe the contemporary circumstances and dilemmas, tight spots and apparitions of Somali society – this is to say, the views that different authors analyse are multiple and augmented, revealing continuities and agreeing on some aspects while not agreeing on others.
The book consists of eight parts. The first three parts set out the analytical framework of the book and offer a wider discussion of the colonial legacy and the post-colonial Somali state, clan politics, the pastoral economy and evolving changes and political Islam in Somali history together with women, new family law, Islamists and the military regime in Somalia. The rest of the book presents chapters written about spirits and the human world in Northern Somalia, possession as expression of women’s autonomy, the nation’s literacy, the politics of poetry, language and ethnic nationalism and finally a reflection on the Somali state – what went wrong?
Several positions taken by some of the authors are noteworthy. In the part under the colonial period and today, the author evaluates the way in which colonial policies that have contributed to a different kind of political culture and state-building in Somalia. Likewise, in relation to speculations on the historical origins of the ‘total Somali genealogy’, the author explores earlier generations of Islamic reformers and how they strove to overcome the ‘tribal’ mentality of Somalis by offering a more inclusive genealogical vision (p. 63). In the chapter under the topic trade, lineages, inequalities, the author gives an interesting account of how trade has been organised along kinship lines.
The question of ethnicity in Somali studies seems quite an arduous task, but the author offers an interesting, partly theoretical approach – the primordialist vs constructivist debate with a rational balance – providing a work that could simply act as a useful reference to anyone intending to research on this aspect. The author writes: “Constructivists are correct to claim that ethnic identity in Somalia is indeed constructed, invented, and imagined, and clanism is far more fluid and flexible than most outsiders realize. But years of political manipulation, warfare, atrocities, ethnic cleansing and new political configurations have unquestionably mobilized and hardened clan identity to an extent that one cannot conduct a serious analysis of Somali politics at either the national or the local level without treating clanism as one of the main drivers of behavior.” (p. 92)
In the chapter under the political anthropology of ‘pastoral democracy’, the author summarises a more detailed analysis of the ecological variable in interpreting the political system of the nomadic herdsmen of northern Somalia. Some chapters trace the role of Islam in Somali politics and provide a historical context for the manifestations of politicised Islam within the current Somali crisis. On political Islam in Somali history, the author writes: ‘The Islamic movement in Somalia does not represent a marginal stratum of the elite. The active presence of intellectuals and professionals among them shows that frustrated lecturers in Arabic and Islamic studies were not the only ones leading the catalytic action.” (p. 128)
Another important and interesting reading was found under the chapter heading ‘women, Islamists and the military regime in Somalia’. The author makes two arguments on the implication of the family law under General Siad Barre. First, the family law placed women on the national agenda, but in reality giving a negative impact as it caused enormous hardship for women. Second, law also pushed the emergent Islamic movements towards fragmentation and extremism. In fact, this is an engaging section which provides detailed analysis.
The last few parts of this book give interesting insight into Somali poetry, language and spirit possession, which initially seemed somewhat distinct, but which turned out to be one of the most attention-grabbing sections, especially chapter 13, where the author presents a case study at a macro-level and micro-level dynamics in Somali poetry and folklore.
Finally, I would like to recommend this book to anyone interested in reading about Somali society, culture, and politics – past and contemporary. It is an important work for all who wish to understand Somalia and its beleaguered and courageous people.
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