May 1, 2009

Oh, Ogadeniya

During the so-called ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late 1880’s, various European empires claimed different African territories and as a result lands with Somali speakers/Somali people were taken by different colonial powers. Somalia become one of the countries that was colonised by several super powers at once; Britain claimed Northern Somalia, Italy took control of Southern Somalia, France took Djibouti whilst the Ogaden was returned to Ethiopia in 1948 after it had previously belonged to Somalia under Italian rule in what was called the Italian East Africa. In the summer of 1960 both the UK and then Italy agreed to grant independence to its territories and thus the two main Somali territories joined to form a united Somali Republic on the 1st July 1960. My view of this is (of course) bias to me being Somali so I have to point out that Somali people are nomads and that before independence and colonisation, there was never an officially established "Somalia"; only a large area inhabited by various ethnic races at one point or another but where Somali speaking people were always the majority and thus early on became known as Soomaaliya. 

As one of the starting points of independence, the new Somali government supported the right of all the Somali speaking lands to be united under a greater Somalia and thus there were often (and still is) a lot of clashes between the borders of Somalia and Ethiopia and Somalia and Kenya (due to the largely Somali-inhabited northeastern region of Kenya). So already we have a very fragmented national history where the maps created and redefined by external colonial powers drew borders that don’t accurately reflect the different people of the regions and often even the majority of each region and thus end up separating people, politically, who otherwise share the same ethnicity, culture, religion and of course language.

Literature wise, the novel that best highlights the plight of The Ogaden is the brilliant Somali author Nuruddin Farah's highly recommend book Maps. As a work of fiction, it deals more with the more complex psychological consequences of living in such a widely disputed area, being Somali but not quite in Somali soil according to official records etc. This whole ongoing issue has fueled my pre-existing obsession with borders and maps (beyond The Ogaden, Palestine or Tibet) and is one of the big reasons why I'm doing my MA in Post-Colonial studies. There are so many on-going border conflicts in different parts of the world (some unfairly lesser known than others) where simple lines, drawn by men, never regard the every-day reality of who is living there and how it affects them. Ethiopia and Somalia are of course neighbours endlessly fighting over literally a desert area between the two countries, metaphorically a child whose disputing parents end up neglecting and not considering what is best for it, in their fight for full custody. One of the more powerful quotes from Maps is when one of the characters says: "it is easier ridding yourself from a colonist beyond the seas than it is to oust an African one..."

It's important to note however that the Somalis in The Ogaden, although the biggest majority, are not the only ethnic race living in that specific region and so the question is: how do those other minorities (within minorities!) become identified in a map? In order for The Ogaden to re-join Somalia, it has to sacrifice its already established identity as a place not just inhabited by Somali speaking people. However, it also cannot remain in this current state of limbo under the umbrella of the Ethiopian empire that's not exactly doing all that it can and indeed should for the area it has politically claimed for strategic reasons. It's frustrating enough that Somalia doesn't get enough press coverage (unless you're a "pirate" - do you really think that people without aid will just quietly perish after being colonised and war torn?) the same way that other African nations and areas do whilst The Ogaden conflict remains swept under the international media rug.

This is a struggle I feel very strongly about both patriotically and emotionally; my grandmother was born in The Ogaden, in Wardheer, and a few weeks ago I asked her how she feels about it being politically seen as Ethiopia and, (my grandmother who has a habit of answering important questions in Somali proverbs and other sayings) said something that can best be translated as: "your landlord might own your home but he has never lived in it the way you have". Enough said.

For more basic information of the region, start here.

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