Somalis find meaning in prewar music

The Somali language now competes with Arabic and English – and traditional Waaberi music with US rap artist Eminem.

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"Libiqsi is a very rich expression. It's an old-fashioned Somali word that means 'love,'" says Mohammed.

"You know that feeling right at the beginning of your engagement, when you're so in love, and so shy and bashful that you can't even look your fiancée in the eye?" he asks. "That's libiqsi."

Mohammed is my translator and host. He's driving me to a meeting in downtown Bossaso, a thriving port on the north coast of Somalia. We're listening to a love song on the car stereo by a Somali supergroup called the Waaberi Band, or the Morning Sunshine Band. It's an upbeat tune with a cheerful, colorful sound.

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This musical collective dominated the Somali music scene throughout the 1980s. But when Siad Barre's government collapsed in 1991, the musicians fled the country. Now, some of Waaberi's 40 members have regrouped in exile. They are guaranteed crowd-pullers at diaspora weddings in North America and Europe. And they're still issuing new releases.

After our meeting, Mohammed takes me to a music shop in the market area near the port. He points out Waaberi tapes for sale – $1 each – alongside bootleg cassette copies of albums by Eminem and Destiny's Child.

"Most young Somali men listen to rap music, which is full of meaningless words. They use jacayl when they want to say 'I love you' to their wives and girlfriends, but it's a simple term," he says. "They use the everyday Somali phrases, and they don't understand more sophisticated metaphors and idioms."

Mohammed does his linguistic homework while he's driving.

"Whenever I'm going around Bossaso in my car, I play Waaberi tapes to learn the old words. My friends complain at first that they want modern music, but I tell them, 'Listen! Do you know what libiqsi means?

"There are many other 'ex-words' in the songs, words that the young people don't use anymore," he adds, "and my friends love it when I explain."

The language gap between Somalia's generations comes from more than the natural cultural shift between the young and the old. It's a result of the fault line of the 16-year civil war.

Before Mr. Barre's government collapsed and Somalia's institutions imploded, schools taught the curriculum in the Somali language.

But some teachers joined the militias and many died in the fighting. Others migrated overseas.

Mohammed's mentor, Hasan Hajji Mohammed "Gulwadee," composed many of the old Waaberi tracks in Barre's Mogadishu. Now, in his mid-50s and settled in Bossaso, he presents several cultural programs for the Somali Broadcast Corporation. His target audience is children.

Bursting into song and drumming on the table with his fingers, Hasan says: "I'm trying to draw attention to our old traditions – but I also want to help shape the evolving language. Most young people don't understand the old proverbs, so I make up new ones, and I broadcast them on my daily radio show. How's this? 'Locusts are better than greedy leaders!'" He's implying that while Somalis have been hit by many natural disasters, manmade ones seem to be worse.

In 1998, the northern region of Puntland declared itself a semi-autonomous state, anticipating a future federal Somalia. Here, in relative stability, the private sector has sprung up to fill the void created by the civil conflict. Rich Puntland parents pay between $6 and $25 a month for each child's education.

But according to figures from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), only 70,000 out of 200,000 primary-age children are attending school; even fewer of them attend at the secondary level.

And although Puntland schools offer Somali language classes, the main curriculum is taught in Arabic or English. Bossaso University also conducts the majority of its courses in Arabic or English.

Mohammed studied business administration at Bossaso University and now works as a protection clerk for the Danish Refugee Council. He agrees that his English education has helped him to secure a respected job.

But, he says, that doesn't mean his Somali language skills should suffer. "After all, my father was taught in Italian before independence in 1960 – and his Somali is much better than mine," he points out

The Somali language was only formalized and written down in Roman script during the 1970s. This has played a part in the recent changes, says Mohammed.

But the war played a bigger role in disrupting Somalia's cultural continuity.

"During the war, we lost members of our families and our security," Mohammed says. "Now, we're slowly losing the traditions and culture in our poems and songs. The old words are deep-rooted and full of meaning. You need good guidance to learn the wise ways.

"That's why I listen to Waaberi."

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