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Discovering ubuntu in the Somali regions of Africa

By Namhla Thando Matshanda

On a recent trip to the Horn of Africa I spent a substantial amount of time in Somali-inhabited areas. Most of this time was spent in Ethiopia’s Somali regional state, with a brief visit to the autonomous northern region of Somalia, Somaliland.

I feel compelled to write this piece in the context of xenophobic behaviour often meted out to other Africans in South Africa, but in particular to the sometimes repulsive attitude towards the Somali community.

I found myself in this very fascinating part of Africa for the purposes of gathering data for my doctoral research. My research has nothing to do with Somalis and xenophobia in South Africa. However, this is an issue that I find very relevant to the ongoing process of state-making in South Africa. That xenophobia is an issue the majority of South Africans find abhorrent is without doubt. What remains is to do something about it, rather than issue empty rhetoric of condemnation every time another African immigrant is assaulted. We could start by reaching out and showing a genuine interest in the people we call by derogatory names, find out where they are from, how do they live there and what brings them to our country.

Going to the region, I was not particularly concerned about my nationality. My primary concern was to meet my research objectives. However, in the middle of my research the issue of xenophobia in South Africa revealed its ugly face in the most unexpected fashion. I was in eastern Ethiopia, not yet in the Somali regional state as arranged under the federal system. On this particular day I was visiting a camel market in a rural town. I was with a guide and everything was going well, we were mingling with the merchants and brokers. In most instances it would take a while for people to realise that I was not a local, and once my nationality was established, many of the responses would be quite positive with the customary inquiry into Madiba’s health. However, on this occasion one man went completely berserk and started cursing after realising that I am from South Africa. He was not pleased, and made his feelings clear. A crowd gathered and the situation appeared to be deteriorating quite rapidly.

I managed to escape unscathed, and the people were divided, another crowd was reassuring me that I should not worry and that “we are all African”. The incident decidedly shook me and made me think critically about the fact that my next move was to go into the Somali regional state. Nothing was going to stop me, I concluded, definitely not the one man at the camel market. It was during this time that I met a man who would become my most trusted friend, Mohammed Jami, an Ethiopian Somali man. Mohammed took me to the Somali region and beyond to Somaliland, he told me that I have nothing to fear. He also assured me that as much as revenge is central to indigenous Somali justice, it never applies to women. Well, that was a relief! Not really though, because I always felt incredibly safe throughout my travels.

In a bizarre twist, in the capital of the Somali region and beyond the border many believed that I am a local. It did not help matters that I was wearing local attire. On several occasions many people could not believe that I was not Somali. Once they found out that I was in fact from South Africa, many would simply retort with “Mashallah”.

I could have had many meaningful conversations with people, were it not for the language barrier. However I am still quite pleased with the quality of interactions I had. It was incredibly humbling to see that despite the ugly stories that come out of South Africa, people still have faith in the country. It was even more extraordinary to discover that many still want to make their way down south, for education and business opportunities. I also met many who had good stories to tell me about their experiences or those of family members currently living in South Africa.

The sooner South Africans realise that they are not in a superior position to other Africans the better for everyone. In Somaliland I was told stories of how some South African freedom fighters were issued with Somali passports before leaving the continent. It is sad that our people seem to have forgotten this so quickly. The current wave of massive intra-African migration has long-term social consequences. This will no doubt contribute to South Africa becoming even more culturally diverse in years to come. This is a profoundly important experience that needs to be nurtured properly. I have been moved in the most unimaginable ways by my experience in this region of Africa, and I hope this will motivate others to venture out and discover just how we are more alike than not.

Namhla Thando Matshanda is a South African currently living in the United Kingdom where she is pursuing a doctoral degree in African Studies.


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  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 16 March 2012

    Firstly we could “start with” not opening our borders to the whole of Africa to compete with our own people for scarce resources and jobs.

    Then we could have refugee camps like in Botswana and Kenya, which means the UN not the locals pay for the refugees. The original Somali refugees in Kenya got given land to farm next to the refugee camp and actually made enough to also supply the locals for extra income.

    Did you at any stage discuss with the Somalis why they practice female genital mutilation, the removal of the clitoris and the labia, which makes natural childbirth dangerous for the women?

    And what exactly is “African Studies”? Is it the same as “Egyptology”? Or the same as “African Renaissance Studies”?

  2. Garrashof Garrashof 16 March 2012

    Lyndall that is called African pessimism of the worst kind. It’s people like you who drive others into arms of the likes of Julius Malema. Instead of helping to eradicate racism you and many of your kind help to fuel it with your attitudes towards blacks in general and Africans in particular.

  3. Robard Robard 16 March 2012

    It seems that your experience of ubuntu must be ascribed to the fact that you blended in so well with the local population. What would have happened if you did not wear the local Muslim attire? Maybe the opposite explains the Somali experience here in South Africa. Do the Somalis make any effort to blend in or are they conspicuously different?

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 16 March 2012


    Since you are doing “African Studies” you might be a better person to ask about pre-colonial books on Africa than Dave Harris- I mean before Arab colonisation, 1000 years before the Europeans arrived. I know there are Arabic writers, and have read, in other books,some exerpts that have been translated, but never been able to find a total book translated from Arabic. Do you know of any?

    In fact can you recommend any writers on Africa that pre date Du Bois (i.e. 1860)?

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 16 March 2012


    Rubbish! The latest bit of nonsense I heard on the radio today is how Africa was “one linguistic group” pre colonialism and therefore one homogeneous culture – this from another Professor!

    Actually there are over 1000 languages in Africa about half of them derived from Ur-Bantu.

    The Scots were “one linguistic group” yet the Scottish clans continually warred with their neighbours, like everyone else in the human race.

    The Italian families were “one linguistic group” and always at war, as depicted in Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, which families later became the mafia!

  6. Rich Brauer Rich Brauer 16 March 2012

    Ms. Matshanda, if I may ask: At one time my wife was involved in the resettlement of what were called, at the time, “Somali Bantu”. They were, for lack of a better terminology, and my own ignorance of historical migration, “blacker” than other Somalis.

    Did you have any experience with that part of the population? Any thoughts?

    Kudos to you for your bravery — that is a remarkably difficult place to operate for anyone. And thanks for your contribution.

  7. Jean Wright Jean Wright 16 March 2012

    African Studies relates to the culture, history, anthropology (ethnic groups etc.)politics and religion. Fascinating. It is interesting to find out about the traditions of people, and what makes them ‘tick’. When I was in England, i got to know the Japanese Principal of what was called ‘the Show-i’ College. We were being ‘studied’ in the same way. Good for business!

    Namhla,There was a sad article in the M&G which you may have read about Somali traders in South Africa, who ran their business (Spaza) well and responsibly who were the subject of Xenophobia. The SA Government is apparently bringing in (in my view) some rather punitive measures against these hard working people which I don’t think is the way to go with this problem.

    When travelling, it is always the same. Most people are only too glad to be pleasant and friendly which is so often at varience with the reputation their countries/societies may have.

    In the UK there are multi-cultural societies. Sometimes trouble breaks out, as you know, and is generally because of percieved stealing of job opportunities.etc However, as again you will probably know, this ‘stealing’ is because those who object to it are not prepared to put in the effort themselves to gain that which they envy. The more inter-global exchanges are made between people, the more we will come to learn about and understand one another. In my view foreignTravel should be an essential requirement for all students. Expensive…

  8. Guinnessholic Guinnessholic 17 March 2012

    I’m still trying to find the alleged ‘ubuntu’ in your quaint little story. Was it the part where they saved you from a raging mob? Or perhaps when they inquired after Nelson’s health? Or was it because you had a guide? Maybe it was the fact that you discovered SAns received Somali passports?

    Anyway, I hope for your sake your doctorate is better written, and has what we in the information game call, ‘a point’.

  9. ae ae 17 March 2012

    I do not know if you are aware that in the Muslim culture, a woman’s social status is but a low one and that your death accidental or other would be of little concern to the war-lords who rule the area.

    I would rather read a factual article about about why they are unable to stop the internal strife, or an article on how we can get the Somalis back to where they came from to grow and develop their own country. We are seen as Africa’s employment agency and every wannabe and his wife are coming into the country on a whim and a prayer.

    The current attitude is that each country must sort out their own problems and not be a burden to others in the process. All of these foreigners are stretching our resources to a limit. You keep on saying that you fitted right in and no one suspected that you were not a local, here you can spot a Somali a mile away because they just do not blend in, they do not dress, talk or accept local customs. Their aloofness makes them sitting ducks. “To prevent xenophobia one must blend in and accept local customs. Work with people and apply twice the ubuntu that you expect.” (African Studies module 01a)

  10. ams haven ams haven 18 March 2012

    Grrashof – why do you sidestep Lyndall’s questions? Is it that the truth that hurts? It seems a though you are the the racist in your attitude towards whites. Let the past be the past – nothing can change it – and lets all move forward together.

  11. Malebo Madi Malebo Madi 18 March 2012

    Hi Namhla, I find our(South African’s) zenophobic behaviour to be similar to selfish acts extended by selfish people to people who have come through for them when they needed help. All we basically care about is getting ahead hence we not able to look back and lend a hand to people who helped make our success possible.Lack of knowledge of our history,largely how we got our freedom, also contibutes to the way we treat fellow Africans.

  12. Tarupiwa Tarupiwa 18 March 2012

    To all racists black and white. A man is not necessarily wrong because he is white. A man is not necessarily right because he is black. The converse also holds true. Now, that being the case, there remains to be seen what all these racist and racialist hogwass, glibering and jabbing will end. Somebody somewhere definately lost some precious ill goten ground. One cant help but sense the anger and dismay. Definately some chickens are cooming home to do exactly what you fear. Personaly I will keep my cool but be assured, I will never permit my kids to be victims of racism by racialists.

  13. Tarupiwa Tarupiwa 18 March 2012

    To all racists black and white. A man is not necessarily wrong because he is white. A man is not necessarily right because he is black. The converse also holds true. Now, that being the case, there remains to be seen what all these racist and racialist hogwass, glibering and jabbing will end at. Somebody somewhere definately did loose some precious ill goten ground. One cant help but sense the anger and dismay. Definately some chickens are cooming home to do exactly what you have been silently afraid of all this time. Personaly I will keep my cool but be assured, I will never permit my kids to be victims of racism by racialists. Its high time moderate blacks and moderate whites come up to together to build a formidable opposition to extremism by both black and white. The sooner we learn and act, the better it would be for everyone. Distiny has twined us together, we can never run away from ourselves black or white. Its a futile pursuit to be racist – that ostritch, bury your head in the sand syndrome wont help. We are just one people, different colours. If you prick us, do we not feel pain? Sow and show some bit of embrace – you get exactly that in return. Animosity? The same.

  14. Jean Wright Jean Wright 18 March 2012


    If you have the time while you are in the area, and because it is not so far off from ‘Womans Day’, you may find – if you don’t already know about her – details of the Empress Taitou, Menelek’s Queen who had great influence, particularly over the conduct of the Italo-Abyssinian war, resulting in the Treaty of Uccalli in 1889, which Taitou vehemently opposed.

  15. Bashir Bashir 4 April 2012

    “THE OPPRESSED BECOME THE OPPRESSORS” – psychology teaches you that when studying xenophobia and reverse racism. It was sad to read in news that Somali immigrants in South Africa were attacked and some businesses and even people burnt.

    Nahmla, thanks for the article because any foreigner that goes to Somali lands will experience the thoughtful hospitality that Somalis give to foreigners. The name Somaal has 2 words Soo & maal which mean “Go tend to the guest”

    Thanks for also giving light to Ogaden region of Ethiopia (also known as the Somali region) – a region fighting for independence & self-determination currently against current Ethiopian regime and its puppet rulers. A lot of Ogaden (somali tribe) people live in South Africa – and have written an article condeming Ethiopia of abuse and genocide/ethnic cleansing – with complaints to International criminal courts (ICC) – google “South Africa Ogaden ICC Complaint” many different websites have reported on it – most recently Al Jazeera last February.

    Thanks –

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