Somalia is a country of 10.5 million people in the “horn” of East Africa. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the British, Italian and French divided Somali territory among themselves. After World War II, Italy administrated Somalia to prepare it for independence. In 1991 Somalia’s political system completely collapsed, and by 1992 famine and civil war had consumed the nation. As a result, an estimated four hundred thousand Somalis died and hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave urban and rural areas for refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. As many as one million Somalis now live outside of their homeland. Clan-based factions continue to divide the country into strongholds marked by fighting and random banditry.
The Somali people are mostly divided into numerous clans and sub-clans that trace their ancestry back to a common ancestor. Most Somalis make their living off the land and their culture is rooted in a tradition of pastoralism — traveling with herds of goats, sheep and camels. Camels especially are an important symbol of wealth. This lifestyle is reflected in the Somali values of freedom of movement, independence, strength and justice. Prior to the civil war an educated urban professional class emerged, but even among this group traditional culture is valued.
Men are at the center of Somali society and public life. It is acceptable for Somali men to marry up to four wives, but only one fifth of men do so. Somali women have more freedom to be educated, work and travel than many Muslim women, but are nonetheless traditionally charged with all domestic tasks.
Somali is the language of Somalis. Somalis retain primarily an oral culture in which religious and political oratory as well as storytelling, songs and poetry are highly valued.
Many Somalis also speak Arabic, the language of Islam. Older Somalis may have received education in the colonial languages — English in the north and Italian in the south. Some Somalis in Minnesota may also speak Swahili as a result of living in Kenyan refugee camps.
Somalis are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, but like Christians, each individual practices his/her faith with different degrees of orthodoxy. Many social norms in Somalia are derived from Islamic tradition. Islam forbids believers to eat pork products or drink alcohol. Those who strictly follow Islam may not work in an establishment that serves either pork or alcohol. Islam requires the faithful to pray five times per day. Some Somalis will stop work to pray at prescribed times or pray during a break or other arranged time. Somali women may cover their heads and bodies when they are in public in accordance with Islamic tradition.
Arrival in U.S.
Since 1993, Somalis have come to Minnesota as refugees. The majority of Somalis in Minnesota have come as secondary migrants from other regions of the U.S. as well as Toronto, Ontario where there is also a large Somali population.
There may be as many as 35,760 to 150,000 Somalis living in Minnesota with 80% residing in Minneapolis, likely the highest concentration of Somalis in the U.S. The majority of Somalis live in the Cedar Riverside, Phillips, and Elliot Park neighborhoods of South Minneapolis. Increasingly, Somali families can be found moving to Metro area suburban communities — Eden Prairie has close to 100 Somali families — and rural Minnesota.