Riverine and Coastal People of Non-Somali Origin

Somalia Table of Contents

Along the southern coast, in the valleys of the Jubba and Shabeelle rivers and in a few places between the rivers, live small groups--probably totaling less than 2 percent of the population--who differ culturally and physically from the Somalis. Some are descendants of pre-Somali inhabitants of the area who were able to resist absorption or enslavement by the Somalis. The ancestors of others were slaves who escaped to found their own communities or were freed in the course of European antislavery activity in the nineteenth century. The Somali term for these people, particularly the riverine and interriverine cultivators, is habash.

The relations of the habash communities with neighboring Somali groups varied, but most have traditional attachments of some sort to a Somali lineage, and members of all but a few communities along the coast speak Somali as a first language. In earlier times, whereas some habash communities had considerable independence, in others habash were much like serfs cultivating land under the patronage of a Somali lineage. In such cases, however, it was understood that habash could not be deprived of their land, and there was little reason for the pastoral Somalis to do so. Somalis and habash did not intermarry; nor would a Somali eat a meal prepared by habash. As these restrictions suggest, Somalis--whether Samaal or Sab--considered the habash their inferiors. Nevertheless, the political relationship of some habash groups to neighboring Somali groups was that of near-equals.

The attachment of habash groups to sections of Somali society usually entailed the participation of the habash community in the diya-paying group of Somali lineages or clans. Like the Somali, all but a few habash had been converted to Islam, and some of them had become leaders of religious communities in the interriverine area.

Most non-Somali peoples were primarily cultivators, but some, like the Eyle, also hunted, something the Somalis would not do. A few groups, including the Boni, remained primarily hunters into the twentieth century and were accordingly looked down on by the Somalis. By midcentury most of these peoples had turned to cultivation, and some had moved into the towns and become laborers.

Along the coast live the Bajuni and the Amarani. They are fishermen, sailors, and merchants, derived from a mixture of coastal populations. Their ancestors included Arab or Persian settlers and seafaring peoples of India and the East Indies. Both the Bajuni and the Amarani speak dialects of Swahili. The Amarani, who were estimated to number fewer than 1,000 in the early 1990s, inhabit small fishing communities in and near Baraawe, Mogadishu, Merca, and the inland town of Afgooye on the Shabeelle River. The Bajuni inhabit the East African coast and Bajun Islands near Chisimayu in a continuous strip from Chisimayu southward into Kenya as far as Lamu, and maintain scattered communities as far away as Mozambique. Both the Amarani and the Bajuni have little contact with outsiders except in towns. Partial geographical isolation and an active ethnic consciousness distinguished by differences in languages separate them from the Somalis.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress