I.M. Lewis : Celebrating the work of the godfather of Somalia’s darkest era

Posted on 17/06/2010


I have received an email urging me to attend a celebration of I.M Lewis’s work by members of Chatham House, a British Think Tank who claims expertise in African affairs along with the Anglo-Somali Society, SOAS African studies section, and others.  The irony is that this message was sent to an email list, the bulk of who are Somalis.  Yet the majority of those who were about to preach the Somalis, where white middle class colonial sympathisers.  The Email implied imperativeness of attending; apparently a Somali was going to learn something about being a Somali, at least in their minds.  The celebrators also wanted to commemorate how the image he created about the Somalis have reconstructed the Somali identity.  Perhaps what aught to be celebrated in this occasion is this chilling frankness entrenched in this message.    

In addition to these astounding suggestions was the mere fact that someone saw something to celebrate in Lewis’s work.  There is something chauvinistic surely about the heroism and the greatness attributed to the demeaning representations of the natives, the Somalis, in Lewis’s accounts.  The density of his collections whatever they are called, say more, if anything, about the popular attitudes at the time, and place him as an extension of that era.  That is an era where blacks were placed on the bottom of the social hierarchy, and the higher up one goes the lighter the skin colour becomes.    

Reading his books, the otherwise eloquent tales, appear on the outset quite wonderful, but with close inspection, this is the mask of the distorted facts, the desolated image of the natives.  The writings are overwhelmingly eclipsed by the embedded message which reinforces the antiquated social hierarchy of the supremacy of the colonial masters while natives are demonised to a subhuman level.  Of course, such descriptions of the blacks have served a purpose in Victorian times; it was used to justify slavery, colonialism, the subjugation and the maltreatment of individuals and groups. 

Lewis has spent a career extending over fifty years, contumely battering Somalis and knocking their personhood.  He recites the Somali history through a confusing mixture of facts and fictions, intended only to reshape history and hence Somali identity.  Throughout his writings Lewis insinuates consistently that the Somali has no sense of justice and humanity and thus unable to rule himself.  He describes the Somali character as paranoid, arrogant, tribalistic, self absorbed, inpatient and so on.  He also divides the Somalis to those who are blue blooded, suggests that all Somalia’s major tribes Isaaq, Hawiye and Darood are in essence Arab invaders, while he describes the Oromo’s as the true owners of Somaliland.  He massages some Somalis egos by suggesting that, they are a little more human than the rest of their counterparts.  Thus creating the house negreos 1 – a group of western educated, middle class men and women who long lost their self esteem and unwittingly promote these outdated views. 

Thanks to science though that incidentally have corrected the distorted lies told about the history of the people of the horn of Africa.  In fact, Somalis, the Oromos, and other inhabitants have similar genetic make up showing that the distinctions are essentially socially engineered. 

Lewis’s coercive attitude towards the native Somalis manifests itself throughout his writings.  The following is an extract of his book – the Somali:

“Islam in Somaliland has long been associated with the brotherhoods or Tariqs (literally the way- which express the Sufi, or mystical view of the Muslim faith, a view which, since it exalts the charismatic powers of saints, is particularly well adapted to the Somali clan system in which clan ancestors readily become transposed into Muslim saints”2

 Contrary to this claim, the most celebrated saint – Abdulqadir Jaylani – across the Somali peninsula is neither from a Somali clan, nor is he African.  In fact he is an Iraqi saint celebrated across the Muslim world. 

Interestingly there is something so unpleasant about such statements, because even if that was the case, the aspirations to saintliness are not by any means a Somali thing.  The aspiration for purity and closeness to god transcends all cultural and racial divides.  In Europe, the notion of white, blue eyed, blonde Jesus emerged purposefully to assert the superiority status over other races.  Undeniably there is no land of increasing numbers of saints than in Europe itself. 

 The disparity between how the colonised and colonisers saw and think of this dark era is very interesting.  While Lewis and his supporters paint such romantic picture, the Somalis and non Somalis alike perceive it as a period that deprived them of their sense of peoplehood and ripped their lands apart condemning them to centuries of conflict and wars.    

Everything imperialism represented is at odds with what has become of our world and the values of the century.  A globolised times, where nations’ interests are so intertwined and equality and cooperation are celebrated.  Today the world accepts that there is something so pathological about wanting to create conflicts so you can get your way.  We have gone as far as classifying such characteristics psychologically under borderline disorders. 

Wanting to honour such efforts shows the social divide between the colonised and the colonisers.  Edward Said beautifully describes the concept of race relations and the conflicting engagements by individuals3

“Many people in England probably feel a certain remorse  or regret about their nation’s Indian experience, but there are also many people who miss the good old days, even though the value of these days, the reason they ended, and their own attitude towards native nationalism are all unresolved, still volatile issues.”                 

There is no better example to examine these concepts than the engagement of members of agencies, such as Chatham House and the Anglo Somali Society with the Africans.  You get a sense that these individuals eye Africa through the evolutionary telescopes.  Africa’s leaders find their way to that cage, called Chatham House, where they are encouraged to make fools of themselves.  They then are frowned upon by predominantly white audience, who then roll their eyes and nod their heads in disagreement.  So selective in their hearings they appear as though they are looking for signs to reinforce their distorted views about the intellect of Africans. Their engagement with the blacks is literally text book representation of the discourse in the imperial era.  Edward Said depicts how these longing for yesterday by the few, continue to damage south –north relationship by continuing to fuel and foster conflicts in the third world.   

“most important than the past itself, therefore is its bearing upon cultural attitudes in the present. For reasons that partly embedded in the imperial existence
, the old divisions between colonizer and colonised have re emerged in what is often referred to as the south-north relationship, which has entailed defensiveness, various kinds of rhetorical and ideological combat, and a simmering hostility that is quite likely to trigger devastating wars- in some cases it already has.”

The full scale of the impact of such re emergence can be observed in Sool, Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) regions of North Somalia, where actually the battle continues as I write this piece.  The struggle is not by any means between Somali brotherly clans who for centuries lived side by side in their respective clan territorial boundaries, but in effect between the will of the people of the land and that of the colonisers.  The revenge and victory against the Darvish movement was complete not through the redemption of Taleeh city only, but through the demarcation of tribal territories in the reserved area and in Taleeh itself.  While colonial sympathisers celebrate the godfather of the dark era, the grandchildren of the descending voices against colonialism continue to suffer for daring to challenge imperialism.   

It goes without saying that it is at humans’ lowest points, that they become receptive to and entertain negative thoughts and stereotypes about who they are.   Perhaps that could partially explain why Somalis would contemplate such events.  Generally, Africa needs to take the time to appreciate how this dark history and the work of the Victorian people such as Lewis continue to feed into Africa’s political crisis and underdevelopment.   Gladly the world has moved on, no matter what/how the enemies of equality and promoters of borderline politics think or long for, they remain the people of yesterday. 

Warsan Cismaan Saalax
Email: warsan2001@hotmail.com
1. A concept first used by Malcolm x to refer to blacks who looked out for their slave masters’ interests; in return they were fed and dressed well. ^

2. Lewis, I. M.(2002) a Modern history of the Somali: revised, updated and expanded – fourth edition.  James Curry: Oxford

3. Said, Edward W. (1993) Culture & Imperialism. Vintage: London

Posted in: African papers