The Audacity of ‘Somali Studies’

Somali troops with a British Political Officer, 1910 (c).

The recent #CadaanStudies controversy that pitted a German anthropologist, Dr. Markus Hoehne, against young Somali researchers, students and professionals led by Safia Aidid, a Somali-Canadian doctoral student at Harvard, prompted a frenzied debate about the state and future of Somali studies. The trigger for this controversy stemmed from the absence of any Somalis from the editorial board of a recently created Journal of Somaliland Studies. And amidst the brouhaha, the lack of Somali voices on a journal about Somalia remains one critical issue, which is about much more than Markus Hoehne and Somalia.

The #CadaanStudies discussion ultimately reveals a crucial problematic intrinsic in academic ‘expert’ discourses that marginalize some voices and bodies and privilege others, all the while benefitting professionally from the communities they purport to study.

To be sure, as an academic based in a major American research university whose published scholarship revolves on the Somali people, I found it fascinating that Dr. Markus Hoehne tells us that he “did NOT come across [sic] many younger Somalis who would qualify as serious SCHOLARS- not because they lack access to sources, but because they seem not to value scholarship as such.”

Yet what triggered my intervention here were the condescending remarks that Dr. Hoehne leveled against those who challenged him, with his statement in Somali that translated to  “young Somalis should return to their clannish ways once they are done with their critique of his neo-colonial attitudes.” The original Somali in verbatim was “Waan u maaleynayaa, markaad dhameysey hadalkaaga guumaysiga ku sabsan ayaad dib u noqon kartaa qabyaaladda soomaaliyeed iwm.” This crudely expressed attitude is, I think, indicative of a more widespread problem in academic discourse.

Of course, I must note the significant contributions made by white scholars to Somali studies. I applaud and commend the amazing work that some of these produced and produce which continues to shape my own intellectual growth (i.e. Catherine Besteman, Lidwien Kapteijns, Peter Little, etc.)

With that caveat, however, it occurs to me that remarks like Hoehne’s demand that we as established scholars in Somali studies recognize the responsibility we have towards younger generations. Somalists in major research universities in Europe and North America occupy positions where they can play pivotal role in training future generations in this area study. With the devastation that Somali educational institutions have suffered over the last three decades, there is an added urgency to fulfill this obligation. Hoehne was crude and insensitive, but he was not wrong that there could be more Somalis studying Somalia, and it is our collective responsibility to incubate the next generation of experts.

Then, perhaps, we might be able rightly to marginalize a researcher who specializes in Somali studies, who engages in verbal taunts with young Somali-diaspora members, mocking them as ‘activists’ and whose identity, nation and ability he openly disparages.

We can certainly question his judgment. But more importantly we need to take his comments at face value and acknowledge that he is genuinely convinced that most Somalis are incapable to partake in knowledge production, but are fit to be mere informants and audiences for his supremely-located analytical eye.

Clearly, we can also read this thread as exemplar of how some researchers remain clueless to their positionality within research and knowledge production at this beginning of the 21st century. The power disparity that prevails between White European scholars in Somalia (or other countries in the South) and their ‘native subjects’ can either become an integral critical part of the process of knowledge production, with an explicit acknowledgement of how this power shapes the research itself, or it can remain silent, and of course ultimately also shape the research findings with serious implications. The type of knowledge that early European anthropologists whose work aligned with imperial and colonial powers represents the latter, as Edward Said’s work Orientalism, as well as Mahmud Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject cogently demonstrate.

Most relevant for Somalia, I.M. Lewis’s reductionist analysis of Somali clan structures in great part informs the unworkable clan political dispensation and regional fiefdoms that currently characterize Somalia. The International community, with Somali sectarian warlords and politicians, continues to rely on this outdated and problematic understanding of Somali social structures that was produced by British colonial academic experts.

This #CadaanStudies debate also brings to the fore a dominant new type of Somali-expert who is often very distinct from some of the primarily academic Western researchers of yesteryears. Some in this new cadre of researcher-development practitioners use their scholarship and their academic training to marginalize any critical voices. One could argue that this type of researcher-development practitioner can espouse attitudes that are messiah-like towards Somalis. One such researcher commented on a work that I did with a senior White-Canadian scholar as problematic. A key premise of this critique was that my analysis could not be ‘objective’ as I was a Somali and thus emotionally invested in the plight of refugees in Dadaab.

For such ‘expert’ researchers, Somalis cannot and will never amount to more than dependents on neo-missionary handouts. Their lot is reduced to one only known and knowable by PhD-touting young men and women whose expertise is validated as much by their hegemonic and flexible citizenship and their relationship to donor countries as it is by their university credentials. For some in this cadre, Somalis are forever slaves of their primordial ‘tribal’ instincts that I.M. Lews reified.

In such a landscape, we should read this #CadaanStudies discussion as revealing a genuine un-censored portrait of a status–quo that is rarely articulated as explicitly as it is in this thread. So perhaps we need to thank Markus Hoehne for exposing academia’s dirty secrets to the air.

And we should applaud the young Somali students, scholars and professionals who initiated this call to critically question the current state of Somali studies. We, their elders, whether Somali or non-Somali, ought to heed their call and open spaces where all conscious academics and researchers might work productively to paint a richer, fuller picture of the place that some of us call home.

Further Reading