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Customs of Somalia

Marriage and Family

Arranged marriages are common, and brides in these cases are often much younger than the grooms. Marriage to a cousin from the mother’s side of the family (of different lineage) has traditionally been favored as a way to strengthen family alliances. With the country’s social fabric upset by war and families spread around the world, this practice has been somewhat disrupted. In the midst of clan warfare, people have tended to trust members of their own clan for marriage.

Weddings are celebrated by both families. Special foods, such as muqmad (dried beef in clarified butter) and dates are served. In some areas, the couple is sequestered for a seven-day honeymoon. Divorce is legal.

The most fortunate members of a family feel especially obligated to help the others. Because resources are scarce, the hierarchy of who should be aided is clear. For instance, the father’s extended family has first priority, and close relatives receive the most help. Aid often takes the form of food, money, or shelter. Families who live in urban areas might take in children of relatives from the country and put them through school. War and repeated droughts have severely strained this system of mutual aid, and social cohesion has suffered, especially in urban areas.

All children assume their father’s surname and clan affiliation. Children are taught their father’s genealogy so they know the clans and subclans to which they belong. The mother’s family may belong to a different clan. The mother retains her maiden name and position in her clan.


Staple foods in urban areas consist of locally produced meats and imported rice. In farming areas, sorghum, millet, maize, and sesame are common staples. Among the nomads, milk from camels and goats is the main food available, supplemented with grains bought with money from the sale of animals. The milk can be made into several varieties of yogurt. During the dry season, the milk supply is low. The word “Somali” is derived from two words that mean, roughly, “milk to self.”

Most people eat pancakes made from flour or millet for breakfast, rice or millet served with milk and ghee (clarified butter) for lunch and supper, and a small snack of whatever is available, perhaps a glass of milk or a bean dish. Nomads typically do not eat lunch when they are herding animals away from their homes. Vegetables are gradually being added to the diet, but are still a novelty. Fruits such as bananas, papayas, and mangoes are plentiful in season. In some places limes are always available and grapefruits abound in season. Pasta has become popular in the cities as an alternative to rice. Fish is a staple in coastal towns.

For the family meal, men are usually served first and the women and children eat later. Hands are washed in a bowl of water before and after the meal. On festive occasions, hands are also perfumed after the meal. When eating, people gather around a large common platter set on a table or on a mat on the ground. They eat with the right hand from the portion of the food directly in front of them; guests are usually given larger servings. Young children are fed from the hand of their mother or a relative. The left hand does not usually have direct contact with food, as it is reserved for personal hygiene and prayer purification. After a meal, Somalis, particularly men, sometimes chew khat, a leafy green branch from a tree grown in the Ethiopian highlands and elsewhere.


Each person is greeted by name or, in the case of relatives, by a word that shows their relationship (uncle, cousin, etc.). Older or learned religious persons are addressed by a title that comes before the rest of the greeting. General greetings vary according to the region and the situation, but Nabad (“Peace”) is accepted nearly everywhere. The common southern variation is Nabad miya? (“Is there peace?”). Its equivalent in the north is Ma nabad baa? The Islamic greeting Asalaamu aleikum (“Peace be upon you”) is a common formal greeting, to which the response is Aleikum ma salaam (“And peace be upon you”). Such phrases are followed by inquiries about how the person has been and an exchange of information. Iska warran? (“What’s the news?”) and Maha la shegay? (“What are people saying?”) are used as a “How are you?” in some parts of the country.

Men firmly shake hands with each other three times before putting that hand to their heart. In some southern areas, women shake hands with each other and then kiss the hand they have shaken. Somalis of the opposite sex who are not related usually do not touch when meeting.

Once two people know each other’s name and clan membership, it is possible for them to know exactly where they fit into society and what their responsibilities are to each other. In rural areas, one can ask about another’s lineage directly, but in an urban area it is more polite to identify it through indirect questions, such as about the person’s home region.

Women often visit with one another, either in the home or the market. Occasions such as holidays, weddings, or births merit home visits. Visitors need not take any gifts or food to their hosts. Before entering a family compound, one announces his or her presence and waits awhile in order not to surprise a family. Sweet, spicy tea with milk is served to visitors in urban settings, and other refreshments might also be available. In rural areas, tea or milk is offered. A favorite time for visiting in urban areas is late afternoon, when most work is done and it is not too hot to stroll around. In rural areas, night is a better time, as farm chores are completed and animals have settled down. When families socialize, men and women usually interact separately. Tea shops, which generally have tables outside, are centers for men to socialize and discuss current affairs.


Soccer is enjoyed by young Somalis. Organized sports and other forms of recreation have essentially been destroyed by war. Many of the arts, however, remain a vital part of leisure and social activities. Videos are popular in towns.

Holidays and Celebrations

Islamic holidays observed include the month of Ramadan; ’Eid al Fitr, the three-day feast at the end of Ramadan; ’Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, honoring Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son; and Mawliid, the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Prior to the current crisis, independence from the United Kingdom in the north was celebrated on 26 June, and from Italy in the south on 1 July. The ancient Persian New Year (Dab Shiid, or “Starting Fire”) is celebrated in many parts of Somalia.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas