Somalis, especially the young ones, love social media – but the terrorist group al-Shabaab is watching
Somalis say that if Facebook issued passports every Somali would have one. While most of the world has embraced one form or another of social media, the Somalis have added it to their DNA, along with business acumen and big families (BIG families, which usually include strikingly beautiful women – more of that later).
This goes against the grain: the Somalis often characterise themselves as an oral culture that eschews the written word and instead concentrates on learned poetry, hand-me-down stories and music. Try getting a Somali to reply to an e-mail.
The Somali language itself, reckoned to be one of the hardest to learn and with huge variations because of the relatively late formalising of the language itself in the 1970s, does not lend itself to being cast in the ‘stone’ of a document or e-mail. For example, the city on the Ethiopian border called Baidoa can be rendered as Baydhabo and the central city of Beletweyne is also known as Beledweyne: but when spoken the difference disappears.
Big Smartphones But Small Messages
But the long Somali fingers that used to clasp a stick to chivvy on a herd of camels are now routinely clasped around a smartphone (the bigger and the flashier the better). The language struggles to compress itself into the 280 characters of a Tweet – but that is simply making Somalis get to the point, as opposed to the old ways, where they took the long way round when getting to the point of the story. (Or not getting to the point of the story.)
For the less digitally dextrous or those who missed formal education during the years of chaos, there is always the option of producing a video anyway. And here is where the problem occurs.
Another Divide: Young v Old, Diaspora v Homeland
There can be few places where there isn’t a Somali, and probably a Somali enclave at that, not just one man running an internet cafe that also does tailoring, electrical repairs and has a fleet of taxis on call. The Somalis are an adaptable race, and many have embraced their new home cultures – perhaps a little too enthusiastically for the homelanders who stayed behind during the years of chaos and who are, in the main, religiously and culturally very conservative.
So, for example, gay and trans Somali men vogue-ing on TikTok or the beautiful young Somali-Finnish lady who offers access to a private room where she strips to order (for a price, obviously – decorousness means that we do not identify the young lady or the young men, so you’ll just have to be imaginative in your social media searching) jar dramatically with the values of the old bearded men back in Somalia. Self appointed guardians of the ‘true’ Somalia rail against them viciously, at length and with vigour.
The al-Qa’ida linked terrorist group, al-Shabaab, has these young men and women on its radar: they are evidence of one of its key tenets, the belief that western liberal culture is poisonous and to be avoided. Some Somalis, while rejecting the bloody slaughter of innocents that is al-Shabaab’s metier, secretly agree with the rest of its deeply nationalist, Somalia-for-the-Somalis, retro-Islamist, ban-ice-because-the-Prophet-Mohamed-never-had-ice-in-his-drinks ideology.
The beautiful young Somali-Finnish lady and the gay and trans young Somali men have fled social media after receiving threats that show remarkably detailed knowledge of those individuals’ personal lives. It seems likely that many Somalis will be handing back their theoretical Facebook passports.