While Somalia has a long musical and artistic tradition, the Somalis are most famous for being a nation of poets. Oral poetry is central to Somali life. The alliterative, highly metaphorical Somali verse form is used for communication, for preserving history and commenting on current events. Clans use poetry in reconciliation meetings; the government hires poets to praise its achievements, while the opposition uses poems for its critique.

Many Somalis can recite poems that are centuries old. Poetic combat oral contests between competing poets have always been a feature of Somali life. Traditionally, men and women have had separate poetic traditions, and only men gained prestige and political power through their skill in poetry. However, women have recently begun to compete with men in these contests. One of the most famous literary figures in Somalia is Mohammed ’Abdille Hasan, who was also a warrior and political figure.

Since the 20th century, Somalia has also produced authors who write in English, French or Italian for their works. Nurudin Farah, an acclaimed English-language novelist, writes about Somalia and connects the mythical with the local in his work. The poet and playwright Mohamed Warsame Ibrahim was jailed during the Barré regime for his politically critical writings.

Somali music combines African and Arabic influences. Traditional instruments are the shareero, a type of lyre; the kaban, a Yemenite keyboard lute; and the buun and simbaar, types of trumpets. While dancing to music is important in Somali culture, people dance mainly during ceremonies and courtship. Maryam Mursal is one of Somalia’s most famous musicians. Her first CD, Waaberi, is a collection of traditional Somali songs sung with the oud (the Arabic lute) and percussion as backup.

Somali craftsworkers make numerous items, including woodcarvings and cloth, and baskets in the Benadir region. Leather is used for items such as bags, food containers and dagger sheaths. Somali women practice hand and foot painting using henna and khidaab dyes. Women artists apply the colours in intricate styles, covering the entire hand or foot.

  Did you know?
The multilingual writer Nurudin Farah was named the 1998 Neustadt Laureate. He was the first African to receive this award, a literary prize which is considered to be secondary in prestige to the Nobel Prize for literature.