Somali society is based on clans. While there are over 100 clans, most Somalis belong to one of the four main clans known collectively as the Samaal, who are nomadic herders. The Samaal operate democratically, with important decisions made by a council of men (shir). Egalitarianism, at least among men, is deeply ingrained in Somali views of society and authority. Somalia’s other two main clans are called the Sab; they live as farmers along the rivers in the south and have village leaders as their main decision-makers. Clans provide protection, support and resources to their members, but also divide society when there is competition for resources.

Most Somalis live in the country. The Samaal people tend to live in very small settlements near wells. A typical dwelling consists of a collapsible shelter called an aqal, which is a small hut built of wood and animal skins, with grass mats on the floor. Samaal life is difficult, involving much work for scarce resources. Camels, both as transportation and food, are central to the Samaal way of life. Sab people are more likely to live in villages in one-room, thatched mud-huts called mundols. A house with a metal roof is a sign of prosperity. In cities, Somalis may have larger homes with Arab- or Western-style furnishings.

Somalis often live in extended families. There is no strict hierarchy in the home, though fathers are usually considered the heads of their families economically and women as the heads of the household. While women are by no means considered equal to men, the traditional Somali love of freedom and self-expression means that women speak their minds and exert much power at home. Somali parents and children tend to spend time with friends of the same sex; the family may get together in the evenings.

Marriages in Somalia are valued more for their economic and political importance, rather than religious or romantic aspects. A man may have more than one wife. Families prefer arranged marriages; when matching a couple, lineage and bride-price (dowry) are of great importance. Divorce and remarriage are common; after divorce women keep their valuable possessions and often become independent through acquiring land and goods by inheritance or purchase.

Somali women and girls are expected to have hisaut, a sense of modesty or shame. To show respect, women follow behind men when walking, while children follow behind their mother. Before marriage, girls often undergo a ritual called infibulation, which involves the removal of parts of the girl’s genitals. The procedure has increasingly spawned international criticism and controversy, though is still widely practised.

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The Samaal people’s possessions must be quite light in order to be easily transported. Families use mattresses made of woven palm-leaf ribs, which are supported on four wood stakes and covered with animal skins.