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Review of Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics


By Lionel Cliffe

Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics. Markus Hoehne and Virginia Luling (eds). Hurst, London, 2010. Pp. xiv + 437. ISBN. 978-1-84904-045-7 (pb). £20.

This is a collection of ‘Essays in Honour of I. M. Lewis’, the British anthropologist, often dubbed ‘the founding father of Somali Studies’ to mark his 80th birthday. He has in fact focussed on the Somali people and society ever since his first fieldwork there in 1955 and, as the title of the volume and its Contents bring out, his work has covered virtually every dimension of their society and history: clan politics; pastoral economy; religion; poetry, language and other aspects of culture. As much historian as anthropologist, and there is an interesting discussion of the link between the two roles, he has taken on all the singular and often tragic dramas of Somali dynamics: the search for nationhood of what seemed a uniform ‘people’; the collapse of its state and two decades of statelessness; even longer periods of internal and external conflict; and recurrent man-made and natural disasters. To this extent the book can be read as more than a festschrift that will appeal to scholars of an older generation interested in one discipline and the historiography of one area of Africa. It provides a handbook offering insights into a profoundly challenging set of issues, most of which are still of on-going crisis dimensions – as the images of yet another famine, broadcast as I write, remind us.

Whether one seeks to understand what might be done about the current famine, or how (or even whether) to put a state of Somalia back together again, or to figure out what can be done about piracy on a scale that rocks world shipping, an informed approach needs to be steeped in a deep and broad immersion in local realities but also to address the issues with a clear method. Lewis, and the real controversies his work has often sparked off, has provided such an approach:

 ... a paradigm, which emphasizes agnation of political descent  as the basic social institution and enduring principle of socio-   political organisation among the Somali, and identified ‘clan-family’, ‘clan’, sub-clan’ and ‘lineage’ as the main segments of their society.


His model is that Somalis are independent-minded, challenge authority but come together within that essential socio-political framework to facilitate pastoral herding, and raiding, and conflict resolution, with collective decisions being made ‘democratically’. The salience of this view has seemed self-evident during the endless years of fighting between what are described as clan warlords and their militias, and seems to have been accepted as the ‘reality’ behind the basic formula for forming the present Transitional  Federal Government, sharing power between ‘4.5’ clan-families. But scholars and analysts, including new generations of Somali intellectuals, began to challenge this model from the 1980s, arguing the need to factor in the changes derived from colonial rule (and its different legacy in former Italian and British Somaliland), economic change in trade and livelihoods, migration, and political realities in the post-colonial state. They point to the issues which the clan-based paradigm doesn’t seem to explain: e.g. why the relative success of conflict resolution in the de facto independent northern country of Somaliland, compared with most of the south. Also how it offers little handle for understanding the present major line of default between a cabal of clan warlords forming the TFG and a pan-clan movement that has coalesced under the mantle of Islamic politics. For outsiders to take sides between what are arguably both validly indigenous Somali formulae for social and political organisation cannot be legitimised on the basis of authenticity, and is also likely to be counter-productive to building peace. 

It must be acknowledged that none of the contributors judge that Lewis applied his own paradigm without flexibility, and the contributors provide between them a rich mix of perspectives – the point of departure for informed debate, on social theory, on prospects and action. For that debate about a range of approaches, and for insights into many topics not mentioned here for reasons of space, and much else besides, this a valuable source book and not just a celebration.

Reviewed by: Lionel Cliffe, University of Leeds.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 101-102]

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