Milk and Peace, Drought and War: Somali Culture, Society and Politics
By Markus V. Hoehne & Virginia Luling, editors
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2010) 416 pp

Reviewed by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ph.D. Candidate at the Catholic University of America

The distinguished scholar I.M. Lewis is a recognizably towering figure in the discipline of Somali studies. “Few anthropologists have been as identified with a particular people as Professor I.M. Lewis with the Somali,” the editors of this volume note. “He has not only written classic works on their society and history, but known most of their leading political figures, and repeatedly pleaded their causes in his publications and broadcasts” (pp. 1-2). Given how much his scholarship has shaped the field, Lewis is thoroughly deserving of a Festschrift, a volume honoring his work that is presented during his lifetime. The truly impressive thing about this book is that the editors and contributors have succeeded in producing a Festschrift worthy of Lewis: Milk and Peace, Drought and War contains fascinating insights, useful original research, and puts into perspective the most significant academic controversy in which Lewis has been involved.

That academic controversy also represents one of Lewis’s most paradigm-shaping contributions to Somali studies. Lewis presented patrilineal descent “as the basic social institution and enduring principle of socio-political organisation among the Somali” (p. 5). From this framework, Lewis discerned the importance of such segments of society as clan-family, clan, sub-clan, and lineage. The controversy over this framework arose when a new generation of researchers argued that Somali society’s organization had been transformed “from ‘clan based’ to ‘class based’” (p. 6). It is worth noting an aspect of this debate that goes under-emphasized in this volume: that the new academic understanding of class and not clan as a key organizing principle in post-colonial Somali politics in many ways mirrored the propaganda so intently pushed by Gen. Muhammad Siyad Barre’s authoritarian regime that was organized around “scientific socialism.” Of course, there are reasons that Lewis’s paradigm would engender controversy aside from the line being advanced by Siyad’s government. After all, his understanding of the importance of clan ran afoul of the ascendant constructivist paradigm, which held that Lewis and others who shared his outlook “reified ethnic identity,” and that their writing “incautiously echoed the discredited tone of colonial administrators” (p. 90). I will return later to this controversy, the ripples of which touch many chapters in this volume.

Milk and Peace, Drought and War is divided into seven major sections. The first contains reflections on the colonial period, and how the legacy of this period continues to shape Somalia today. This includes John Drysdale’s first-person recollections of Somalia from 1943-1963, his first engagement with the country coming as an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders during World War II, with subsequent work as a British liaison officer in the Horn of Africa. The book’s following sections explore other topics of particular relevance to scholars currently studying Somalia, including Islam, spirit possession, poetry, cultural variations within Somalia, and the Somali language.

There are several outstanding contributions within this volume. Gérard Prunier’s chapter, also dealing with Somalia’s colonial period, contrasts the “benign neglect” model of colonial rule employed by the British with the style of rule in Somalia Italiana, where Fascism’s new style promoted “spectacular displays of theatrical virility, authoritarianism, constant harking back to the glories of the Roman Empire, a preference for violence as a way of resolving contradictions, and the promotion of Italians as il popolo del destino, ‘the people chosen by fate’” (pp. 40-41). This Fascist outlook perfectly characterized Cesare Maria De Vecchi Di Val Cismon, who became Somalia’s new governor in October 1923, and under whom Italy actively tried to absorb the authority of clan elders. While the British did little to manage Somali democracy, the Italians “spent a lot of money and effort beating the Somali into submission, destroying in the process the capacity they had developed to manage their home-grown disorder” (p. 46). Prunier relates these styles of colonial rule to some of the differences we can continue to see today within those areas of Somalia that were once colonized by the British and the Italians. “Today’s forms of differential social situations in Somalia have tended to mirror their distant colonial blueprints,” Prunier writes, “self-reliant in one case, suffering and hardly capable of internally-driven stabilisation in the other” (p. 46).

Hussein M. Adam contributes a useful and thought-provoking chapter on political Islam in Somali history, tracing this phenomenon from early rivalries between Christians and Muslims in the Horn of Africa in the fifteenth century to more modern manifestations of political Islam. Sheikh Maxamed Cabdille Xassan, and the differing views of his historical legacy among the Somali, is competently treated; and Adam argues that outside intervention in the country from 2006 onward has deepened rather than ameliorated the radical elements of political Islam in contemporary Somalia. Arguing that “the checks and balances within Somali society” would have naturally moderated these radical elements, Adam contends that Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion did the opposite, radicalizing Somalia’s Islamist movement and al Shabaab in particular (pp. 132-33). Though some readers approaching this issue from a national-security perspective will surely feel that Adam gives short shrift to the strength of radical elements within Somali political Islam even prior to the Ethiopian invasion, it is also true that—as Adam implies—outside forces have frequently given far too little thought to the second-order consequences of their interventions on Somali institutions.

Another highlight of the book is Abdurahman M. Abdullahi’s original research into the January 1975 incident in which Siyad’s regime executed ten religious scholars who protested the regime’s changes to Somali family law. Though this incident is often referenced in literature about Islamism in Somalia, and has “had lasting implications for the historical development of Somalia” (p. 139), treatments of the incident have always been cursory. Abdullahi’s contribution thus helps to fill an important gap in the literature.

But perhaps the most impressive contribution to this volume is Ken Menkhaus’s chapter on the question of ethnicity in Somali Studies, which directly addresses the aforementioned controversy about Lewis’s work on clans and clanism. Menkhaus approaches this question through the prism of the rise of Somali Bantu identity, which was in fact “an inadvertent creation of the international community” (p. 92) during humanitarian efforts being made in Somalia during the 1990s. As Menkhaus shows, though the Somali Bantu became known almost unanimously as one of Somalia’s most vulnerable groups, that identity in fact “possesses almost none of the features typically associated with a cohesive ethnic group” (p. 93). Through this prism, Menkhaus does a masterful job of showing that, though constructivists are correct that “clanism is far more fluid and flexible than most outsiders realize,” it is on the other hand true that “years of political manipulation, warfare, atrocities, ethnic cleansing, and new political configurations” have resulted in a hardening of clan identity such that “one cannot conduct a serious analysis of Somali politics at either the national or the local level without treating clanism as one of the main drivers of behavior” (pp. 88-89). Menkhaus believes that scholars on both sides of the debate about the role of ethnicity in Somalia will find his answer unsatisfying, but that it nonetheless “reflects the messy and complex social and political realities of the country” (p. 89). Indeed, this observation can be universalized even beyond the context of Somalia: often the fierce debates over categorizations made within the academic world lose sight of the fact that reality is messier and less parsimonious than we would like to think. Further, perhaps the acrimony that accompanies some of these debates makes us lose sight of the fact that great insight can be gleaned from the competing perspectives that are brought to salient issues.

Milk and Peace, Drought and War is an extremely well-rounded book, one that explores not only the issues of greatest relevance to those of us who are trying to understand contemporary politics within the country, but also cultural issues such as poetry that are deeply embedded within Somali society and no less fascinating to read about. Overall, this collection is a highly-recommended academic contribution.
[1] See I.M. Lewis, A Modern History of the Somali (Oxford: James Currey, 4th ed. 2002), pp. vii-ix.