The responses to a challenge made to colonial relations of knowledge and power show that these relations are still alive and well
“THE true Somali is an extremely lazy person,” wrote British lieutenant Francis Elliott in a 1913 ethnographic study of Jubaland, then a province of the British East Africa Protectorate. Though Elliott was the District Commissioner stationed in the small town of Sarinley, charged with the colonial management of Somalis living in this region west of the Jubba River, he was known as a Somali expert throughout the administration for the depth of his knowledge and understanding of Somalis, exemplified by his ability to speak the Somali language. It was with this expert colonial gaze that he went on to describe what he saw as natural Somali behavior, urging fellow Europeans to be considerate in their dealings with them, as Somalis had the potential to become “sulky, obstinate, mutinous, and dangerous.” After Elliott was killed in a 1916 raid, British captain C. Haywood, a political officer in Jubaland and former District Commissioner in Kenya, noted in his own ethnography and analysis of Somali behavior that it was Elliott’s “great and misplaced trust of the Somalis” that led to his violent fate.
Somali Studies is an academic field born out of this colonial history. Academic research and understandings about Somalis supplied the informational needs for colonial governance and control, and many early “experts” on Somali society and culture, like Elliott, were intimately connected to the colonial state. Knowledge about the Somali thus mirrored the relations of power instituted by colonial dominance: knowledge was something only Europeans were capable of, while Somalis were objects to be known, understood, and explained.
In late March 2015, the hashtag #CadaanStudies — translating to “white studies” — initiated a conversation about power and knowledge production in the current academic field of Somali Studies. It began in response to the recently launched Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS), an academic journal which had no Somali authors, editorial or advisory board members, despite describing itself as having been founded collaboratively with students and scholars at the University of Hargeisa. German anthropologist and journal advisory board member Markus Hoehne reacted publicly to the hashtag, dismissing its critique to argue that Somalis were not marginalized in Somali Studies but simply lacked the intellectual interest, academic credentials, and sufficient work ethic to produce quality scholarship worthy of inclusion in an academic journal about themselves.
It is a photograph of Francis Elliott that illustrates an article I wrote on #CadaanStudies in April, as I sought to make sense of what Hoehne’s comments and the exclusions of SJAS said about the current state of Somali Studies, and analyze the ways in which the field marginalizes Somali scholars and remains trapped in a colonial imaginary. Elliott is seated and dressed in a white hat and suit, in stark contrast to the black faces and uniforms of the Somali askaris of the Protectorate Police arranged behind him. In the 1913 article, he captions the photograph “The Trained Somali.”
“The Trained Somali” is juxtaposed with a second image in his ethnographic study of Somalis in Jubaland, an image of a group of Somali men posing with spears and dressed in traditional garb, captioned “The Raw Somali.” It is these Somalis who, in their raw state, can become obstinate, mutinous and dangerous to the British administrator. It is these Somalis who represent the threat of violence, aggression and disorder that must be managed and disciplined.
Your tone was very aggressive.
The way you were doing it… it was like breaking the window.
I arrived in Helsinki on August 19th for the 12th Somali Studies International Association Congress, a conference held an average of once every three years following its inaugural meeting in Mogadishu in 1980. Since Somalia’s state collapse in 1991, only two of nine SSIA Congresses have been held in the Horn of Africa, while four meetings have been held in Scandinavia. That we were meeting once again in Finland reflected a vacuum of institutional capacity and funding infrastructure to support academic research about the Horn in the Somali territories. It also showed the increased interest in the Somali territories and Somali diaspora by Western states following Somalia’s civil war and the global War on Terror, many of whom, like Finland, now have large Somali immigrant populations. This is reflected in the research agendas of many Euro-American academics and practitioners in Somali Studies, often funded by government agencies, which are dominated by questions of state failure, security and radicalization, integration and assimilation, gender and the family, and the perennial colonial favorite, kinship and clan.
There were only 49 Somalis in Finland in 1990; today there are over 16,000, the largest non-white minority population in the country. The contradictions and tensions of racial and religious difference are palpable in this homogenous country. I share these feelings with other Somalis attending the conference, how exposed we feel walking around a largely white Helsinki. I find my North American accent allows me to bypass local tensions and identifies me as the “right” kind of foreigner, a temporary stranger and not one of “their” Somalis, not part of their immigrant problem.
A Finnish Somali student tells us he is called a nigger once a week, and another Somali tells me the story of how he was once attacked by drunken skinheads in a parking lot. Like Somali diasporas across Europe and North America, Finland’s Somalis are an immigrant community under suspicion and surveillance. Like Somalis in the diaspora and in the Somali territories, they are also objects of study.
A Finnish researcher and organizer for the Helsinki Congress delivers a keynote lecture on the experiences of Somali families in Helsinki and Toronto, funded by the Academy of Finland, a government funding body belonging to the Finnish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture. She frames her talk about Somalis in Toronto with a story of the public scandal over then-mayor Rob Ford’s use of crack-cocaine, recorded on a cellphone and made public by a man of Somali descent. On her PowerPoint was the famous image of Ford high on drugs, arms around three black and Arab men in hoodies.
We don’t want to have that kind of fight here.
An open letter to Markus Hoehne and the Somaliland Journal of African Studies, signed by over 350 Somali academics, researchers, professionals, students, concerned community members and non-Somali academic allies — primarily in African Studies and other area studies fields — circulated widely in March 2015 and articulated the #CadaanStudies critique: that the exclusions of one academic journal and the troubling statements of one anthropologist were symptoms of the current state of Somali Studies, and indicated the urgency for a discussion of the conditions of knowledge production about Somalis and the Somali territories, and the relations of power underpinning it. Through this critical intervention of young Somali scholars, #CadaanStudies generated conversations about the histories and politics of knowledge production in a mass movement across social media and beyond, growing in the weeks and months afterwards. We historicized the colonial context within which research about Somalis was made possible, and the ways in which these colonial discourses and imperatives are maintained, if reconfigured, in the present. We analyzed how this history has structurally positioned Somalis as objects of knowledge rather than its legitimate producers, and how this accords privileges to non-Somali researchers while marginalizing Somali researchers. We spoke of the disciplinary, ideological and institutional interests shaping knowledge production about Somalis. We argued for the need to decolonize Somali Studies.
It was met by public silence from the vast majority of non-Somali academics and practitioners in Somali Studies.
A European anthropologist takes it upon himself to email one of my professors, describing his surprise at seeing my professor’s name on the open letter and asking if he would — after he takes the time to read the letter more carefully — kindly reconsider his support. He sends him links to my tweets and asks him if he’s had a conversation with me, “that lady,” and whether he could “possibly enlighten… about her attitudes.” My professor tells him “this lady” is a PhD candidate in high standing at Harvard, well respected by faculty, and that what is happening is necessary and important for Somali Studies.
We were met by harassment, derailment and disciplining from non-Somali academics and practitioners in Somali Studies.
As Sara Ahmed tells us, you learn how things are working from what happens to those who challenge how things are working. You learn how power reconstitutes and conceals itself as it is being revealed. You learn the way dominance resists its possible displacement and refuses to let go of its monopoly on Somali Studies. And as the young Somali female graduate student who initiated the critique of power, I have been its most obvious target.
Why break the window when the door was not locked?
Beyond the implications for Somali Studies as an academic field, #CadaanStudies’ emergence in the spring raised the more immediate question of what would happen at the Somali Studies International Association Congress in August. The SSIA Congress offered a unique opportunity to take advantage of the rare convergence of Somali and non-Somali academics and researchers in Somali Studies in one place, an event occurring only once every three years. Unbeknownst to those of us at the helm of the #CadaanStudies debate at the time, discussions were quietly taking place in email chains and on the Finland-based “Somali Research Network” listserv. Several people asked the organizers to include a roundtable or panel at the conference.
“What are their specific criticisms beyond the color of the skin and the nationality of the passport?” one French researcher asks the list about the signatories of the open letter. “Usually in academia, one criticizes texts, not authors per say. What are the texts those people refer to?”
A Congress organizer agrees with his assessment, and says the conference program is already set, and that the organizing committee has agreed that there is no space for new roundtables or panels. It is March. “Let us continue in the spirit of not hurting anyone in person,” she writes, meaning the German academic who said Somali scholars do not exist.
In early August, just two weeks before the Congress opening, Finnish organizers made their first public statement on the matter, posting a document entitled “Whose Voice?” to their website and sending out an email to registered attendees under the heading “Somali Studies Debate Invitation.” The email proceeded to explain that while there would be no change to the program, organizers invite Congress participants to have “constructive and meaningful” discussion on the Somali Research Network listserv and during breaks between panel sessions. The original concerns and stakes of #CadaanStudies were abstracted, sanitized and made palatable in the statement. #CadaanStudies itself was renamed as “The Whose Voice debate” to remove any reference to race, as though the intervention simply raised questions of identity and perspective, rather than offered an analysis interrogating how systems of power, histories of racialization and Eurocentric concerns shape knowledge production in Somali Studies.
The statement added that SSIA organizers “hope to start a tradition of reflecting on the field of Somali Studies with the aim of improving and developing it as a field that is more relevant, robust, and ethical in the knowledge it produces” and that their document is “the beginning of a conversation,” erasing the intellectual labour of the young Somali scholars who began the conversation months earlier.
I joined the listserv and told them that, in a statement of my own.
A day before the Congress was to convene, I received an email from the organizing committee, letting me know that they had reconsidered and asked if I would be willing to participate in a debate. I would be given seven minutes as the first of three speakers, along with a Finnish researcher and committee member, and a third participant to be decided and announced by organizers. Though I knew the main organizer of the Congress personally, having met her several times during her research in Toronto, it was a Somali woman directed to email me on behalf of the committee.
I agreed to be part of a panel if the third speaker would be a young Somali scholar who has been involved from the beginning. When concerns that the panel would no longer be inclusive as a result were expressed, I declined to participate. They said they were sorry, but that the panel would go on without me.
Power works through management and control. It draws you into its field and forces you to play by its rules, giving you forced choices within the confines of the only options made available to you. It sustains itself by opening up impossibly tiny spaces for inclusion, disciplining you until you are made to fit, while leaving the structures of exclusion intact. It operates under the facade of acceptance, masking the refusal, the resistance. Inclusion in these instances exists only to reinforce and diversify the never-changing norm.
We refused to play.
The morning of my flight to Helsinki, I receive a threatening anonymous email in defense of the SSIA Congress. It is the third “we’ll see you in Helsinki” email I receive, all from throwaway email accounts.
“You’re a liar who is portraying herself to be someone who is not, a “scholar”? Rubbish. Why do you think you should the one to dedicate who should be in the panel of speakers?”
“We hope that you enjoy Finland, and provide us with a solid argument to hear what the hashtag you created is all about.”
“We really hope to see you at the Finland conference.”
Power works through intimidation and harassment.
At the opening reception that evening, Congress organizers announce that they had met and decided to give me and Ahmed, the other young Somali scholar, the full roundtable. We are to present on the last day, and they congratulate themselves for “taking the discussion forward constructively.”
Power works to absorb critique and appropriate ideas and concepts as its own.
Ahmed and I managed to find a few minutes away from the conference the day before to strategize and think together about the main points we needed to get across at our last minute roundtable. We decide to focus on explaining that #CadaanStudies is an argument about systems and structural relations of power in knowledge production about the Somali territories. We make a point to emphasize that our analysis cannot be reduced to individual identities or identity politics, as has so often been claimed in order to derail the substance of our intervention. From our backgrounds as Africanists in anthropology and history, we also wanted to remind Somali Studies that many of these critiques were made decades ago in other area studies fields, and that Somali Studies has yet to catch up.
We are both PhD students. Ahmed has recently returned from a year and a half of fieldwork in Mogadishu and has two presentations of his own in Helsinki; I have flown here from weeks in the archives in London, with papers to present in Helsinki and Warsaw, where Ethiopian Studies is scheduled to meet a few days later. I think of how unfair it is that we are in this position at the most vulnerable stage of our academic careers, to have to deal with the hostility and refusal of organizers for months, to be thrown on to the program days earlier and forced to speak under the worst conditions, to carry the burden of having to explain power and positionality to senior scholars unwilling to listen.
I wondered how the same people now speaking of the importance and need to discuss power and knowledge production in Somali Studies could lack such self-awareness. How could they not see themselves as reenacting the very institutional relations of power we were talking about? It reminded me of a Somali saying: baadida ninba kula deydey oo daalna ka badine oon doonihayn inaad heshaa daa’in abidkaaye. There are people who will exhaust themselves trying to help you find your lost stock, who will gesture and pretend to be interested in helping, but not want you to find anything you are looking for.
One of the editors of the Somaliland Journal of African Studies, the academic journal with no Somali people, belatedly enters the conversations on #CadaanStudies months later by publishing an article describing the critique as a “a quarrel” and “ill-mannered bickering.” He prefaces his piece by saying he is taking a “constructive approach” on “how to transform Somali Studies.” He accuses me of reverse racism and simple-minded advocacy for “racial quotas in Somali Studies,” and proceeds to appropriate points I’ve made elsewhere to analyze systems of power shaping knowledge produced about Somalis and argue for the need to decolonize Somali Studies. Somalis, after all, are incapable of using ideas responsibly and must be instructed on how to do so. Somalis don’t think or engage productively; they essentialize and they bicker.
An Italian anthropologist comments to tell him the piece is problematic, and why. “I tried to say: let us acknowledge the privileged position in the knowledge we produce, all of us (Safia, you, I). The three of us are ‘whites’ vis-a-vis any student in Somaliland,” he responds. I am now whatever he says. First no one was guilty, now we are all guilty.
I am talking to a small group of colleagues in the hallway, a few minutes before a keynote lecture is scheduled to begin at the Somali Studies Congress. It is two lectures combined into one hour, a last-minute change Helsinki organizers have made in order to make space for the one hour roundtable on #CadaanStudies. There are five keynote lectures on the program, one for each day of the Congress. Two of the keynotes are members of the organizing committee, and they have agreed to shorten their talks and speak for 30 minutes each, instead of the original full hour.
An organizer touches my arm, drawing me away from the conversation. “You should attend the keynotes downstairs,” she says.
“It is happening this way because of your roundtable.”
We heard from the side that we should take it up, but take up what? Take up the quarrel? No.
Let us move forward constructively.
Why break the window?
“Can everyone hear me?”
I am soft-spoken and conscious that my voice may not carry throughout the room, so I speak into the microphone louder than I am used to normally speaking. I choose my words carefully and speak with clarity and precision, because I don’t expect to be heard here in Helsinki. The room is full.
A young Finnish Somali woman writing an article on #CadaanStudies and the SSIA Congress for a Helsinki newspaper asks for our permission to record audio of the roundtable, and we agree. It is a public event in a public venue, and we later post the audio online and circulate it on social media, in the spirit of accessibility, transparency and democratizing the spaces in which knowledge is produced.
A Somali woman in the audience raises her hand to ask a question after our presentations, and directs it instead to Helsinki SSIA organizers. She asks them why it took so long to include this discussion, and why they were so unwilling to make space for #CadaanStudies. A Finnish organizer responds to her, while speaking to me.
The tone that appeared was very aggressive and we didn’t want to have that kind of fight here. What we were expecting was some kind of contact, direct contact… we heard from the side that we should take it up, but take up what? Take up the quarrel? No.
What we did finally end up with is this… I think that it could have been initiated in our direction differently by making contact directly with organizers. The way you were doing it, like I said to you yesterday… that it was sort of, breaking the window when the door was not locked. And I think it could have made for a more easy inclusion in the program.
Let’s take the discussion forward constructively.
Later, over the listserv, the German anthropologist shares the link to the audio of the #CadaanStudies roundtable and publicly calls my ethics into question for not having asked the audience, unidentifiable in the audio, for their permission to record. A Finnish researcher and Congress organizer agrees with him. Neither asks for the audio to be removed, but simply use the listserv as an opportunity to discipline and discredit, to instruct us on what is ethically appropriate. Listserv members read and remain silent while senior academics engage in the academic bullying of a graduate student. The listserv concern for maintaining “the spirit of not hurting anyone in person” does not extend to young Somali women.
We are not angry, though we have every right to be. We are exhausted, though we cannot afford to be.
I am in Warsaw for the 19th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies, beginning the day after Somali Studies concludes its meeting in Helsinki. It is a relief to be here, away from their aggression, away from their racist fantasies of me, the raw Somali, the rebellious native bent on destruction, the angry, emotional, irrational Somali woman spoiling the party for the detached, objective, serious, academic researchers. I feel safe here.
Like the Somali Studies International Association Congress, Ethiopian Studies meets every three years, with every other conference held in Ethiopia. I meet colleagues who have been following #CadaanStudies and express their support, and I recognize names from the solidarity section of our open letter. We discuss how the critiques resonate with Ethiopian Studies and many other area studies fields in varying degrees, and how they find the state of Somali Studies particularly appalling.
I am at a dinner reception when an older European man who was not at my table previously appears next to me. When the conversation pauses, he interrupts to remark that I look Somali. I tell him I am, and immediately feel uncomfortable and on guard. I have so far been mistaken as Ethiopian at this conference, and I don’t buy that he has a special ability to differentiate between Habesha and Somali that even the Ethiopians at the conference do not have. I am not wearing my name tag, but I am certain that I am speaking to someone who knows me.
“My wife is Somali. Most of my family is Somali, which is why it’s interesting when some people say only Somali people can speak about Somali things,” he says. “What is your name?” he asks with a smirk. I realize the man I am speaking to is the academic who wrote to my professor about me. I am that lady.
“Oh! So it was YOU who unleashed all of that on Markus!”’
Not knowing I have seen the email exchange, he tells me that my professor was quick to withdraw his support after he let him know that it was nonsense. He laughs at me when I tell him that’s not true, and says he will forward me the emails immediately. He never does. He tells me about the #CadaanStudies tweets he hated the most, like the one with a Somali man saying it is inappropriate that he was asked his clan as part of an NGO job interview. I ask all my Somali students their clans, he says, to keep them safe. He laughs at me again when I say I agree with the tweet.
Uncomfortable with the tension and unwilling to intervene or speak up for a young graduate student being harassed by a senior scholar in their presence, one by one my white colleagues disappear from the table, and I am alone.
I excuse myself, and leave the conference early.
This is how power works. It seeks to silence and discredit the individuals who challenge it. It seeks to order the terms of discourse and engagement. It seeks to dismiss analysis as unproductive, unconstructive and unacademic. It seeks to frame critique as emotional, angry and aggressive. It does all of these things in order to put you back in your place for daring to speak.
Everything #CadaanStudies has analyzed about power and the ways in which it manifests itself in knowledge production about Somalis and the Somali territories historically and in the present has played out in the reaction to it by non-Somali scholars and practitioners in Somali Studies. Everything I have experienced as the young Somali female graduate student initiator of #CadaanStudies over the last few months is testament to the validity of the critique.