An Overview of the Rahanweyn in South-Central Somalia

by Garth Massey, University of Wyoming

 

The interreiverine area of Somalia is inhabited almost entirely by persons identifying themselves as Rahanweyn, one of the two 'agricultural clans' of the Somali people (Samatar, 1982;10) - the other being the Digil who along with the Dir, Darood, Hawiye, and Isaaq, compose the major family groupings of the Somali people. The immigration of people of the northern and western tribes to the area between the Juba and Shbella Rivers perhaps began as long ago as the fifteenth century (Cassanelli 1984; Jacobs 1975; Luling, 1971). Today the Rahanweyn and, to the south, the Digil clans represents 'a great coalition of widely differing tribal elements including Galla and Bantu' (Lewis, 1964;6).

Settled nomads and horticultural groups developed relations of production requiring a form of village solidarity which cross-cut lineage and was enhanced by the arrangements of fictive kinship ('cleinting') to strengthen the geographic loyalties of village members. Lewis' observation is accurate:

The village is thus a quite distinct community, even though it usually contains people of several different lineages .... In these instances villagers have two main sets of loyalties - one to their village in which they live and round which they cultivate and the other to their kinsmen ..(Lewis 1964:21)

In the approximately 50,000 square kilometers of the Bay Region, the administrative zone that occupies the major portion of the interriverine area, the population density is only slightly more than ten persons per km2. Most villages are clusters of homesteads, but some are composed of homesteads scattered over a wide area. their average size is slightly over 300 persons or 52 households per village. Only five percent of all villages have more than one hundred families and fifteen percent have twenty-five or fewer families (Massey, 1987; University of Wyoming, 1985).

An understanding of the agropastoral system of the Rahanweyn - like that of the pastoralism of the Fulani (stunning, 1959;99) - requires locating the household as the basic unit of analysis. Household members are responsible for the property of the household, while persons comprising the household form both a unit of production thought the distribution of takes, as well as a unit of conception. Though the boundaries of the household are not always readily apparent, they are clear in peoples' minds and remain fixed over time.

Nearly two-thirds of the rural Rahanweyn live in simple rather than compound family households composed of parents and their children. The usual practice is for a son to obtain enough of his inheritance upon marriage to support his anticipated family. A daughter will to the marriage a mat-covered portable hut and other provisions for setting up a home and serving a family. While Islam permits men to have up to four wives, in only about thirty percent of all households is a man polygynous. Though wives seldom live far apart, only rarely do two or more wives share the same compound. The entire holdings of a man and his wife or wives are managed as a single economic unit, with responsibilities, resources, and returns shared by all members of the household (Nyhus, 1984).

Among the Rahanweyn, work is seldom a solitary activity. Various forms of cooperation cut across gender and age, unifying the efforts of household members and members of different households. Cooperative efforts range from the highly successful religious communes where both production and distribution are done collectively and where there is little or no private property (Kuprijanov, 1973: Puntman, 1984) to one of the many informal, temporary work groups that accomplish a single task such as hoeing a field or returning an injured animal to the village.

The shifting identification of persons according to their major task expresses the flexibility of the system of labor allocation common to agropastoral (Brandstroem et al., 1979: 28) and other subsistence societies. Inhabitants of the area are known by outsiders as cultivators, and they too identify themselves most often as farmers. This varies considerably by age and gender, however, with males being about twice as likely as females, and younger persons of both sexes more likely than older persons, to consider themselves herders. While twelve percent of all children ages five to nine are identified as farmers, 39 percent of all ten to fourteen-year-olds are so designated and by the age of nineteen over half are considered to be farmers. This increases to two-thirds by the age of forty, when those identified as being herders drops to four percent.

The alteration of one's major task reflects an emphasis on practical use of labor. Because animals-with the exception of camel and larger cattle herds-are frequently kept near the village, and goats and cattle make up such a large portion of stock, children and adolescents serve a very usefully herded by young adult men, accompanied by a mature female, who can each handle up to twenty camels and thirty cattle. This often recommends combining the stock of several households. Because herding away from the village means living in the most Spartan conditions, older adults prefer to remain in the village and spend most of their time at cultivation.

The social formation of the inter-riverine area of Somalia has been little effected by exogenous forces. It is possible to say this, despite this existence of a livestock network that extends form the larger villages to markets abroad, a single-party government system encouraging on traditional village prerogatives, a rejection of the rural way of life by those who migrate to towns, cities and beyond, and efforts by foreign donor group to "develop answers to the outstanding technical and institutional development issues" of the inter-riverine area (World Bank, 1979:16) For all this, the institutional practices and the socio-economic organisation of the Rahanweyn are much as they have been for generations. Obviously, the possibility exist that this may not be the case in a few years, but the present situation reveals an agropastrol mode of production little altered by forces outside the society itself.

Given the harsh and uncertain environment in which they live, the Rahanweyn have fashioned an institutional structure of considerable, complexity and resilience. Villages consist of a series of quasi-formal committees that handle juridical issues, allocate water and keep catchments ponds in good repair, arrange public observances, and represent the village to government entities. The pattern of village solidarity combines agnatic loyalties with cross-family allegiances in a way that accommodates independence while enhancing security.

the Rahnaweyn's is a subsistence-oriented economy. There are few if any ways in which commercial relations encroach on interpersonal affairs. People respond opportunistically to the market, and almost never anticipate market conditions in their planning of production activities. Households consumer the bulk of what they produce, realizing near self-sufficiency. Short-term interests do not obscure long-term goals; the people carefully calculate the costs and benefits of various courses of action, allocating their resources and using any accumulated surplus to meet the needs of social reproduction.

Factors Influencing Rahanweyn Agropastoralism

Not every household among the Rahanweyn is as actively involved in pastoral livestock keeping as another, nor is crop production emphasized equally in all cases. Rather, several factors influencing the degree to which a household deems one more important than the other. In some households the number of animals is very small and their care is confined to areas adjacent to the village. For others, farming is done on a take-a-change basis, with a minimum of time and resources devoted to what is little more than, however, is agropastoral in its social formation: it would be difficult if not impossible for those households which are exclusively devoted to field crops or pastoral herding no exist were this not the case.

Rahanweyn households face a set of circumstances that in sum make their way of life highly precarious. Diseases and infestation take a steady toll on crops and livestock, with little opportunity to apply modern preventative on the intervention measures. The use of cultivable land is highly dependent on the availability of water, the difficulty of clearing unwanted vegetation, and the spread of invader species. With no opportunity to apply herbicides or purchased fertilizer, and lacking practices that replenish soils with animal droppings, households resort to lea farming, allowing fields to for idle with some regularity in order to replenish soils and reduce invader vegetation. Draft animals are a rarity in the inter-riverine area, largely due to uncertainty in providing fodder during the dry season but especially through a (not unusual) year of insufficient rainfall. While harvested grain stored in the household's underground cylindrical silo usually stays dry, it is not secure against smut, rodents, and insects.

The inter-riverine area is highly variable in terms of natural conditions and peoples' access to transport system and markets. Several soil types are to be found; some are arable for up to six or seven years, but most are marginally cultivable or fit only for grazing and browsing. The most important of the natural resources, water, is equally variable. The twice-annual rainy seasons distribute rainfall very unevenly and bring, with much variability, adequate moisture for a sorghum crop roughly three out of four seasons. While underground aquifers help compensate during periods of drought for a shortage of water stored in catchment ponds, they too are highly dependent in rainfall. In the driest times of the year, larger animals must be taken areas  with year round wells or to the Shabelle River to the south or the Jubba River to the west, usually involving a trek of several hundred kilometers from the village. They will remain there until the onset of the rains approaches, and in some cases will stay away through the rainy season and return to the homestead only when freshly-harvested stalks are available.