The other day, on one of my regular weekly visits to the local Washington County Library branch in Woodbury (a suburb east of St. Paul), I walked into the children’s section and spotted the purple sleeve of the cover of Dhegdheer in the pile of books waiting to be re-shelved. Dhegdheer, A Scary Somali Folktale, is a retelling of a beloved Somali folktale. I wrote it as one of four Somali bilingual books published by the Minnesota Humanities Center in 2007-2008. This pioneering project ensured that these classic folktales, which have entertained many generations and are part of Somalia’s rich oral tradition, are now available as high-quality picture books.
I was ecstatic to see Dhegdheer in that stack—but why was I feeling so elated?
Any writer might feel humbled and affirmed by the discovery of her book in the stack of returns, especially in this library that serves highly educated, well-read patrons. My rush of excitement, however, had more to do with my belief in the power of stories and the necessity of using diverse voices to expand our imaginations. I believe that through these things, words are capable of sparking greater relatedness via the “native language of the humanities.”
Stories have been enriching companions for me throughout my life, each time guiding me, showing me the way, and reminding me of who I am, where I come from, and why I am here on this earth. These are the deepest and the most essential questions we ask ourselves and seek to understand in our quest for meaning and purpose. These are also the very questions the rich oral tradition of Somali literature aims to answer.
Somali literature is indeed majestic in its use of language. Somalis are themselves poetic and eloquent in expression. Richard Francis Burton, the19th century British explorer who visited the Somali Peninsula, in his book First Footsteps in East Africa, described Somalia as a “Nation of Bards.” He said:
“[The] country teems with poets... every man has his recognized position in literature as accurately defined as though he had been reviewed in a century of magazines - the fine ear of this people causing them to take the greatest pleasure in harmonious sounds and poetic expressions...”It is not in any way pretentious to describe Somalia as a “Nation of Poets,” as the Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence put it. Reciting a verse of poetry, or repeating a story told many times before, or sharing entertaining cultural riddles or proverbs, are common in everyday Somali conversations. The use of rich oral language in daily life has worked to convey meaning and connections in all facets of life. In fact, it was used instead of electronic and modern technologies like the telegram, telephone, TV, and the Internet. In that regard, literature was never the aesthetic experience for Somalis as it often is in western literature. Instead, it is an everyday necessity and delight, much the same as food and water.
The enriching stories shared through the Minnesota Humanities Center publications are ideal narratives to be used in classrooms. They promote the development of the home language, in oral and written forms, and the acquisition of the second language. They are also effective tools to engage preliterate parents in story sharing and book use to encourage overall positive language development outcomes.
Is it any wonder I had such a sense of pride and elation when I saw Dhegdheer in that stack of returns and knew that it had been out in the world sharing one of my stories?
Dhegdheer by Marian Hassan is part of the Humanities Center Somali Bilingual Book Project and is available on the Humanities Center’s Absent Narrative Resource Collection as a free PDF or via Lulu.com as print-on-demand for $5.70 each along with four other Somali bilingual book titles.