The Somali Shakespeare, Aged 79, the Burao-born poet, composer, and playwright, an enchanter of the Somali language, was a cultural and political figure in the Horn of Africa.

By Abdourahman Waberi

 “Hadraawi is no more. May God bless him and welcome him to His paradise”, these are the last words of the tweet sent on August 18 at 6:15 am by a niece of the deceased. Fifteen minutes later, I was to be the first to relay it in French. And it’s the flood.

A small tsunami which spread mainly in Somali, but also in English and Arabic, was maintained on all networks both by anonymous people and by local or foreign personalities. Photos, clips, and quotes from Hadraawi circulated from Hargeisa to Dubai, from Djibouti to Helsinki, from Minneapolis to the farthest reaches of Australia.


Never has the death of a man or a woman aroused so much emotion in the vast Somali-speaking world. Who was this angel whose disappearance raised such a wave of emotion in the heart of a region where death wears a mask so present and familiar?

Hadraawi was a poet, composer, and playwright; arguably the greatest of the century in a culture that has elevated poetry to the firmament. Hadraawi was an accelerator of philosophical particles, an enchanter of language in a human and cultural space where precisely language is one of the only points of support, one of the rare bases in an ocean of divisions and political fragmentations, geographical and generational.

Awakened by the death of Lumumba

His real name, Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame was born in 1943 in Burao, a large town in the center of what was called the British Protectorate of Somalia and became, in 1991, Somaliland, an autonomous entity in search of international recognition. In 1952, he joined an uncle in Aden, Yemen, another British colony. He stayed there for a decade, the time to complete his secondary studies.

The tragic death of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 touched him to the point of awakening the artistic sensibility that lay dormant in him. In 1967, he was teaching at the Lafole Pedagogical Institute, near Mogadishu. The future bard is 25 years old and already to his credit a play and a few songs, carried by the greatest voices, including that of Halima Khalif Magool.

Somalia, born from the merger of the British Protectorate of Somaliland and Somalia Italiana, is just seven years old. At its head, a democratically elected president is respected by all. Everything seems to smile on this young, culturally homogeneous state, determined to bring back into its fold, and under the same banner, the three other portions of the great Somali nation scattered by colonialism: the French Territory of the Afars and Issas (TFAI) under domination France, the Ogaden annexed by Ethiopia and the Northern Frontier District which the British attached to Kenya. This policy of consolidation, elevated to the rank of national doctrine, has a name: pansomalism. And artists are often mobilized to promote it to the people.

In this first blessed decade, from 1960 to 1969, Hadraawi stood out for his plays and his love songs such as the memorable Jacayl dhiig ma lagu qoray? (“Can love be written with blood?”) or Saharla (first name of the beloved) or the celebration of certain places like Beledweyn (from the name of a town in central Somalia).

Hadraawi, The Somali Shakespeare Is Dead
A Somaliland-born, Mohamed Ibrahim Warsame Hadraawi, aged 79, was a poet, composer, and playwright

Inventing new forms

Nation-building is far from a walk in the park. In Africa and the Arab world, disputes are settled by force. In 1969, three officers, Muammar Gaddafi, Jaafar Nimeiri and Siyad Barré, took power respectively in Libya, Sudan and Somalia.

In 1972, the military junta launched a huge project: literacy campaigns, foundation of an academy, and the consecration of Somali as the official language with its own spelling. The artists are again in the forefront. They must educate the masses, invent new forms to ensure poetry has its secular roots, and give substance to the nation. They brilliantly succeed in this immense task which combines moral authority, national pride, commitment to the common people, and openness to the world.

When the military regime of Siyad Barre (1969-1991) sank into authoritarianism, clanism, and corruption, Hadraawi was one of the first to rise up, to alert the general public by stuffing songs with political themes. of love that he writes for great performers like Mohamed Mooge Liibaan, Magool, Mohamed Suleiman Tubeec or Hassan Aden Samatar. His insubordination earned him five years in prison (1973-1978). He composed his great political poems there; his determination inspires other poets like Gaariye to throw themselves into the arena to examine, confirm, refute or prolong the great issues exposed by Hadraawi.

From this poetic combat emerge series or chains of poems composed by several goldsmiths and spanning months or years. The most famous chain of poems, Siinleey (so called because of its alliteration in “s”), has engaged in addition to its author, about eight poets for the contests, without forgetting the tens, even hundreds, of listeners and amateurs who recited and memorized the various segments, often in hiding.

Against vindictive language

After his release, he went into exile for a time in Thousands upon thousands of cassette tapes and master reels were quickly removed from the soon-to-be targeted buildings. They were dispersed to neighboring countries like Djibouti and Ethiopia, supporting the Somali National Movement (SNM), which hastened the end of the Barre regime in 1991 and proclaimed the birth of Somaliland. Hadraawi does not resolve to the fragmentation of the nation. Throwing his last forces into battle, he initiated a peace march in 2003 that took participants to the port city of Kismayo, in the south of former Somalia. As he grew older, he retired to Burao, his native town. In recent years, he has fought a fierce battle against the disease.

While the two current presidents of Somaliland and Somalia have addressed warm words to the memory of the man whom some have dubbed “the Somali Shakespeare”, much remains to be done to promote his work, translate it, and share it with readers and the world listeners.

From Norway, a critic published in 1993 a large volume of poetry accompanied by an English translation (Halkaraan: Collection of the Poems of Hadraawi, Kleppe). In 2012, Hadraawi was rewarded for all of his work with a grand prize from the Prince Claus Foundation (Netherlands).

I believe that the Horn of Africa and the whole world needs a spirit of Hadraawi’s ilk, rooted in its local soil and open to the world. His words, complex or ordinary, immediately strike the spirits by their evocative power and their natural sweetness. But it is their sequence, their combination that disturbs, seduces, and delights the listener who can no longer escape their hold.

This poetry appeals to bliss, beauty, and the imagination, contrary to vindictive language, that of borders, conflicts, dogmas, and territories which manages to padlock consciences. Farewell Hadraawi! I would have liked to meet you so much. I still have your words of sacred fire, myrrh, balsam, and silk.

Abdourahman Waberi 


Abdourahman A. Waberi is a Franco-Djiboutian writer, professor at George-Washington University, and author of Harvest of skulls (2000), In the United States of Africa (2006), and The Divine Song (2015).

This article was originally published in Le Monde Africa on August 22, 2022 (translated from French by Google translator)


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