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History & Background

The Somali Democratic Republic is located in northeast Africa, in the region known as the Horn of Africa. Its neighbors include Djibouti to the northwest, Ethiopia to the west, and Kenya to the southwest. To the north, the Gulf of Aden separates it from the Arabian peninsula, and the Indian Ocean borders its eastern and southern regions. There are about 8 million Somalis, 60 percent of whom are pastoral nomads. The Somalis are united by a common language, a common culture, and the Islamic religion, but they are deeply divided among various clans. Inter-clan hostility has always been a source of conflict for the country and is responsible for a seven-year civil war (1991-1998) that completely disabled the nation and its educational system. As of the year 2001, efforts are still being made by concerned Somalis and international organizations to reestablish a central government in Somalia and, by influence, its educational system.

Somalia has had a long and complex educational history. Prior to outside influence, Somalis had an informal mode of education in which the elderly transmitted social and cultural values to the young through examples and storytelling. Somalis preserved their histories orally, as each generation committed genealogical, as well as historical, information to memory. The young learned how to survive in their world as nomads and as tribal warriors. Colonization by the Arabs, Italians, French, and British at various points in Somali history would leave their marks on the country's educational institutions. The origin of Arab influence in Somalia dates to 700 A.D. when a group of Muslim Arabs brought their religion into the region and spread it with great fervor. By 1300 A.D. nearly all Somalis had converted to the Islamic faith, and several towns, including Zeila and Berbera, emerged as centers of Islamic culture and learning. Mosques and theological schools were built to teach Muslims about the Qu'ran (the Islamic holy book) and the Arabic language, which is the official language of Islam. Although the Arab control of Somaliland waned when the Europeans entered the picture during the eighteenth century, Islam remained an integral aspect of Somali culture and society. The Islamic educational institution was very influential, as many Qu'ranic schools were opened and, sometimes, subsidized by the colonial powers and recognized as the only form of formal education available to many Somalis. Religious leaders traveled with nomads, teaching their children how to read, write, and memorize the Qu'ran. Pupils used wooden slates to copy and learn verses of the Qu'ran, and some, though not all, learned to be proficient in the Arabic language. Islamic teachers were paid in the form of sheep, cattle, camels, and other foodstuff.

Treaties reached by the international community in 1888 officially partitioned Somaliland among three competing European powers: Britain, Italy, and France. The French occupied the northwest region, which is modern Djibouti; the British controlled the northern and southeastern regions, and the Italians took the regions in the south to the northeast. At its independence from these forces in 1960, British and Italian Somalilands were joined to form present-day Somalia. French Somaliland chose to remain autonomous and form a separate nation under the name of Djibouti.

During the colonial regime, the different powers established different educational systems to suit the economic goals for its region. Italians were interested in training Somalis to become farmers or unskilled workers to be used on their banana plantations. This was to minimize the migration of Italians into the region and the depletion of human resources at home. The British needed natives who could help administer colonial policies and maintain law and order. Elementary and low-level specialized education was offered by both the British and the Italians to meet these needs. In 1947, in both the British and Italian Somalilands, there were a total of 32 elementary schools, a police academy, and a school of health for the Somalis. The percentage of Somalis who had the opportunity to attend these educational institutions was minimal. In Italian Somaliland, 1,265 students (less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the population) were enrolled. Somalis in British Somaliland did not fare better, with a total enrollent of 1,200 students. The low enrollment level resulted from a lack of space and from the Somalis' perception that colonial education was an instrument for oppression that should be resisted.

In the years prior to independence (1950-1960), Somalia was placed under a U.N. trusteeship, and a genuine effort was then made to provide public education for all Somalis. The U.N. trusteeship agreement required both Britain and Italy to expand primary and post-primary educational services in Somalia. This was to cultivate the Somali nationals to whom the reign of power would be handed at independence. The Somalis, who had previously resisted colonial education, embraced the mandate as a vehicle for modern development, a building block to national unity and progress. Italy expanded its elementary schools to admit more Somalis. During the 1957-1958 school year, nearly 14,000 Somalis were enrolled in primary schools, a jump from the 1,265 Somalis who had been enrolled before the trusteeship agreement. Italy also set up three secondary schools, a vocational training institute, and a university institute in Mogadishu to train students in public administration, which would eventually become the Somali National University in 1970. In British Somaliland, the school system was also expanded to provide better educational opportunities for the Somalis. By 1960, there were 38 elementary schools, 12 intermediate schools, 3 secondary schools, and 2 vocational schools, with a total enrollment of 3,429 students. A teacher training institute was established to cultivate future teachers. However, as David Laitin has argued, even though more students were given the opportunity for education in British and Italian Somalilands, the effort was marginal.

The policy of limiting education to the primary level continued, as secondary education remained closed to a majority of the Somalis due to limited resources. In Italian Somaliland, school curriculum was parochial, rules lax, and students, as a whole, lacked the discipline necessary for learning. And although the British had a clearer educational policy than the Italians, it reached fewer Somalis. Further complicating the educational effort was the fact that each region adopted a different language for its school system. Those admitted to Italian-run schools were taught in Italian, and those in British Somaliland were taught in English. At independence in July 1960, there were three languages of instruction in Somalia, including the Arabic used in Qu'ranic schools.

Somali leaders faced the challenge of harmonizing the educational systems, the curriculum, and the language of instruction. There was a need to develop an official script for the Somali language, which was still only a spoken language at independence. The need would be unmet for the next 12 years and not before a military takeover of the government in 1969. In power, the military, under the leadership of Said Barre, established a "scientific socialist" state whose goal was to wipe out clan conflict and ignorance through the mass education of its people. Thus, the development of a written Somali language was imperative to achieving those ideologies. A commission was formed to study and decide on a script for the Somali language. Within a year, the commission concluded its study, recommending the adoption of the Latin script. The recommendation was accepted in January 1972 with a military decree that made Somali the language of official business and instruction for the country. Teachers were given three months to be proficient in the language. Textbooks and curriculum were developed to reflect the values and ideals of the Somali society, and a mass literacy campaign was launched to teach every Somali how to read and write. There is no question that the adoption of Somali as the language of education in Somalia had positive effects on the school system. At least, for the first time in its history, students across the country were taught in the same language, using the same textbooks. But the progress education was making in Somalia was halted by the civil war that lasted from 1991 to 1998. Educational and other public facilities were the first casualties of the war. In 2001 (10 years after the war began), Somalia was still struggling to rebuild its nation and its educational system. The country is divided into three administrative parts. The secession of the northwest in 1991 created the Somaliland Republic. In 1998, the northeast proclaimed a separate government under the name of Puntland. The south is ruled by various warlords. Available education is offered through private institutions and international organizations. Any effort to sustain a stable, public educational system will remain, at best, minimal until the country once again finds the courage to become a nation.

Additional topics

Education - Free Encyclopedia Search EngineGlobal Education ReferenceSomalia - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education