A Somali Mother’s Concerns in a Cradle Song
The lullaby is a special form of musical and verbal act that is found around the world. While the function of lulling children to sleep is fulfilled by the harmonization between its melody, rhythm and words, interestingly, the lexical contents of a lullaby and its function can be at odds. Sometimes, a lullaby is a song saying something like ‘hush, hush, go to sleep’, yet often enough, the texts don’t mention going to sleep at all. The subjects can be as varied as wishes, desires and love, the husband, co-wives, the mother-in-law, as well as moral or religious values, myth and divine beings (Pathak and Mishra 2017; Trehub and Trainor 1993; Güneş and Güneş 2012). Themes and lyrics that appear to be inappropriate for children, including but not limited to natural disasters, wars, violence and death, are found in lullabies from around the world (Achté et al. 1990). Were the baby able to comprehend the lyrics, they would not fall asleep at all.
In this article, I will look at the lullabies in the Somali culture. The Somali language is spoken in the eastern part of the Horn of Africa and in the displaced communities outside the Horn. Somali lullabies are essentially Somali oral poetry, which has been the core form of cultural expression in Somali society. All poems in Somali follow the formal rules of metre and alliteration. According to the metrical patterns rendered by short and long vowels, the poems are classified into various distinct genres, each of which has its own specific name. The Somali terminology for the lullaby is ‘hobeeyo’ or ‘heesaha carruurta’ . The word ‘hobeeyo’ comes from the non-lexical vocables that are sung at the beginning of a lullaby song to attract a baby’s attention, and the phrase ‘heesaha carruurta’ means ‘the children’s songs’. Although in other cultures, children’s songs may refer to songs sung by children, in the Somali context, they are the lullaby genre sung by Somali women.
The lullaby falls under the hees hawleed (work song) type of poetry, of which the subject matter is associated with a type of work, the authorship is not generally known and there is not the expectation of verbatim performance. In the pastoral society, raising children is an aspect of the gender division of labour that Somali women participate in (Kapteijns 1999, p.55). Therefore, Somali lullabies are made, performed and transmitted by Somali women only. Nomadic Somali women learn the songs from childhood by listening to their mothers or to other older women, and compose new ones in addition to the traditional ones. Lullabies that are originally sung by the nomad mothers can later be known in urban areas with small variations. Somali women use lullabies to give voice to their feelings and concerns, troubles and hopes. While singing their care and love to the babies, they also express their sentiments towards social issues that reflect and affect women’s traditional roles in the patriarchal community, despite the fact that the young listener is incapable of understanding.
In this essay, I shall look at a few short pieces of Somali lullabies in each of which the text reflects the values of women’s lives, their wife-, and motherhood, and especially the hardship of women in the patriarchal society. Some may seem to reinforce existing gender inequalities while others may contest or negotiate the norms.
The first piece of lullaby is collected by Axmed Cartan Xaange in his Folk Songs from Somalia (2014, p.29). The author divides the lullaby songs he collected into two categories: songs for baby boys and songs for baby girls. During collection of the folk songs, he finds that songs for boys are greater in number and more elaborate than those for girls, and attributes that to Somali parents’ preference for baby boys. The following lullaby is a straightforward evidence of such gender preference in the society. In the text, the Somali mother sings to her baby daughter called Fiido that she wishes it was Fariid, a baby boy rather than a girl that had been born to her (Axmed 2014, p.29):
Maxaa Fiidoy ku keenay
Fariid baa dhalan lahaaye
Raggaa faalali lahaaye
Wan baa foorari lahaaye 
O Fiido, what brought you?
Fariid is who should have been born
The men should have celebrated
A ram should have been feasted on
This short piece of lullaby alliterates in the f sound. In the first lines, the mother addresses her daughter and asks her, ‘O Fiido, what brought you?’ Singing this line to the baby, the mother is not expecting an answer from her. Instead, the questioning is an illocutionary act that expresses the mother’s emotions towards her new-born being a daughter rather than a son. In the next line, with a male name Fariid being the alliterating word, the mother bluntly sings, ‘Fariid baa dhalan lahaaye’ (Fariid is who should have been born). She is saying it is Fariid, the boy, rather than you, baby girl Fiido, who should have been born to me.
In the pastoral society, although the birth of a baby is a delight in itself, a new-born boy is regarded as more valuable than a girl. A son’s birth was the occasion for the slaughtering of a ram and feasting, but a daughter was not celebrated in the same way (Kapteijns 1999, p.58). The last two lines in this lullaby reflect this aspect. ‘Raggaa faalali lahaaye’  (the men should have celebrated), and ‘wan baa foorari lahaaye’ (a ram should have been feasted on). The alliterating verbs ‘faalali’ (celebrate) and ‘foorari’ (lean over), in combination with the conditional mood auxiliary verb lahaaye, present a counterfactual joyful image of the festivities brought by the birth of a son. The happy image in the conditional tense implies that in reality, men didn’t celebrate, neither were rams feasted on. Because Fariid, the boy, wasn’t born. Fiido, the girl, was born. According to Kapteijns (1991, p.7), a Somali mother was to invest as much as possible in her sons since only the sons could be counted on to give her economic and emotional support in the future, either within or outside the framework of her marriage. Therefore, the birth of a boy gives a mother tremendous joy and security whereas the birth of a baby girl couldn’t. Singing this lullaby to her daughter, the mother is in fact addressing the societal preference for sons.
Marriage is also a main theme of the Somali lullabies. The two songs in Maryan Anshur’s collections, which are titled ‘Tolyare’ (Small Clan) and ‘Goonbaar’ (Nasty Woman) , are marriage advice given to baby boys and baby girls. In ‘Tolyare’, a mother suggests to her daughter:
Haddaad gaadhoo gabowhoodoo
Haddii Guulle Alle yeeheeloo
Haddii guur kuu malooboo
Marnaba Tolyare ha guuhuursan
If you grow up and reach an old age,
If Allah makes it happen,
If marriage comes into your mind,
Never marry a small clan.
The advice which is given to the daughter is thus about the clan that she is not to marry into. It relates to the status of the future husband in terms of his clan. She is implying that her daughter must marry a man who has the status of being in a large and therefore a more powerful clan.
In ‘Goonbaar’, the counsel given to a boy is:
Haddaad gaadhoo gabowhoodoo
Haddii Guulle Alle yeeheeloo
Haddii guur kuu malooboo
Haddaba goonbaar ha guuhuursan’ 
If you grow up and reach an old age,
If Allah makes it happen,
If marriage comes into your mind,
And yet don’t marry a nasty woman.
In this lullaby, the words relate to a potential wife. The boy is told not to marry a woman who is ‘goonbaar’ (a nasty woman). It is the personal qualities of the woman that are most important, her qualities as a good future wife. The way in which these two poems express the difference in addressing girls and boys is quite clearly given and hinges on one word only. For the daughter it is the positive status of the future husband, the status that relates to his clan, which is important. For the son, it is the personal status of the future wife which is expressed. This is done in a way that states the negative aspects of the woman herself, not her clan.
Occasionally, Somali women also express their disagreement with the prevalent gender values. In the verse below, a mother shows a contrary attitude to that of the previous piece.
Waxaa wiilloowda la hayo
Waxaa loo waalanaayo
(Hooyo) aduunbaa igala  wanaagsan
(No matter) how one wants boys
(No matter) how one is enthusiastic of them
My child, it is only you that is better with me 
The use of pronouns is striking in this short lullaby. We can see that in the first two lines, it is an impersonal ‘la’ (one) who prefers a boy, but in the last line, addressing the child , the mother sings: ‘it is only you that is better with me’. The pronouns ‘you’ and ‘me’ highlight the intimate and strong connection between the daughter and the mother. The closeness between the ‘I’ and ‘you’ is also reinforced by the distance between the ‘I’ and the third person ‘one’ achieved by the concession. With ‘aduun’ (only you) being focused by the marker ‘baa’, the mother tells her baby girl that she chooses only the daughter over any other boys who might be wanted by others. As Kapteijns (1991, p.58) observes, women of a pastoral background today often state that they prefer daughters, who will help them with their work. The performance of the hobeeyo is most likely to occur inside a house, and when the baby is in the mother’s arms or on her back. There may or may not be another person witnessing this event, compared to a gabay performance in public. However, there is the voice of the Somali women, disagreeing, even when there aren’t other people listening, except the baby who can’t understand her words.
Oral poetry not only gives Somali women a space to express their ideas, values and beliefs, through which it provides a sense of control in their struggle as the politically powerless, but also gives them an audience with which they can share their feelings and opinions, assuring them that they are not alone in confronting their struggle, even if the audience is only an infant. The following lullaby is another example in which a mother discusses gender with her baby girl:
Gudooy weynoo gefeene
Ardaa aan gabadhi joogin
Gudooy geel laguma maalo
Gammaan faras laguma raaco
O Gudo, they have done wrong to us
A dwelling where a girl is not there
O Gudo, one doesn’t milk camels in it
One doesn’t ride horses in it
The baby girl’s name is Gudo, and to her infant audience, the mother sings: ‘Gudooy weynoo gefeene’ (O Gudo, they have done wrong to us). The address here, again, is an operation not determined by its communicative purpose. Telling the young daughter about an adult problem, the mother is not seeking a real conversation with the baby. However, she is seeing the child as a fellow woman in the future and voicing the injustice they face together. The ‘us’ can be solely the mother and the daughter, or it can also be women in general. With the word ‘gabadhi’ (girl) standing out as the alliterating word in the next line, the gender representation in this lullaby becomes more evident.
In a Somali family, a great deal of work is done by women. This lullaby expresses such awareness of the importance of women’s work. Without nomadic women dismantling and building the dwellings, making the household utensils and taking care of the children, one can’t milk camels, one can’t ride horses. Camels are the most important livestock in Somali society and milking camels is an exclusively male domain of work. Therefore, the impersonal pronoun ‘la’ in the penultimate line, especially, can be interpreted as a male ‘one’, a man, a husband. In a house without women, men don’t milk camels.
Yet the messages in this song extend beyond this. What is the ‘wrong’ that the mother sings about in the first line? In her paper, Amina Adan (1981, p.117) suggests it may be that women are still under the authority of men and not fully incorporated by her husband’s kin group despite the hard work she does for the family, and that women are not considered as members who contribute to the wealth of their birth family even though horses and camels paid as bride-price to the family are veritable property owing to these female members. In a later work, Dahabo, Amina and Amina (1995, p.177) maintain that the mother is not only addressing her child, but also fellow women who are faced with the same situation.
People turn to poetry when faced with difficulties. Although the baby who’s being addressed can’t help with those difficulties, they can be the mothers’ emotional sustenance. Addressing Gudo, the mother may in fact be singing as much to herself as to the daughter. At one level, the mother tells her infant daughter about the importance of women’s work and also the issue of inequality, at another, ‘Gudo’ can be an indeterminate addressee to whom she speaks out about her pride as a woman and complains about the situations into which women are often placed. The women she’s addressing could also include herself.
In my interviews in Hargeysa, I kept asking the Somali women, why a mother would sing about a co-wife, about the wrongs men do, and a man hitting a wife, to an infant who cannot understand. They simply told me: ‘The lyrics are not so important to calm the baby’, ‘they are not about the child; they are about the mother’. To a baby boy, she sings of her ambitions for the son: that he would grow up, that he would be proud and worthy of his kin, rich in camels; that he would marry a beautiful wife, that he would take care of his mother in her old age. To a baby daughter, she may sing ‘I’d rather have a boy’ or ‘no matter how they love boys, it is only you that is better with me’. Girls are told of marriage, womanhood and the injustice in the society towards their gender even as tiny babies carried on their mothers’ back. Somali mothers largely reinforced the prevalent gender values in raising their children and have incorporated such values in the lullabies. However, occasionally women also expressed their disagreement with those values, as we have seen in the examples above.
Nowadays, young Somali mothers living in urban areas, such as Hargeisa and Berbera, generally don’t learn or sing the traditional lullabies anymore. They might know one or two short lines from the folk chants, but tend to sing modern Somali songs instead. It was the elder mothers I interviewed who still could remember and recite the lullabies they used to sing to their children. Some young Somali girls living in rural areas may also maintain such social usage. During my fieldwork in Hargeysa in 2019, I met a number of young women and young mothers and had the chance to ask and observe how they interact with babies and young children. These young women were by and large in their 20s or early 30s. Some of them have their own children, some have the experience of looking after children of family members or friends. Most of these young women had embraced an urban lifestyle while their families might have a pastoral background. The significance of pastoral poetry is to a large extent decreased in an urban social setting, since the specific occasions and social functions that the verbal act is associated with are not part of the young urban Somali’s life. Instead of herding livestock and manufacturing woven household utensils, they go to university or work. Housework, preparation of food and raising children are still the woman’s domain. There may be other female members of the family in the house to help the young mothers with these responsibilities.
The younger generation living in urban areas have generally lost touch with these songs. They might be familiar with the melody and rhythm and recall a few lines of a lullaby, but the function of the genre has been largely replaced by modern popular songs. They may prefer a song for a reason, such as being related to the baby’s name, or sing any songs that come to their mind to soothe or entertain the infants. Some young women I interviewed are interested in learning and inheriting the lullaby songs. However, they are also concerned with the gender values expressed in the lines. They told me that they would learn ‘only the good ones’ to sing to their children. ‘The good ones’ may refer to the songs that express wishes and compliments. Those which express gender preference for boys or gender inequality are considered as ‘bad songs’ that young Somali women wish not to learn.
The young Somali women are aware that marriage is a core theme among the lullaby songs, and that the prevalent gender norms are often stressed. Some of the women agree with the importance that is attached to marriage by saying that for Somali women, ‘life is to marry or to die’ and that ‘university is something new to us’. In reality, there are female university students in Hargeysa who choose to quit university and get married. However, there are also young women who disagree with this kind of decision. They agree with the importance of marriage but claim that ‘we can be more than a wife’. When thinking ahead about their children’s future, they consider both their marriage and education.
The media also plays an important role in preserving the genre. There are young mothers using YouTube videos of Somali lullabies to play for their children. On a YouTube Channel called ‘Somali Kids’, lullaby songs are recorded in a modern music melody. Instead of a type of luuq, new music written by Ukrainian musician Nick Usaty and animation videos which show a Somali mother lulling her baby as well as other elements such as camels that echo with the lyrics are appreciated by the young Somali mothers. ‘Somali kids’ also gives the full hobeeyo lines in the captions under the videos. There’s also a Somali version of the popular English lullaby ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ on the channel in which the original English lullaby is translated and sung in the Somali language. These are interesting as they show how traditions are constantly developing and how people adapt modern tools to meet their present-day needs and preserve the old verbal art at the same time. That being said, it will still be the young mothers’ call to choose between an innovative video of a Somali lullaby, or, the global sensation, Baby Shark.
Two audio files help the reader better understand the lullabies (sung by Maryan Anshur):
A dual-language (Somali-English) volume featuring more Somali Lullabies collected by Maryan Anshur, with illustrations by Anne Fishenden, is available through Quirky Press.
Achté, K., Fagerström, R., Pentikäinen, J. and Farberow, N.L., 1990. ‘Themes of Death and Violence in Lullabies of Different Countries’. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 20 (3), pp.193-204.
Amina H. Adan, 1981. ‘Women and Words’. Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 10 (3), pp.115-142.
Axmed Cartan Xaange and Puglielli, A., 2014. Folk Songs from Somalia, Rome: Roma Tre-Press.
Güneş, H. and Güneş, N., 2012. ‘The Effects of Lullabies on Children’. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 3(7), pp.316-321.
Kapteijns, L.E., 1991. Women and the Somali Pastoral Tradition: Corporate Kinship and Capitalist Transformation in Northern Somalia. Boston: Boston University. African Studies Center.
Kapteijns, L. E. with Maryan O. Ali, 1999. Women’s Voices in a Man’s world: Women and the Pastoral Tradition in Northern Somali Orature, c. 1899-1980. Westport, Connecticut: Heinemann.
Li, Ruixuan, 2023. Somali Women’s Poetry: Lullabies, Men and Politics. PhD dissertation, SOAS University of London.
Maryan Anshur, Koller, K., and Ricci, M., 2015. Somali Lullabies: Hobeeyaa Hobeeheey, Leicester: Quirky Press.
Pathak, V. and Mishra, S., 2017. ‘Psychological Effect of Lullabies in Child Development’. Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(4), pp.677-680.
Trehub, S.E., Unyk, A.M. and Trainor, L.J., 1993. ‘Adults Identify Infant-Directed Music across Cultures’. Infant Behavior and Development, 16(2), pp.193-211.
Zorc, R.D.P. and Madina. M. Osman, 1993. Somali-English Dictionary with English Index. Kensington, Maryland: Dunwoody Press.
 For more accounts on the Somali terminology, see Li (2023).
 As mentioned above, the word ‘fooraari’ in the original text is mispelled. It has been edited to foorari here.
 ‘Raggaa’ is made up of ‘ragga’ (the men) and the focus marker ‘baa’.
 This translation is by Maryan Anshur as shown in the English version of the lullaby in the booklet. Goonbaar in the Somali context is a bad housekeeper who fails to accomplish the labours and obligations allocated to women, and fails to meet the traditional gender norms and expectations. The words ‘slovenly woman’ and ‘slut’ are also suggested as its English translations in Zorc and Madina’s dictionary (1993, p.165).
 The original texts of the last line given in Maryan (2015, p.29) ‘Haddabaa goonbaar ka guurhuursan’ seem to have two spelling mistakes. It should be ‘ba’ with one ‘a’ in the first word and ‘ha’ instead of ‘ka’, or else the line doesn’t make sense. I have presented the edited version by myself.
 The ‘hoyoo’ is an extra-metrical word added as an extra part of the performance which is outside of the metrecial line. However In this line the ‘igala’ doesn’t strictly follow the metre as presented above. The metre here seems broken.This may be due to it being misrepresented in the text.
 Amina 1981. Translation by Ruixuan Li.
 In Somali culture, the word for ‘mother’, hooyo, is used by both a mother and her child to address each other. That is to say, a Somali child calls his or her mother hooyo, and the mother would call him or her hooyo too. The word hooyo is occasionally added at the beginning of a line. In such lines, the word hooyo is not considered part of the metrical pattern of the line.