The Sharp Horn of Africa: Best Books on Somalia

Hargeisa, Somalia/Photo: Free Wind 2014/Shutterstock

Located on the Horn of Africa, the Federal Republic of Somalia became an independent nation in 1960 following periods as a British Protectorate and Italian Colony. The fledgling nation has been home to near-relentless violence and internal strife driven by a brutal and militaristic regime headed by General Mohamed Siad Barre. The Barre government was overthrown in 1991 and the country descended into a period of anarchy and civil war with the nation largely being carved into fiefdoms ruled by warring clans.

In recent years Somalia has become infamous for its pirates, who hijack ships off its coast, the most notable of which was the taking of the Maersk Alabama in early April 2009. The country has inched back toward stability following the installation of the internationally backed Federal Government of Somalia (FSG) in 2012. However, Somalia has once again made headlines in the U.S. as one of the seven Muslim majority countries in President Trump’s January 27 travel ban, an Executive Order that was highly contested and recently revoked in a favor of a new, narrower order – that still includes Somalia.

Somalia is home to a complicated history and society and features a strong literary tradition, often carried forward by authors who have been exiled or otherwise forced to flee the country. The books listed below, many from Somali authors, will hopefully provide a better understanding of the tumultuous nation’s past – and offer some insight into its future.

  • The cover of the book Links


    A Novel

    Somali author Nuruddin Farah has been living in exile from his beloved home country since the 1970s, and currently calls Cape Town home. Links is the first installment of Farrah’s celebrated Past Imperfect trilogy. Set in modern Somalia, the novel centers on a man named Jeebleh returning to the war-torn country for the first time in twenty years. Its sequels, Knots and Crossbones, are worthy follow-ups.

  • The cover of the book The Orchard of Lost Souls

    The Orchard of Lost Souls

    The Orchard of Lost Souls by Nadifa Mohamed, a Somalia-born British author, charts the fall of Siad Barre’s Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party through fiction. Beginning in 1987, the novel tells the intersecting story of three women who watch the country unravel into chaos and civil war.

  • The cover of the book Infidel


    Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch-American activist and former politician born in Somalia, has stirred up a fair amount of controversy. In her bestselling memoir, Infidel, Ali recounts her experiences growing up in a strict Muslim family, her efforts to flee Somalia, and the eventual scandal that led to her resignation from the Dutch Parliament amid accusations that she lied on her political asylum application.

  • The cover of the book A Man of Good Hope

    A Man of Good Hope

    A Man of Good Hope centers on the true story of Asad Abdullahi – a Somalian who at eight years old was forced to flee the country as it was overtaken by civil war in 1991. His mother was murdered by the militia and his father in hiding, Asad began a journey that took him from Nairobi to Ethiopia and South Africa to the United States. It is a complex and affecting portrait of the very human toll wrought by the tumult in Somalia.

  • The cover of the book An Anthology of Somali Poetry

    An Anthology of Somali Poetry

    Poetry is a key form of expression in the Somali literary world and the works of that nation’s poets provide keen insight into their society. This anthology volume presents a comprehensive sampling of some of the country’s most influential works, ranging from the colonial/protectorate period through the Somalian Civil War.

  • The cover of the book Desert Flower

    Desert Flower

    This memoir from Somali model and activist Waris Dirie recounts a remarkable journey from a nomadic family who put her through female circumcision at the age of six in the Somali desert to Mogadishu to London and finally a position as Human Rights Ambassador to the United Nations. She has become a prominent human rights activist and a strong opponent of female genital mutilation.

  • The cover of the book Surrender or Starve

    Surrender or Starve

    Travels in Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea

    Famine has been a well-documented issue throughout the Horn of Africa for decades and Somalia is no different. In Surrender or Starve, journalist Robert D. Kaplan examines the factors – ethnic, religious, and class conflicts – that underline the famine and remain relevant to the region even today.

  • The cover of the book Keeping Hope Alive

    Keeping Hope Alive

    Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, turned 1,300 acres of farmland into a camp to shelter and care for the Somalians displaced by the civil war that overtook the country in 1991. She and her doctor daughters cared for 90,000 refugees amid the growing strife in Somalia, including Dr. Abdi’s 2010 abduction by insurgents. She was eventually released, and demanded – and received – a written apology. Keeping Hope Alive is her story.

  • The cover of the book Born in the Big Rains

    Born in the Big Rains

    This memoir from Fadumo Korn recounts her experiences as a nomad in the Somalian steppes and her struggles following female circumcision – a rite that made her a woman in the eyes of her tribe. Korn chronicles her experiences from Mogadishu to Germany and her attempts to recover, both emotionally and physically, from the ordeals of her youth.

  • The cover of the book Fear Is a Cow

    Fear Is a Cow

    In Fear Is a Cow, Somalian writer Ali Jimale Ahmed presents a collection of poems focusing on African life and the complex, often fraught history of the African continent and the nations that comprise it. The poems are framed by the Somali adage: “Elegy is the voice of the survivor.”

  • The cover of the book The Pirates of Somalia

    The Pirates of Somalia

    Inside Their Hidden World

    It is likely that a large portion of Americans only know of Somalia through headlines and articles decrying the wave of pirates patrolling the country’s coastline in the last decade. This book from journalist Jay Bahadur chronicles his experience infiltrating the disparate groups of pirates and their havens within Somalia.