Most Somalis has long been pastoral nomads scattered through the wider region of Horn of Africa. Often moving with their livestock to get them more water and better pasture and in this unsettled lifestyle folklore dances were not only a source of entertainment but also a form of community connection and medium of communication along with poetry.
The craft of folk dance is individual instinct as much as it’s a team work. One has to feel the energy as much as he/she has to know the steps and movement. It’s about timing and precision as much as it is about rhythm. But most importantly it is about human interaction and expression.
And in one beautiful spring afternoon I was sitting at the Hargeisa Cultural Center’s Library, reading a novel and enjoying the refreshingly beautiful weather, when a melodic sound, not coming from so distant a place, struck my ears. I suddenly started to move to the direction of the sound, hypnotized by the perfectly blended clapping and singing and the feet hitting the ground rhythmically. When I reached the source I came across a breathtaking view of young men and women wearing the traditional Somali attire, completely absorbed into the dancing with their faces beaming warm smiles of enjoyment. I stood there for close to a half an hour astounded by the sublime experience I was witnessing. I stood there utterly awed and lost in the wonder about the story of these young dancers.
“Halkarhas been founded by a group of friends. The team has started as a drama club but as time went we thought that it would be more effective to play and teach traditional dances to preserve the culture; the drama club has evolved to become one of the first traditional dancing groups in all over the country.” Hassan Buuni, a founding member, tells me.
The group has their mission very clear: “We want to revive the Somali culture through folk dances”. The importance of this goal may seem obvious and perhaps its achievement easy but Hassan explains that it’s not so simple in an urban society which on one side is increasingly seeing folk dances and many other elements of the Somali culture outdated and on another side a large groups of society which think that these practices are outright wrong and dismiss them on religious grounds.
Since the collapse of the Somali central government, after years of armed resistance by the people of Somaliland, art and culture has been on the decline. The successive government of Somaliland prioritized the reconstruction of the cities and towns all over the country rampaged by the bombardment of the previous regime. And therefore not much significance has been given to the facets of culture and art which have been perturbed by the wars much like every other aspect of life.
On the other hand, new religious ideologies have penetrated and spread through the cultured and art-loving Somali society during the wars. These new ideologies, of Salafism, are much stricter than their preceding religious sects of Sufism, followed by the majority Somalis, which were not as hostile to culture and arts. These new religious dogmas against all sorts of art discouraged its growing followers to not only stop those practices but also to preach against them so that others would stop them as well.
In the decades that followed the civil wars immigration into big cities has been enormous; because people in rural areas has lost their livestock to the wars and become refugees before they moved to the cities after the war. This rapid urbanization is a crucial factor in the paradigm shifts of Somali culture, which has moved from its natural habitat in the rural areas to the more structured urban life.
All of these factors and more continue to endanger the thousands years old Somali culture and traditions. With no government taking the responsibility of preservation of the culture, dutiful groups like ‘Halkar’ felt the extreme need to take the task upon to their hands.
Halkar Dancing Group now consists of 55 members, 30 of which are female, all of which are in their late teens or early twenties. ‘The group is united by the sheer passion for traditional dances, excessive love for culture and strong sense of obligation for its revival’, Hassan Buuni tells me. I asked him how do they come to learn these dances at the first place since most of them were born and raised in cities and he explained ‘We try to learn these dances from the older people in the cities, who have had lived and got the opportunity to learn the dances in the rural areas. Most of them are very generous and get really excited about the fact that there are young people who are interested in the traditional dances, and so they give us the time and teach us. But sometimes, some of us have to get out of the cities and learn the dances as they are played in the rural areas and then they come back and teach the rest of the group.’
Despite the unwavering faith and believe in their continued effort, the 5-year ride hasn’t been easy and still continues to face many hurdles most of which come from the society, which they are working to preserve its culture, itself.
Firstly, they don’t receive any financial support, so they have to raise funds from their pockets so that they can buy the things they need to perform such as the traditional attire they wear when they’re performing and also their travel expenses when they are touring in the other cities of Somaliland.
Moreover, they are not able to rent a studio to practice the dances for the owners would not rent it to them on the basis of their different genders accentuated by the continued defamation of some influential members of the community and religious leaders of the mix of separate genders. On top of all of that, the strong preach against young men and women performing these dances together has caused some parents to hold their interested children back and deny them to join the group; this fact is the most worrisome to Hassan and his peers for unless they can recruit more members into their team and inspire many young people to start playing their goal of preserving the culture will prove very difficult of a challenge.
‘There is one place’, Hassan noted appreciatively ‘Without which we would not be able to make the progress we made during the past 5 years. That place is Hargeisa Cultural Center which gave us not only a creative space to rehearse for free, but also big platforms to perform mainly during the big events organized by the center such as ‘The Hargeisa International Book fair’ which thousands of peoples both Somalis and foreigners come to attend.
In spite of the numerous challenges they face, the group is doing a brilliant job in getting creative with the folk dances to attract and stirrup the interest of young people towards them without altering the course or the meaning of the dance; for example, they do the old dances with an adapted modern music and as a result many young people who would have otherwise seen these folklore dances outdated and a thing that belong to a different time and place can now relate to them and slowly develop passion for them. But they have not completely abandoned the original ways, so they also dance without music; solely dancing to their singing and clap just like the Somali ancestors whose footsteps they follow.
Halkar members also train fellow youth groups who want to learn about folk dances for free at Hargeisa Cultural Center. ‘Each time people watch us perform, many fascinated young people come forth with an interest to learn the dances themselves; and we tell them that we would train them if they have the commitment. We are training six groups of different levels now.’ Hassan says.
‘Our plan for the next five years is to create Halkar Academy and give dancing lessons to hundreds of students from all around Somaliland. We also plan to reach and open the academy in all six regions of Somaliland. We want to become a hub and connect other dancing groups in the country so that we can all work towards our goal of reviving the Somali culture. ’ Hassan concludes smiling and with full of hope.
On top of everything Halkar remains very positive, the adrenaline still runs and they are dancing the challenges away.
A Freelance Writer, Journalist and Online Communications Manager.
Based in Hargeisa, Somaliland.