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Africa Today 47.1 (2000) 130-133

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Besteman, Catherine. 1999. Unraveling Somalia: Race, Violence, and the Legacy of Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 272 pp. $42.50 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Catherine Besteman's new book is thematically the latest attempt to make actual as well as historical sense of the culturally diffused, chaotic, socio-political landscape in civil war torn, globally delinked, stateless Somalia. [End Page 130] Unraveling Somalia should be considered an achievement that sheds a long overdue light on the history, as well as the current problems facing Somalia's people of the Gosha who mostly reside in the riverine areas of the country.

The book is divided into four parts that each contain a number of chapters. The first part, the Introduction, covers what Besteman calls "Somalia in the Margins" and her fieldwork. Part II focuses on the historical creation of the Gosha with chapters on settlements, transmigration and domination. Part III examines the "Praxis of the Gosha Space in Somalia" with special attention to the supposedly distinct physical characteristics of the people of the Gosha and how that, Besteman seems to emphatically conclude, has primarily sustained the socio-cultural subordination of these Somalis. Part IV, subtitled "Violence and the State," deals with what the author calls the political economy of subordination. It is followed by the concluding chapter.

The temporality of the letter that arrives telling the author "that every child under the age of five in the Jubba Valley was now dead" (p. 3) is a powerful emotional appeal that should stir the consciousness of many readers. Following this, the author discusses the violent collapse of the Somali state; with that serving as a multi-directional, analytical fulcrum, she relates the multitude of the social, economic and political problems that have concretely affected the lives of the people of the Gosha in colonial, post-colonial and post-state times. In her observations, Besteman challenges the widespread notion that Somalia's current lack of institutional viability is due to problems traceable to, and explicable under, the complex rubric of a primordial segmentary lineage. While this genre of analysis (i.e., elite interests, instead of clanism, being the major culprit in the current "cantonization"/de-institutionalization of Somalia) has been lately "harnessed" by a number of Somalists, there may still be a place for the proposition that since all facets of power appropriations and expropriations in today's Somalia are technically subject to the "instrumentalization" of historically identifiable and sociologically "cashable" clan expectations (via those elite formations, or otherwise), then one should accept and observe the segmentary lineage line of thinking. Moreover, I am not sure if the author's claim that Somalia's current problems are emanating from enduring tenets of racial stratification in supposedly monoracial Somalia is either historically or otherwise tenable. It is true that the people of the Gosha were one of the most marginalised groups in the country but, exactly because of this, they neither organized, nor executed, nor sustained in any way the political problems that have engulfed the national/institutional "liquidity" of the 1990s Somalia.

Beyond the difficulties encountered in these assumptions, the author also makes some descriptive observations that may not be situationally sustainable. While the people of the Gosha have greatly suffered due to the effects of the civil war, I am not sure if it is objectively tenable to make the claim that they have "born the brunt" of the 1990s conflict. The fact still [End Page 131] remains that all important population centres of the country have been, in many cases totally, and almost all partially, destroyed, with very few of the people of the Gosha inhabiting these big cities. Moreover, and it has been pointed out by one of the warlords who unsuccessfully tried to align himself with them, the people of the Gosha learned their fighting lessons quickly by manipulating the environment they knew so well, and by occasionally defending themselves with weapons (limited quantities, of course) expropriated from militia that were either numerically overwhelmed or caught by surprise in the...


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