Somalia's Songbird: Saado Ali Warsame

Sagal Sheikh Ali

drawing by Hussein Mirghani, Sudan

drawing by Hussein Mirghani, Sudan

I was inside a local bank branch on a busy street in Mogadishu when I heard three gunshots. It was about 3pm on July 23, 2014, a day like any other. My initial reaction was that it was probably soldiers firing in the air to clear the traffic jam on the main road. A few seconds after the gunshots, a man ran into the branch screaming that a member of the Somali Parliament had been killed. No one in the bank that day could have imagined that the victim was Saado Ali Warsame, one of the country’s most beloved singers.

Warsame was also a member of the Federal Parliament (MP). She and her driver were gunned down by unknown assailants in Mogadishu as she was being driven to a hotel. She was the fourth MP killed in Somalia in 2014 in militant attacks targeting members of Somalia’s Parliament. The President and Prime Minister of Somalia and diplomats from several countries expressed condolences to Warsame's family and condemned the assassination for which Al Shabaab claimed responsibility, as part of its assassination campaign against Somali legislators.

Investing her art for social justice 

Saado Ali Warsame is a name that evokes powerful emotions  in practically every Somali. Born in the 1950s near  Buuhoodle, she found fame in Somalia’s capital city  Mogadishu as a singer, after being discovered by a family  friend. A young, skinny girl with the most beautiful afro, Warsame stood out not just for her vocal chords but  also for her beauty and demeanour. In 1973 she joined the  band Waberi, one of the most famous in the country, which  was made up of prominent musicians. She was one of the  few Somali female musicians to go on stage without covering  her head and she sometimes wore trousers, an unusual act for  women in Somalia at the time. Women during that era copied  her style and swagger. She was considered the Sophia Loren  of the Horn of Africa. Theatre roles for musicians were  common in Somalia in the 1970s and Warsame also starred  in many plays. 

Warsame, who often attended international art festivals,  receiving prestigious awards and representing Somalia,  soon became a household name for not just her acting and  singing but for her political activism against the hard-line  rule of then dictator Siad Barre, who was toppled in 1991.  This event triggered the civil war in Somalia. 

During the Siad Barre regime many artists in the  country either faced jail or exile for their stance against the  communist government. The young and famous Warsame  played one of her most pivotal roles as the voice of her people.  Her first brush with the law came after she joined a poetic  movement with other prominent Somali artists, called  “Deelley”. She wrote poems about injustice in Somalia and  used the opportunity to defend the cause of northerners  from the increasingly authoritarian southern-based regime.  When the government found out about the long running  serial poem, Warsame was arrested and sentenced to death.  The sentence was eventually overturned and she only served  six months in jail. 

In the late 1980s, Warsame released Laand Karuusar gado which translates to Buy a Land Cruiser. The song  criticises the kleptocracy and wealth of the military and  government officials in stark contrast to the abject poverty  of the ordinary Somali people. A memorable part of this  song goes: “Buy a land cruiser, beg for maize, whilst  showing off that you are someone with calibre, in the  horn of Africa”2. The lyrics speak about a country begging  for maize while government officials cruise around in  imported luxury cars. Warsame was arrested again. During  her interrogation she asked the police officer at the station  for a glass of water but he told her they did not have water.  The station’s air conditioning unit did not work because  there was no electricity. Warsame asked the officer why he  had arrested her for merely stating the obvious in regards  to the situation in the country where the government was  pocketing tax payer’s money and leaving people without  the basics – the police station was no exception. 

A fearless leader 

In the early 1990s, Warsame spent several years in exile in  the United States during Somalia's worst years of fighting.  She returned in 2012 to serve in the newly established  Federal Government based in Mogadishu, and represented  the northeastern Puntland regional State’s constituency in  Parliament. 

She was critical in the secessionist administration in  Somalia’s north-western Somaliland region, bravely accusing  the leadership of a separatist agenda. In particular, her song  Libdhimeyside Laas Caanood, Laba maahaa Waddankeennu  hails the city of Las Anod for its nationalist, anti-colonial  historical role. Somaliland troops began occupying Las Anod  in 2007. The song title translates as “Oh Las Anod, you will  always remain a part of Somalia, our country is one.” 

She humorously satirised political infighting and also  supported former Vice President of Somalia, Muhammad Ali  Samatar, during a civil lawsuit that had been filed against him  in 2009, believing that he was being unfairly singled out as a  member of the former regime. During her parliamentary tenure,  Warsame was very vocal against the inability of the Parliament  to fulfil the promises made to the very people it claimed to  be serving. On several occasions she spoke out against alleged  corrupt politicians and called for more accountability. Despite  many death threats she received, Warsame soldiered on working  for her constituency and speaking out against injustice. 

Even though Warsame is no more, she will forever be  remembered for her voice both on stage and in politics. To  me she was both the song my mother played in the kitchen  when she was cooking our dinner, and the woman my  mother spoke of with pride when she wanted to make us  realize that being a woman and being Somali was something  to be proud of. Somalia needed her. 

A fearless human rights advocate, she was a role model for  women and is described as a born leader, who bravely stood up  against corruption and injustice and used her fame to ensure  the public knew what sort of government was in office. To  most Somalis she will be remembered as the voice for the voiceless – speaking out for them despite the odds against her.

First published in Women in Islam Issue 2 (2015)