Somalis abroad are rebuilding their war-torn country through selfless giving

Somalis send $1.4 billion home every year.
Somalis send $1.4 billion home every year.
Image: Reuters/Feisal Omar
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At the end of every month, Ahmed Abubakar walks to a local money transfer agency in Memphis, Tennessee to send money to the Horn of Africa. Abubakar, 29, works as an accountant and the cash is wired to his mother and siblings who now reside 8,000 miles away in Nairobi. It also goes to friends, former teachers, and distant relatives in neighboring Somalia, some of whom Abubakar hasn’t seen in years—or in some cases, never met.

Day 22 of Quartz’s 25 Days of Exchange
Image: Jordan Coelho for Quartz

Some of the recipients, like his former madrassa instructor, are getting married; a childhood friend just had his first baby; a distant cousin or an extended aunt wants money for the upcoming Eid holidays. Whatever it costs, Abubakar receives the calls, plans his finances, and one way or another sends whatever he can.

Abubakar is not alone in this: every year, 2 million Somalis living in the diaspora send approximately $1.4 billion back home, according to the World Bank. The remittances contribute to 23% of Somalia’s gross domestic product and surpass any amount of aid given to the country. Somali-Americans, who number over 150,000, are the highest contributors; they send an average of $3,800 per person annually, according to a 2013 study published by Oxfam.

The money is a lifeline for thousands of families, who rely on it to get food and shelter, pay for education and health services, and sustain their small businesses. It is also a testament to something else: the incredible expression of faith, generosity, and solidarity that is common among Somalis.

From the milch camel to the hawala

The traditional Somali pastoral system was built on a code of hospitality—known as martigalis or martisoor—which ensured that strangers and travelers were received and never let to go empty-handed. The expectation was that this would be reciprocated the next time your family was caught in the same situation. During droughts and famine, when a family lost its livestock, the entire community would contribute to help them restart again.

Within nomadic communities, the transmission of livestock also evolved, especially during weddings when the bride and groom were given a milch camel for milking and a burden camel for transportation to begin their new life. In modern times, gifting extended to jewelry, usually gold for the girls, in addition to expensive garments given during weddings, religious, and cultural celebrations.

But the breakout of Somalia’s civil war in 1991 destroyed all that, tearing apart families and upending the traditional Somali way of life. Before a new government was instituted in the country in 2012, Somalia was the longest-running example of complete state collapse in post-colonial history. With no official banks, remittances sent through a system called the hawala, the Arabic word for “transfer,” rose as an alternative. The hawala had begun in the 1970s when Somali migrant workers were trying to get around the country’s foreign exchange controls, which regulated inflows of currency income and required exporters (pdf) to exchange half their foreign earnings at the overvalued, state-set rate. Migrant workers in the Middle East used the informal system to send money back home to families and to do business transactions.

Abubakar admits that sometimes he gets a call when he is cash-strapped, and considers saying no. But then he remembers how these friends and relatives were there for him during “the struggle, the hunger, the pain.” Sending the money, he said, is “a way of connecting back to the country you left. It is a way of saying, ‘Thanks for being there for me back then.’ It’s a relationship that you build and you want to carry it on with this money by saying, ‘This is how I appreciate you.’”

A new form of gifting

With the conflagration of Somalia, remittances became not only an important source of income but also a way to hold together the social fabric. Academics have called this new practice “gift-remitting,” and it has transpired not only in Somalia but also in countries like Serbia, Zambia, and El Salvador. While much of the remittances are sent to cover basic necessities within families, gift remittances also act as a social investment: a way of sending money to preserve ties with friends and family without expecting much in return.

“The war completely diminished and destroyed the ways of gifting within the Somali cultural system,” says Dr. Cawo Abdi, associate professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, and the author of the book Elusive Jannah about Somali migrants and refugees in three continents. Remittances, she adds, have developed as an alternative and have risen over the last quarter century into “the core gifting system that the Somali society uses today.”

That generosity is much more prevalent during holidays or religious festivals like Ramadan and Eid. In these times, money transfers sometimes increase by three-fold (pdf), helping pay for clothes, children’s toys, food, and social activities. Given the economic disruptions in Somalia, remittances are also sent as a way to help a friend or a loved one kick-start a business venture. As such, remittances have contributed to the growth of industries and services as diverse as real estate, transportation, imports of consumer goods, construction of hospitals and schools.

Abdi also says that the rise of this type of gifting can also be linked not just to altruism but also to religious values. She says that the concept of zakat in Islam, the obligatory annual giving of 2.5% of one’s assets to the needy, contributes to this trend. “The idea is that whatever you give [today] will return to you in the afterlife. They might not say it now, but it is often an underlying element of donation and gifting.”

Children play in celebration after attending Eid al-Fitr prayers to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, July 28, 2014.
More money is sent to Somalia during religious celebrations like Eid.
Image: Reuters/Feisal Omar

The commitment to the remittance practice has been immortalized by musicians like Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan Warsame. His song “15 Minutes Away” celebrates the sending and receiving of remittances, and describes the emotions of those receiving it when he says, “Feels like an angel speakin’ / I can hardly believe it.”

Taking a cue from K’naan, Abubakar says sending remittances is like fulfilling an obligation. “It is a must thing that you have to do,” he says. “You look at the situation and compare: Mine can get better. But not theirs. Sometimes it is even permanent. I can survive, but they cannot.”

The gift of remitting money, Abdi says is the ultimate proof that all was not lost in Somalia. “The sense of community, hospitality and coming to the rescue of people who need you, I genuinely see that has not changed,” she said. “And that’s the best gift Somalia can ask for.”