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A listing of John Johnson's other books can be found in our bibliography.

John Johnson is an Associate Professor in the Folklore Institute and the African Studies Program at Indiana University where he teaches and conducts research on a variety of topics in folklore. In 1995, John was elected an associate member of the Folklore Fellows, a network of folklorists instituted by the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters.

by John William Johnson (Somalia 1966–69) and Abdilahi Qarshe
Haan Associates, $29.95 (paperback)
Reissued, 1996
241 pages

Reviewed by Eric Torgersen (Ethiopia 1964–66)

When John William Johnson served in Somalia, starting in 1966, he collected the popular Somali poetry and song that would become the basis for the first edition of this book published in 1974. Except for a new preface and foreword, and an updating of the orthography of the Somali texts, this edition is a reissue but not a revision. It is an academic text, with few concessions to the general reader, but to anyone broadly interested in poetry it tells a very interesting story, that of the development of a new genre of popular poetry or song called heelloy from earlier modes that were quite different.
     Knowing nothing of Somali language and culture, I cannot judge its scholarship; I can only try to judge its appeal to broader audiences. Other Somalia RPCV’s would surely find their memories of the place and its people refreshed by it. As a former Volunteer in Ethiopia for the two years preceding Johnson’s stay — including a time when the periodic conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia flared up, giving rise to a flurry of anti-Somali cartoons in the Ethiopian press — I have always seen the Somalis as a distant Other, glimpsed briefly on the outskirts of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia on my visit there, but otherwise almost pure abstraction. It was satisfying to learn more about them, and particularly to see them described as a people for whom poetry is a part of daily life.
     Johnson’s study covers the span of years between World War II and the late sixties, when he did his collecting. What gives his book its interest to me is the amazing variety of changes that the poetry was undergoing then, in both its matter and its manner. It was the time of nascent Somali nationalism and anti-colonialism, and then the time of national independence — but alas, from the Somali perspective, independence for a nation consisting of only two of the five areas where Somalis live, represented by five points of the star on its flag.

One subject of the book is the coding of anti-colonialist sentiments in the poems to get them past colonial censors — and Johnson points out how much more difficult this coding became after independence, when of course the need for an independent political poetry did not disappear, but the censors themselves were now Somalis, and much harder to fool. From a love poetry condemned by traditional Somalis as frivolous, the writing came to embrace a range of political and social subjects, one of which is the debate within Somali society over the role of women, who became more active in the new poetry whose birth Johnson chronicles.

I found the changes in manner even more interesting. Traditional Somali poetry is an oral poetry, for Somali was not a written language. The poetry from which the heelloy evolved was recited without musical accompaniment; in the time in question it came to be sung, accompanied both by indigenous musical instruments and foreign ones. The arrival of radio and the tape recorder in Somalia brought about changes that Johnson also describes. When radio stations began to pay performers by the length of their songs, the frequent repetition of lines, suddenly profitable, became popular.

On the whole, the poetry in the book that comes across most successfully in English is that of the earlier, shorter genres from which the heelloy evolved, as with three short poems, woven into a brief prose narrative, spoken first by a married woman’s lover when she has failed to keep an assignation; then by the woman in reply, pretending to address her cow, because her husband has returned home unexpectedly; and finally by the husband, who has heard both and suspects the truth:

    O caweeya, [my] Cawo, O Caweeya, [my] Bullo,
    Oh, how long is the rest period of your people!

    O Dhiin-Garayo which has the tail of a lion,
    [Your] plentiful fresh milk is for the man who raised [you].

    O man, I am experienced in the conflicts of noble men;
    There is no treatment for the man whom my steel reaches!

The poems are thoroughly and helpfully annotated. The translations are sometimes stiff, and in a few places metaphoric language is replaced with explanatory abstraction, displacing the metaphors — one is tempted to say, the poetry — into the notes, whereas mostly, and more properly, the metaphors are in the text, the explanation in the notes. But for those with a broad interest in poetry, the story this book tells will make it worthwhile persisting beyond the book’s somewhat forbidding surface.

Eric Torgersen, poet and professor of English at Central Michigan University, has just published Dear Friend: Rainer Maria Rilke and Paula Modersohn-Becker.

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